Sweet Baby Ray's chef offers taste of the South

  • Hawaiian-styled lamb ribs from Sweet Baby Rays in Elk Grove Village.

      Hawaiian-styled lamb ribs from Sweet Baby Rays in Elk Grove Village. Mark Welsh | Staff Photographer

  • Chef Paul Papadopoulos plates his Hawaiian-style lamb (at right) in the kitchen at Sweet Baby Ray's in Elk Grove Village.

    Chef Paul Papadopoulos plates his Hawaiian-style lamb (at right) in the kitchen at Sweet Baby Ray's in Elk Grove Village. Hawaiian-styled lamb ribs from Sweet Baby Rays in Elk Grove Village.

  • Chef Paul Papadopoulos.

    Chef Paul Papadopoulos. Hawaiian-styled lamb ribs from Sweet Baby Rays in Elk Grove Village.

By Leah A. Zeldes
Daily Herald Correspondent
Published7/2/2008 12:07 AM

Paul Papadopoulos may have been reared in Indiana, but he educated his palate in the South.

Executive chef for the Sweet Baby Ray's restaurants in Wood Dale and Elk Grove Village, Papadopoulos attended the American College of Greece and earned a degree in political science from Butler University in Indianapolis before moving to Texas. Later, he studied culinary arts at Kendall College (now in Chicago).


Landing an internship at the Emeril Lagasse restaurant NoLa in New Orleans, he wound up cooking there for a year, working with chef Steve Howard. After finishing his degree, Papadopoulos spent seven years cooking Cajun/Creole cuisine at the Chicago-area Heaven on Seven chain.

While there, he hired an intern who turned out to be the nephew of Sweet Baby Ray's Barbecue Sauce founder Dave Raymond, and when Raymond was ready to launch a restaurant, he called on Papadopoulos to supply the professional kitchen know-how.

Papadopoulos lives in Elburn with his wife, Lisa, an interior designer, and 10-year-old twins, Alex and Winnie.

What led you to become a chef? I always wanted to go into the restaurant business. My father thought it was maybe not the best profession in the world. So I went to the American College in Greece. My dad's Greek; my mom's Canadian. There's a very broad set of people who went to school there, a cross-section of the world. Then I went to Butler University. After I got out of school I went down to Texas to live with a friend. I wound up working in a pizzeria. Some guy I met recommended I go to culinary school.

I went to culinary school with Doug Sohn (of Hot Doug's in Chicago). He was valedictorian of our class.

Food was always a big part of my family life. Five days a week we sat down to a big dinner, and my mom was a really good cook. I saw Jeff Smith and Jacques Pepin on television. It inspired me to go on to restaurants.

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Was it culinary school that brought you to Chicago? There wasn't a lot of culinary stuff in Indiana in those days.

What would you have done if you hadn't become a chef? If I'd had my way, I'd have been a real bad artist. Or a musician. But I wasn't good at that, either. So being a chef was my only option. I consider myself very lucky.

How much cooking do you do? I'm working in the direction of managing partner. I'm overseeing the kitchens, but I have chefs in both places. I do menu development, specials, costing, menu analysis - what's selling, what's not - scheduling. I don't get to do so much cooking, though that's the stuff I really like to do.

I like my hands in the food. It's much harder to direct than to do it yourself.

How are you affected by the rising cost of food? We're lucky so far that pork and chicken haven't made huge moves so far. We're being much more careful in the kitchen about waste and so on. We're doing menu reviews and looking at other options on how to manage our costs. You don't want to skimp on the quality of your products. We're also looking to do more catering.

My family has tightened our belts at home. We used to shop at Jewel because it was convenient. Then we went to Woodman's. My wife shops more at Aldi now.


Who does the cooking at home? Lisa cooks for the kids during the week. When I'm home on the weekends or on Mondays, I do more of it. She's come a long way, but if she had her way, I think she would go out every night.

What do you do in your spare time? I do a lot of yard work in the summertime. We have two acres and a garden. I like to get out and play golf in the season, and I like music: blues, rock. I'm a big fan of The Who and Led Zeppelin.

I go out to restaurants. When I go out, I go out to have a good time. Even if things aren't perfect, I'm still having a good time.

Besides barbecue, what's your favorite kind of food? I really like Asian cuisine. I like Indian, Vietnamese, Thai. And I like some basic stuff like Johnnie's Beef. Greek, but we do that at home.

I really love Southern food. That's my passion. I love the whole concept of Southern cuisine, as it moved from Louisiana and Mississippi.

I can't wait for green tomato season. I'd like to do a sweet corn festival or a tomato festival.

Do you find that people have strong feelings about barbecue? It's like a war. People are very, very opinionated.

We sell 10-to-1 baby backs to St. Louis ribs. Hickory is our predominant wood. It's easy to come by and has a classic flavor profile.

We use a Southern Pride smoker. We had a (traditional Chicago-style aquarium smoker) at our original restaurant in Wood Dale. It wasn't working for us. Here in the Chicago area, they're not going to let you have a dirt floor with a pit in a restaurant.

Tell us about this recipe. Hawaiian-Style Grilled Lamb Ribs with Mama's Asian Slaw. It's not traditional barbecue. It's a Hawaiian-style grilling. We were talking about Hawaii and luaus and we're putting together our summer menu. I've been making this at home with my wife and son. When I was at NoLa, I worked with a Vietnamese lady, Mama Chang, and I tried to do something like her slaw. We try to offer something different.

Try this at home or at Sweet Baby Ray's, 800 E. Higgins Road, Elk Grove Village, (847) 437-9555, sbrbbq.com. (The smaller Wood Dale restaurant serves a streamlined menu.)
Hawaiian-Style Grilled Lamb Ribs With Mama's Asian Slaw
cup soy sauce

¼ cup hoisin sauce

1/3 cup pineapple juice

1/3 cup rice wine vinegar

2 tablespoons Asian sesame oil

1 tablespoon canola oil

6 fresh red Thai chilies, finely diced

2 tablespoons unrefined cane sugar

2 tablespoons honey

4 cloves garlic, finely diced

1 tablespoon kosher or sea salt

1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

3 slabs Denver-cut lamb ribs, trimmed of excess fat

Mama's Asian Slaw (recipe left)

Whisk together the soy sauce, hoisin sauce, pineapple juice, vinegar, oils, chiles, sugar, honey, garlic, salt and pepper in a nonreactive bowl. Pour into a heavy zipper-type bag, add the lamb ribs, seal and toss well. Marinate for 6 hours or overnight in the refrigerator.

Start a medium hot fire in a barbecue grill. Remove the ribs from the marinade and discard the marinade.

Place the slabs directly over the coals and cover the grill, turning every 10-15 minutes for 45 minutes to 1 hour or until an instant-read thermometer registers 135 to 140 degrees. Remove the ribs from the grill and rest for 5 minutes covered in aluminum foil.

Cut the ribs and serve with slaw.

Serves three to four.

Chef Paul Papadopoulos, Sweet Baby Ray's, Elk Grove Village

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