Who do you think of when somebody says ‘he’s a real Southern style BBQ cook ‘? Not gonna lie, I picture a big, burley guy, who’s apron barely ties up in back. Someone who’s moustached drawl turns as slowly as his food on the spit…a mellow fellow in every sense of the word. Am I right?
That may be true in many cases, but not so for the co-owner and head chef of Smokin’ George’s BBQ in Nanaimo. George Kulai is the polar opposite of mellow. This guy absolutely vibrates with intense energy. Never judge a book by it’s cover, I suppose. I’m guilty of a few mistaken assumptions in this case. First of all, when I moved to Nanaimo a few years ago, I drove by Smokin’ George’s all the time…never stopping in because…I thought they SOLD BBQ’s and I didn’t need one. Mmmkay, so I was wrong. Secondly, the whole BBQ chef persona, totally missed that one too.
When I finally did manage to get George to sit still for long enough to interview him, I was fascinated with how it all came to be. Originally George was a welder, yup…clearly he likes to play with fire. It wasn’t working for him though, so he decided to go back to school and enrolled at Malsipina College’s Culinary Arts Program. After graduating he worked at a number of the finer restaurants and hotels on the Island and in Vancouver, including the newly opened Mahle House, the Empress, Ocean Pointe and finally staying on with the Four Seasons in Vancouver. He credits strong mentors and a solid work ethic when he shared that he advanced up to Senior Sous Chef within the hotel.
In 2004, George was ready for a change and returned to the Island. This time, as an instructor in the Malsipina College Culinary program. He thoroughly enjoyed teaching and mentoring the new talent that was coming through the program and was disappointed when after three years, layoffs ended his teaching career. Fortunately he was hired on as the food and beverage manager at the college.
All of this information, and much more, was shared a rapid-fire pace ( you should see my notes…crazy) and with complete certainty regarding dates and locations. He’s a details guy and that trait has served him well in this competitive industry. Another decision that has served him well was his choice to marry Lea Ortner. The couple met while both working at the Empress and she is most definitely the Yin to his Yang. As a complementary, interdependent opposite Lea is the quiet, calm that balances out the effusive Chef. She too has her history in the culinary arts, with her baking papers under her belt. However, it is her current vital role of running the behind the scenes of the restaurant business, that has George exclaiming “I couldn’t do what I do, without Lea”.
George claims that the idea to open a laid-back BBQ joint came to him during a rare moment of watching TV. When he shared the idea with Lea, she agreed that it was a great fit for Nanaimo. Both reminisced that a vital inspiration was also visiting one of George’s true mentors, Candice Hartley, at her home…the taste of her roasted chicken on her charcoal Webber barbeque…”there’s nothing like great BBQ”. The idea was solid, but the work ahead was challenging. Opening a restaurant in an industrial park is not without it’s headaches. Their perseverance and hard work paid off however. From the beginning their basic philosophy has been fresh, slow food…served fast. Their dedication to customer service and consistent, quality meals have made them quite a sensation in our little city.
So much so…that their dedicated clientele contacted “You Gotta Eat Here” on the Food Network and they came and filmed a segment at Smokin’ George’s. Both Lea & George had nothing but great things to say about the cast and crew. They said it was an amazing experience and they have so much more respect for the people in the TV industry. George said being on the show is “the gift that keeps on giving”. Every time their segment is replayed, they get a little rush at the restaurant, enough that when George saw himself pop up on TV one day, he called his new manager to give her a heads up that it could get a little hectic later!
Although they claim not to be a full service restaurant, eating in is a warm and welcoming experience. The jazzy warehouse décor along with their outgoing staff make for a fun lunch or dinner. There’s always lots of napkins available and no judgement when you are caught licking the amazing sauce off your fingers. Everyone is welcome, you can see the cooks, busy in the open kitchen, making fresh, delicious, local food.
The menu is definitely geared towards the meat lovers, but there are some wonderful treats for those more focused on veggies. Both the fresh salads and the decadent grilled vegetable sandwich is popular and people have been known to switch their work schedules just to get a taste of the deep fried macaroni and cheese special…yes…that’s right…wipe yer chin. Right now the lunch and dinner service, along with catering and their mobile food trailer, now parked in South Nanaimo in the RONA parking lot, are keeping them hopping. It is worthwhile to follow their Facebook page, they do a fantastic job of keeping their fans up to date with the daily specials and other interesting stuff happening locally.
What’s in the future for this Smokin’ couple? Well, they’ve already launched a bottled Smokin’ George’s BBQ sauce, available in local grocery stores and at the restaurant (and soon online at the Just A Pinch of Ginger Store ). Word has it they are working on developing George’s rub as well…yum. I so appreciate chef’s who share their secrets, and I wasn’t disappointed this time. Click here for a link to their AH-mayzing cornbread recipe, the perfect partner to a big pile of barbequed …anything! Just in time for summer picnics.
Visit their website for all the info and some fantastic videos as well. If you haven’t stopped by yet, make a plan to…you can find them at #5-4131 Mostar Rd. in Nanaimo.
As I said …where there’s smoke, there is definitely fire. Both George and Lea are on fire to present the best edibles and personalized service possible…and because people always ask me…my fave? Without a doubt, the pulled pork poutine, oh my!
“All normal people love meat. If I went to a barbeque and there was no meat, I would say ‘Yo Goober! Where’s the meat?’ You don’t win friends with salad.” ~ Dan Castellaneta