Maybe it goes without saying, but working in a restaurant kitchen is a lot different than cooking at home. The head chef at a restaurant is responsible for an entire crew of cooks, tasked with thinking about food costs and creating interesting specials, and, of course, consistently producing great food.
A good chef knows how to make the moving parts work. A great chef gets in there and helps make it happen.
“I’m definitely not that guy that surfs the clipboard,” says Neil Youngblood, head chef at Blowin’ Smoke. “I open the restaurant myself five days a week and work the line. I’m back there making tacos; if I’m staffed well enough, I’m in the window expoing and making sure the food is going out the way I want it to.”
In other words, he does it all.
Youngblood got his start as a line cook at Waffle House around the time he started taking culinary classes at Savannah Tech eleven years ago. He worked as a sous chef all over town—“I felt like the boy named Sue,” he jokes—before landing his first executive chef position at Blowin’ Smoke.
He’ll never forget where he came from, literally—his “resume sleeve” has a visual assortment of past jobs, from Alligator Soul right on down to WaHo.
Youngblood recently streamlined Blowin’ Smoke’s menu to focus mainly on tacos and their award-winning ribs, working toward a better, faster experience.
“The food just flies out,” he says proudly.
But that doesn’t mean it’s just a taco place now. Youngblood’s challenge was “to put fine dining in a taco,” which means using classical techniques like braising and smoking. Every taco has its own unique flavor that complements the technique. Take, for instance, the Smoked Pork Belly taco. The pork belly is smoked for eight to ten hours, flash fried, then smashed into lardons and paired with a spicy mustard and pineapple salsa.
While designing the new menu, Youngblood considered the guests and what would make them want to come back.
“What reminds you of your childhood? Taste and smell are the senses that make you remember, feel that comfort,” he explains. “What I try to bring is a mixture of soul and comfort and flavor and what would really make you remember this place.”
One of the worst complaints a restaurant can receive is an inconsistent experience, and Youngblood is determined not to let that happen at Blowin’ Smoke.
“I don’t 86 shit,” he says. “I want people to know that when they come back, they can get the things they want. It’s all about thinking and being a couple steps ahead and making sure not to run out of product.”
That kind of attitude is what separates the men from the boys, but Youngblood doesn’t feel above anyone at all.
“Reading [Anthony Bourdain’s] Kitchen Confidential, I wanted more of that; camaraderie was being compared to pirates and I fell in love with that kind of imagery,” he says.
“With the chefs in Savannah, I feel like I got in this awesome frat of cooks and pirates.”
Runner-up: Mashama Bailey