If you want to get Ray Lampe going, just bring up the division of barbecue by region. For example, he says, it’s incorrect to assume that Austin’s “hipster” barbecue represents all of Texas barbecue.
Still, he emphasizes, it is important for barbecue restaurateurs to grasp the basics of each region.
“While I fuss about the regions not being a thing, they are,” says Lampe, perhaps better known as celebrity chef Dr. BBQ. “And if you want to declare what you’re doing is in the style of one of these regions, you need to know what you’re talking about.”
“Among other things, I’m a barbecue historian — one of my many charms,” he adds, chuckling.
The St. Petersburg resident and co-owner of the new Dr. BBQ restaurant (a joint venture between Lampe and the Datz Restaurant Group opening in mid-September) certainly has the credentials. Since entering the barbecue world in 1982, Lampe has written nine cookbooks, is a spokesman for Big Green Egg, frequently judges cooking competitions around the world and has become a regular presence on the Food Network. Rather than working his way up under an established pitmaster, Lampe actually began his career at a rib-cooking contest in downtown Chicago.
“This involved me standing around in a parking lot or a park all day drinking beer with fire and big piles of meat,” he says. “I always say if there were chicken soup contests where you went out in the park and drank beer all day and cooked chicken soup, I might be a chicken soup expert. But barbecue just fit everything I liked doing. Literally since that day it’s been an obsession for me.”
At Dr. BBQ, Lampe will be joined at the back of the house by pitmaster Lee Jasper. A Texas native, Jasper made a name for himself working under legendary chef Roy Perez in the brick barbecue pits of the 118-year-old Kreuz Market in Lockhart, Texas, which Lampe calls the most iconic barbecue restaurant in the country. Jasper was initially hired in a management position at Kreuz Market, but his interest in barbecue led him to linger around the grill.
“I found myself in the pit room watching [chef Roy Perez], and Roy being Roy, he didn’t have a lot to say to me, but he eventually started showing me stuff,” Jasper says. “He’d say, ‘Hey, go stack wood,’ and I’d go stack wood, or ‘Rebuild this fire,’ and I’d rebuild the fire. Then I started getting to come in the mornings to help the cook, and the rest is history.”
“I watched until I was invited to participate,” he adds with a laugh.
Jasper was recruited to join the Dr. BBQ team by Datz owners Roger and Suzanne Perry. He says he was sold on the job, and the Perrys themselves, after they invited him to visit Tampa.
“They found my wife and I out in Texas, and they said, what do you think about moving to Tampa?” Jasper says. “I didn’t take it real seriously, but they were persistent. I came here and got to see their operation at Datz, Dough and Roux, so if I didn’t have faith in them I wouldn’t have moved us literally halfway across the country.”
Though they had never met before beginning work on Dr. BBQ, Jasper and Lampe quickly built up a mutual respect for one another.
“The fact that Lee trained with Roy [Perez] is golden to me right there,” Lampe says. “I had really big respect for him coming in from day one. He lives up to all of it.”
While he has been hawking barbecue in one form or another for two decades — from selling “Big Time BBQ” out of a trailer in Lakeland to consulting on Justin Timberlake’s Memphis-themed restaurant in New York City — Dr. BBQ will be Lampe’s first restaurant of his own. He had always declined to put his name on a restaurant for fear of tarnishing the Dr. BBQ brand with a less-than-stellar product. The Perrys, he says, were the only ones who could change his mind.
“This was the perfect opportunity to use that name, but it’s pretty much a one-time shot,” he says. “I’m so happy to have this opportunity with them. It’s the only reason I would do it. I can’t really think of anyone else who would have called and I would have said yes so quickly.”
Though the bulk of Dr. BBQ’s menu will focus on authentic, traditional Texas-style barbecue, the Datz team has pushed Lampe and Jasper to constantly innovate, from the brisket (they’ll be dishing up a killer pork version) to the side dishes. The two are also taking inspiration from the country’s most popular modern barbecue joints, like Hometown Bar-B-Que in Red Hook, Brooklyn — yes, the New York one — which both men say is their favorite barbecue restaurant at the moment.
“What we’re seeing in the modern barbecue restaurants is the incorporation of more global flavors,” Lampe says. “Because why not? We didn’t invent grilling and smoking meat. Every culture has that.”
“I have all the respect in the world for tradition,” Jasper adds. “My roots are steeped in tradition. But getting to kind of spread my wings is fun. It’s been a blast.”
Throughout the restaurant, Jasper and Lampe are adapting to their new roles. For Jasper, that’s the meat guru and pitmaster behind the custom Oyler smoker. Lampe will play gracious host, quality controller and teacher for wannabe barbecue chefs.
“I think we’re lucky in that barbecue is going to attract people who really want to learn the craft,” Lampe says. “Barbecue is such a big deal right now. It’s so hot. Where else is the opportunity in St. Pete to come work with a guy like me or Lee?”
Lampe adds that Dr. BBQ’s unique, quality details — from Jasper’s careful preparation of the certified Angus beef and Compart Duroc pork, to the custom Dr. BBQ Pale Lager created by Green Bench Brewing, to the one-of-a-kind bourbon collection — will be what truly sets it apart from other barbecue restaurants in Tampa Bay.
“It’s a commitment on our part, but it’s because it tastes better,” Lampe says. “It’s not your uncle’s barbecue joint, that’s for sure.”
Being a red-blooded barbecue restaurant in a city known for its embrace of a crunchier culture, Lampe and Jasper also made sure to confront one of St. Pete’s biggest questions up front.
“We know our neighborhood,” Lampe says. “We understand that there are vegans, and we’ve got to feed them, and we’re good with it. My attitude from day one, and I think we’re getting there, is we just want to have some really good items on the menu that are vegan or vegetarian.”
At TAMPA Magazine’s print deadline, an official opening date for Dr. BBQ had not yet been set — though Lampe says it will be sometime in September — and the team was putting the final touches on the place. Artist Cam Parker, best known for his Lady Gaga mural in Tampa Heights, recently completed a mural of Lampe and fellow American icons (including a bald eagle, Wonder Woman and Aretha Franklin) on the side of the building. Inside, though, the team still has one major puzzle to solve: what to name the smoker. Among others, “Smokey McSmokerface” was floated as an option on the restaurant’s Facebook page.
“We’re going to have to come up with a name at this point,” Lampe admits.
As he and Jasper begin to see years of hard work materialize, the two say they hope Dr. BBQ becomes a destination for locals and barbecue fanatics alike that allows people to see just how much love and dedication goes into each piece of meat.
“I think when the smoke clears…” Lampe trails off, then laughs.
“I didn’t mean that literally, but we hope to do some seminars and classes, do some events and have Lee show everybody how to cook a brisket one day,” he says.
He pauses again, then backtracks slightly. After two decades, he knows his fellow barbecue devotees are not ones you want to disappoint — better to cover his bases, he decides.
“But if there’s too many people in line, we’re not going to be able to do that, so we apologize in advance,” he adds with a chuckle.