This Female Pitmaster is Redefining Midwest BBQ in Chicago and Beyond
Dominique Leach always knew she wanted to be a chef. Born and raised in Humboldt Park, this Black, queer female pitmaster has made her mark on Chicago's food scene with her restaurant, Lexington Betty Smokehouse, but she's not stopping there. Leach recently launched her own Wagyu steak hot dog line with Vander Farmers in Sturgis, Michigan, available in Mariano's grocery stores across the Chicago area, with more opportunities to come.
You started your chef career in fine dining. How did you make the switch to BBQ?
I worked at [the now shuttered] Spiaggia, which is such a huge legacy for chef Tony Mantuano, and I always knew that one day I wanted to build something great to call my own. I have never been a cookie-cutter type of person so I decided to make my own lane. I started catering to get the buzz [about Lexington Betty] out, bought a food truck to carry all of my catering food and then eventually got a permit for the streets [in 2017]. It was a success story for about four months until someone threw a Molotov cocktail into the food truck and set it on fire right in front of my home.
What did you do from there?
It was really frightening and chaotic; I had put everything I owned into the food truck. So my wife and I couch surfed a lot and spent time living in the back of the kitchen we rented to cook for catering, and the truck that would eventually become our first permanent restaurant location. We did this for about eight months until we got back on our feet, bought a new truck and could rent an apartment. In 2019, we opened the first permanent Lexington Betty restaurant in Oak Park which has since closed. We now have a location in Pullman that opened in 2020 and we still operate the food truck as well.
How did you come up with the concept for Lexington Betty?
I never stopped thinking about the great migration from the South in the 1950s, when so many people came here from Lexington, Mississippi, and brought all of that Southern influence with them. Combine that with things we did traditionally like curing and smoking meats. So I thought, what a perfect concept: smoked meats with soul food sides.
The goal has always been to get into something that drives me and that I look forward to every day, so I put my grandmother's name, Betty, in the title, because I knew that would be another aspect to drive me. The concept of Lexington Betty was actually one that I've written down in different notebooks several times over the years, sometimes with different sides or mains.
What defines Chicago BBQ, and how is it represented on your menu?
When I think of Chicago barbecue, I immediately think of rib tips on a bed of fries with mild sauce. To me, Lexington Betty is the epitome of Chicago barbecue. I like to say our concept is like if Memphis and North Carolina had a baby, and then you add the Lexington, Mississippi, sides to it, and it's a beautiful story of Chicago's history and Chicago-style BBQ.
In general, BBQ doesn't have a lot of female pitmasters. How did you learn your craft and make your mark in the Midwest?
Barbecue is something I grew up doing in the summertime with my family. When I got my own apartment, it was just a hobby of mine to smoke meat, and it turned out to be something I was good at. It wasn't until a year into the business that I realized I've created something unique, because a lot of people want to have conversations about how there aren't a lot of women pitmasters.
The narrative is so important, so I shifted to build myself up as this woman pitmaster. When I opened three restaurant locations, I said, 'At this point, you can't talk about barbecue in Chicago without bringing up Lexington Betty smokehouse.' I'm attracted to things that are different and rare and I feel really fortunate that it turned out to be such a niche.
You recently launched your own line of Wagyu hot dogs for retail. Tell us about the collaboration with Vander Farmers.
I met the team from Vander Farmers in Sturgis, Michigan, and originally we were just playing around with some ideas of doing collaborations. I made a Vander burger with their ground beef on the menu as a special once [at Lexington Betty], then I cooked their Wagyu tenderloin at a dinner in Michigan and they were really impressed. They told me about their hot dog recipe, and I tasted it and loved it. I was going to be the brand ambassador for these Wagyu hot dogs and that's all it was supposed to be, but it turned into us starting an entire retail business together and me being the face of the brand. The dogs are the first of many products that'll be coming out: brisket, spicy BBQ sauce, Wagyu beef, andouille sausage and more.
We're raising the cows ourselves in Sturgis, Michigan. The Wagyu cows that we brought from Japan are being bred with a Holstein dairy cow that the USDA has classified as FI Wagyu so it's a really special operation.
You have a lot on your plate now. What's next for you?
You'll certainly see me on television really soon. I just got back from filming in California. I'll be on the show as early as June on the Food Network. I can't say the name yet, but let me tell you it's going to be next level.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.