Yes, Chef! Solomon Cutler of BBQ For Friends, Hong Kong’s Cali Grill Master
September 21, 2023
Asia is one food-crazy continent! We take great care to pick restaurants based on culinary vibes, rankings in international gourmand guides, mentions in magazines, Instagramability, and added allure. Yes, Chef! features the region’s chefs' stories of love and labour in kitchens, which has made some of our restaurants the next big thing in Asia.
Famed for his mouth-watering smoky barbecue ribs, beef brisket and hot chicken wings, to name just a few, Solomon Cutler's cooking has been burned into the hearts and stomachs of a devoted community in the city. At the helm of BBQ For Friends (BFF), his Californian-style grill-and-barbecue catering company, he has cooked up a storm for countless pop-ups, big grill parties, gatherings and has even provided food for corporate luncheons, with his next endeavour slated for Oct. 1 in collaboration with Test Kitchen.
It all began in Tennessee with the story of a man fondly remembered as ShoeButtons.
ShoeButtons was Solomon's great-great-grandfather, who had a peculiar habit of sleeping with his shoes on when he got into his sheets for the night. After his passing, it was revealed that his eyebrow-raising habit was a means to safeguard a secret recipe wedged into the crevices of his soles. Years later, and three continents away, Solomon has brought this now not-so-secret barbecue sauce recipe to meat lovers in Hong Kong.
Sharing his story with The Beat Asia, we chat with Solomon about the heritage behind Californian-style barbecue, his experiences as a Cali-native bringing its unique taste to Hong Kong, and his plans to bring BFF to more people.
How did you first begin cooking up and catering BBQ dishes to a local audience?
Majority of my friends over here are local Chinese, and when they have barbecues, they would invite me. Initially, I was like ‘you know, there's another way to do this,’ and I started introducing them to the American style of cooking barbecue – they loved it.
Over a period of time, I transitioned to offering my barbecue to people that I didn't know. It was very word of mouth and just picked up. Even now, it’s still word of mouth and I still think that the best advertisement for business is word of mouth!
What has the journey been like so far in establishing and pursuing BBQ for Friends as a business?
I think the biggest difficulty was finding a place like this (referring to the BBQ for Friends kitchen), where you can have the necessary tools to run a business that’s financially sustainable. You’re going to be there and acquire the tools you need to be able to raise your game and improve the product that you deliver to the customers, as well as the capacity to provide to your customers.
All of my beef comes from the U.S, my pork comes from Spain and Brazil with some from Denmark, spices come from everywhere. The biggest thing I’ve imported though was this huge commercial smoker, I had to go through America, Australia, and bring it here. It was a world tour, and it was worth it!
Is there something special that only Californians do for barbecue, and how did you localize that for a Hong Kong audience?
We smile a lot, and we love our food! We're passionate about the taste, because California especially is a melting pot of the United States. You have pretty much every ethnicity in the world represented there, so there's a wider palate there that you have to please in order to get your food to that level of acceptance.
You have everybody in the world from every single country inside of California. And because of that wide range that exists, you have to be able to understand the different palates, different tastes, and what are the acquired tastes. If you have an appreciation of the differences, and an understanding of what type of foods [your target audience] already consume, then you already have an idea of what the taste structure they like. You can utilize that as a sort of base or platform to develop from.
How do you tell when a dish is authentically Cali-style BBQ?
For a lot of people, unless they’ve been to somewhere that prepares Californian barbecue properly and tasted it before, if someone tells them ‘This is American-style barbecue,’ they wouldn’t really know what the differences are in the food.
When you try my barbecue, you will be able to see the distinct differences when people talk about barbecue, because you will have more than just an idea, or a food channel video to compare it to. You will have the actual taste and flavour of the experience behind it too – how the meat comes off the bone, what the sauce tastes like, and how all the different condiments that fit with the barbecue all go together.
Have you ever tried cooking the local style of Hong Kong BBQ that is popular in the city, and how did the experience differ from cooking American-style BBQ?
I’ve done that, but just for fun. I’m too nervous to cook like that, because the little grate it’s on moves around a lot and I'm nervous the meat will fall in!
I have done that for a client before, and so what I did was, I had a majority of the wood and charcoal on one side and a little less on the other side. So, I had a higher temperature, a lower temperature, and I’m moving the meat over. It’s constantly moving, and that’s the scary part, because the grill isn’t attached to anything. It worked out well, [the client] were happy, and they loved the food!
If you could speak to ShoeButtons today, what would you say to him? How do you think he would react if he knew where his recipe would end up today?
Sir – he's older, I’ll have to call him sir (chuckles) - I didn’t make your sauce famous, but I did achieve the ability to make a lot of people happy to eat and taste your sauce. The recipe also allowed me the freedom and creativity to offer it to everyone.
If he knew that [his sauce is being enjoyed in the other side of the world], I think he would be blown away. How could [a recipe] that was kept hidden in his shoe - which he kept there with the thought of using it to buy his freedom [from enslavement]– how is it being used in a food factory in Hong Kong in the other side of the world today? I don’t think he would believe that.
What’s the story behind the name “BBQ for friends”?
I wanted something that included everybody, so no one felt like it was a particular theme that was strictly related to a particular ethnicity. I wanted to find a name or a title that allowed a wide range, that everybody would understand. When I talked to people, I tell them ‘I want to be your BFF,’ and I want to be able to cook for you.
In doing that, there’s a risk because you never know if people will like it or if people won’t like your food, so every time I’m cooking, I’m very conscientious about making sure it’s the best product that I can actually present every single time.
How would you describe your B.F.F (BBQ For Friends) community in Hong Kong?
My community? They're awesome, they're warm, they're phenomenal. They're supporting, they engage with the product, show up to my pop-ups, buy all the food, reserve tickets – phenomenal. Probably 90% or higher are local Hong Kong.
Before they even know me, they're dependent on me to bring them a phenomenal product for their barbecue, birthday party, anniversary, event, whatever they have going on. So there's a huge amount of trust there especially to the ones never having eaten my food, and they're listening to someone else in the community that says, ‘Hey, that guy makes pretty great barbecue.’ It’s important on my side to make sure that I'm on my A game.
What’s next in store for BBQ for Friends?
Either to get a larger type of food factory where people can actually sit in and enjoy the food, or to look for a ground floor unit. After that, in 18 to 24 months, offer franchise opportunities to show other people how to do this. Everything has been a part of a sequential plan, following a chronological timeline.
Looking forward to a BFF meal near me! Thank you for the chat, Solomon!
Thank you Alisa!
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
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