It was Taco Tuesday in a neighborhood bar and Ray Lampe ordered a beer, nothing fancy, and two tacos with rice and beans.
The St. Petersburg grillmaster is arguably the most famous food celebrity Florida has. His is the perfect kind of fame. It's not the Taylor Swift kind with squealing and stakeouts. But if you dine out with the star, who has won more than 300 barbecue competitions, hobnobs with folks like Justin Timberlake and is invited to Guy Fieri's birthday every year, you see it.
Someone walks by, their eyes narrow. Thought bubble: I know that guy. Then the realization. A startle reflex akin to those videos of cats seeing cucumbers. Then a calculation: Can I get a photo with him? White flattop, conical goaty-yet-groomed beard, black chef's jacket festooned with flames.
People like to photograph Lampe. They like to paint his portrait. They even like to carve his bust on the knob of walking sticks. He's complicated, he's ours, and in 2017 he will change the face of barbecue in St. Petersburg.
Dr. BBQ stopped eating his tacos and snapped a selfie with a fan.
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CHERIE DIEZ | Times
Dr. BBQ is a man's man who plays with fire and owns a whole lot of sharp knives. He is 59, and also has two tiny dogs, a chihuahua named Minnie Pearl and Pinkie Lee, an albino chihuahua-terrier mix who wears sunscreen on her snout and bedazzled pink goggles.
You've seen him on Food Network's Chopped Grill Masters. He was tasked with making a tasty appetizer out of corn on the cob, sloppy joe filling, the Mexican liqueur Xtabentun and sardines. (Seriously?)
Dr. BBQ was chopped.
On Oct. 5, Ray Lampe's Big Green Egg Cookbook debuts, Lampe's ninth book. And next year he will join forces with Suzanne and Roger Perry, owners of Datz, Dough and Roux in Tampa, to open Dr. BBQ's, his first restaurant, in St. Petersburg's Edge District.
Last month, Lampe headed to Sparks, Nev., to judge the Best in the West Nugget Rib Cook-Off, what he called "the Mac Daddy of Rib Burner events."
There he would discern between the offerings of 23 barbecue teams with a top-prize purse of $7,500. Barbecue is big business these days — Lampe estimates his own winnings at more than $100,000.
But Dr. BBQ wasn't always at the top of the rib heap.
He grew up eight miles west of Chicago in Berwyn, Ill., rows of brick two-story bungalows mostly populated by blue collar Czechs and Italians, a city with a cameo in Wayne's World (alas, the Spindle "car kabob" sculpture featured in the movie was dismantled in 2008). The Lampe family, a German name pronounced LAMP-ee, was in the trucking business, running a couple of 20-foot straight trucks for short-distance cartage of mostly railway car parts.
Photo courtesy of Ray Lampe.
"My dad died when I was a month out of high school," he said.
He had to pick up where his dad left off. From 18 to age 43, he worked in the family trucking business.
Cooking was a hobby, something he started doing sophomore year of high school when he took a foods class.
"It wasn't home ec," he said. "I took it because there were girls in the class and we could eat. Blueberry muffins, apple pie, crab meat quiche — I would cook those same dishes for years."
When he was 25, a buddy signed him up for a barbecue rib competition in Chicago as a lark.
"This was fun. We made our own grill the next year. It was perfect guy stuff. It was competitive, there was fire and there was beer drinking."
His first trophy was third place poultry at the Illinois State BBQ Championship in 1991. His first Grand Championship was at an event called Beds, Bands and Barbecue in Grand Rapids, Mich. in 1995.
"They raced beds down the street while we cooked," he said. "It was at the Grand Rapids Federal Building shortly after the Oklahoma City bombing and everybody was on edge. Security like we'd never seen in our lives."
Meanwhile, he took care of his grandma and then his mom. He never married. He went from a sparse high school "starter goatee" to a porno 'stache during the disco era and then a full mountain man beard. He got tattoos.
He rolled up his sleeve to reveal a tattoo on his bicep, a dragon with a knife through its noggin.
