Why This Queer Black Chef Decided To Open A Barbecue Restaurant

Dominique Leach built her own business from scratch with talent, hard work and ambition — and it didn't come without its challenges.
Illustration:Jianan Liu/HuffPost Photo: GAZ consulting+ Design, Getty Images

Dominique Leach is the owner of Lexington Betty’s Smokehouse in Chicago. A native Chicagoan, she worked at the famed restaurant Spiaggia and The Art Institute of Chicago before starting her own catering company, which became a food truck and later her own restaurant. Leach has appeared on The Food Network twice and last year she earned the title of “Best BBQ in Chicago” from “Good Morning America.”

I grew up in Chicago, in a neighborhood called Humboldt Park. I’m really proud of the neighborhood I came from. I come from a single-parent household and Mom was at work a lot, so a lot of the time, I kind of shuffled into the mom role and cooked a lot of dinners on a lot of nights. It was fun to me, and at the time I had no idea it would become a career.

Barbecue has just always been something I was good at, you know? It was just part of our family culture. We all grew up really tight-knit, and we would come together — everybody would be in the kitchen making spaghetti, mac and cheese, and rotating turns on the grill. One person knew they were in charge of the rib tips, another person knew they were smoking the chicken, someone knew that they were making the hot dogs and so eventually, I had a rotation on the grill. There was just so much gratification that came from someone loving what you cooked, and that’s why I love doing it.

“I got the food truck in June of 2017, and it was set on fire a few months later. ... I’m not a gullible person; I could tell that they were, unfortunately, disgusted by me.”

- Dominique Leach

[When it came time to open a restaurant], I didn’t feel like anyone would want to see a Black chef represent Italian food or a Black chef represent French food and French techniques. I think a lot of times, Black chefs have not gotten the respect that they deserve because you don’t see a lot of Black-owned restaurants being held on these pedestals like the Spiaggias of the world.

So when I started Lexington Betty’s Smokehouse, it was because of all of that. I was like, “I’m gonna think like a rapper.” And I would hear from interviews that a lot of rappers felt like they had to win over their community first. If you have the support of your community, then you can build off of that. So I said, “I’m gonna do what my culture loves; I’m gonna make the food my culture loves to eat, and then I’ll build off of it.” And that’s essentially what I did. Barbecue was something that I did for the culture.

The barbecue scene here in Chicago is underrated. But I always tell people we can’t forget about the Great Migration in the ’50s, when Black people migrated from the South to cities like Chicago. So the roots are very much from the South, and you taste those influences in the barbecue here in Chicago. But we’ve certainly put our own spin on it and threw a little city in it. We’re really known for rib tips on a bed of fries smothered with barbecue sauce. That’s our style. Everyone has their own house sausage. I smoke my chicken wings, which is different from most of the barbecue restaurants in Chicago.

But the barbecue world is very male-dominated. In a lot of cases, women are not even being thought about. I’d say 10 years ago if I watched a barbecue competition, women were there competing, but the teams were mostly men. In maybe the past five years, women have certainly been taking over the scene, for sure.

La Barbecue in Austin, Texas, is a woman-owned food truck. I literally went to Austin because of a food truck scene. At the time, I knew I was ready to start a food truck, and I didn’t know it was woman-owned until I was back home in Chicago and just happened to see a special on TV. But I was completely inspired by her brisket. I said, “You know what, if I’m going to open a barbecue restaurant [or a food truck], I have to serve brisket because I want to give people the experience that I’m experiencing right now.” I mean, it was that delicious. And so after that, I actually taught myself how to smoke brisket just from trial and error.

“I’m here to flourish on this platform so that I can then pull more Black female chefs up. I want to be an example to Black people in general, but specifically women.”

- Dominique Leach

I got the food truck in June of 2017, and it was set on fire a few months later. Just a little after 1 o’clock in the morning, my wife was in the living room watching TV when it happened. I was asleep, and I can remember faintly hearing her running toward me. And she couldn’t talk when she got in the room. She was hyperventilating, and she was like, “The food truck, the food truck is on fire.” And I jumped up and went to the window, and the food truck was on fire right outside of the house. It was a super emotional time. I’m getting emotional just talking about it. But, you know, depression is another word that comes to mind.

Not that people are against me being in love and married to a woman, but sometimes it still feels a little unfamiliar to people. I’ve always felt strongly that someone from my neighborhood set the truck on fire. I’m not a gullible person; I could tell that they were, unfortunately, disgusted by me. Disgusted by the little success that I had already been able to capitalize on as a young woman. My wife would get home from work after me, and I would always come downstairs to help her with her bags, give her a kiss, and people would just kind of look at us like it was foreign.

I’ve worked in fine dining settings, and I know what it feels like to be the underdog. Despite my talent, despite the tenacity and ambition that I wore on my sleeve, at a place like Spiaggia, I never felt like I was up for discussion when it came to promotions.

Most of the kitchens I worked in, I was either the youngest cook or, certainly, the only Black female cook. I’ve never worked at another establishment where there was another Black female chef in the kitchen or on that line. Never.

We’re seeing more of these driven young Black chefs. I’m here to flourish on this platform so that I can then pull more Black female chefs up. I want to be an example to Black people in general, but specifically women.

I didn’t have any money when I started this company. This was all drive and ambition and being focused and saving my money. That’s another thing that we face as Black people. I couldn’t go into any bank and get a loan to start my business without using my building for collateral. I have the credit, I have a résumé ― this is not something I’m doing as a hobby, but despite that, it was just doors closed. I’m living proof that you don’t have to depend on anyone else. It’s up to you and your drive, and so I want to stand for that.

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