"I got that because that's what you get when you're 18. It was 1975 and you walked into a tattoo parlor and there were designs and you just picked one. My second tattoo was a rose with 'Mom' in it and then that was it. I didn't get another one for 25 years."
Until he got a tattoo of a watch, permanently set to 5:01. Quitting time.
"It wasn't really retirement. It was a career change. The trucking business was just done. I had to walk away because I was going to bleed out. My heart wasn't in it."
He toyed with the idea of a barbecue restaurant in Chicago. But that's not what he did. He became a proto-food truck guy, moving south in 2000 "to live in a side-by-side duplex in Lakeland with rednecks."
CHERIE DIEZ | Times
Why not someplace more cosmopolitan, St. Petersburg or Clearwater, say? Because it needed to be someplace he could park his wheels, a retrofitted plumber's van with shelves and a white trailer with plastic "Big Time BBQ" signs that he stuck on with Velcro. His goal was to sell barbecue for eight months of the year at the side of the road in Lakeland, and then during the summer months to follow the competitive barbecue circuit.
"I'd leave for the summer pretending to be more famous than I was."
He kept an audio diary on mini cassettes. Some days were good, others not so much. But he was building a brand.
He wrote an "Ask Dr. BBQ" column for a magazine called The BBQ'er, got his first book contract for Dr. BBQ's Big-Time Barbecue Cookbook, published in May 2005. That was followed by seven more barbecue books and then gigs as an expert judge on the Travel Channel and Food Network and at competitions like the "World Food Championships" in Las Vegas.
He consulted on Justin Timberlake's Southern Hospitality BBQ in New York, became a spokesman for the National Pork Board and, 13 years ago, an ambassador for the Big Green Egg.
And then he found love.
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On a recent morning, Lampe was experimenting with ribs for the restaurant. Suzanne and Roger Perry were spit-balling menu musts and camped out in his family room with the dogs.
Lampe was testing pork rubs (the secret: good quality chili powder), smoking the rubbed ribs for three hours on one of several Big Green Eggs, then wrapping them in foil for about 90 minutes with a little apple juice before reheating them so we could try. Dynamite: juicy, just tooth-resistant, with a pretty pink smoke ring and spices that accentuated but didn't overwhelm.
CHERIE DIEZ | Times
A couple of weeks later, he and his partner Sandi Graham made dinner together in the St. Petersburg house where she grew up and where they now live together.
Her contribution was a gorgeous kale and bacon salad (Lampe politely declined; kale does not cross his lips), his a couple of Chicago-style thin-crust pizzas on the Big Green Egg. While he rolled out his dough, Graham spoke of how they met through mutual friends in 2008. She said: "Sparks flew."
"Our first date was in 2009, a Tuesday at 10 a.m. and he brought flowers, beautiful tulips. I never believed in soulmates, but I've never had it so easy."
By then, he had been all over the Food Network but had not yet been inducted into the Barbecue Hall of Fame. What was it like to have a famous boyfriend who happened to be a rockstar in the kitchen?
CHERIE DIEZ | Times
"She got to know Ray, not Dr. BBQ," Lampe chimed in before she could answer. He sliced the pizzas in careful Chicago-style squares, sausage perfectly apportioned.
Lampe's office is just off the living room, a small space made smaller by an accretion of medals, trophies, photos, portraits. There's a Lampe likeness drawn by celebrity French chef Michel Richard. There are Green Egg collectibles and memorabilia, like his director's chair from Tailgate Warriors With Guy Fieri.
In the closet is extra flame fabric for his custom-made chef jackets. The fabric, Lampe lamented, has been discontinued.
With the Hall of Fame nod behind him and his first eponymous restaurant around the corner, there are things Dr. BBQ still has on his barbecue bucket list. He wants to be embraced by the infomercial world. He wants HSN to call. Selling, he said. That's what he really does.
"A lot of guys can cook a good brisket. Most of them can't sell it like I can."
Contact Laura Reiley at [email protected] or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley on Twitter.