Meditations

George and Park on 10 years of Memphis Blues, expansion and wine with bbq


George Siu (L) and Park Heffelfinger (R) of Memphis Blues BBQ getting intimate with their menu.

Recently we were invited to partake in a good ‘ol fashioned Southern pig pickin’ to mark the 10th anniversary of venerable low ‘n slow barbeque joint Memphis Blues BBQ House. Started by George Siu and Park Heffelfinger at 1465 West Broadway in Vancouver, I still remember sauntering in to the original location in their earliest days. In fact, I have a vivid food memory of a lunch special consisting of lamb ribs, something you don’t see everyday on anyone’s menu. Best thing ever, and still sometimes available I believe (or hope)!

Over the years Memphis Blues has become synonymous with a side of ribs, pulled pork sandwiches and their legendary Elvis Platter. For me personally, I have to admire those who attempt to bring authentic barbecue to the masses because, well, typically there is a preconceived notion by the general restaurant-going public of what good barbecue is and is not. Reconciling people’s desire for fall-off-the-bone ribs vs. ribs done properly must be tough and what I’ve found in general is that after an initial attempt to be competition-level authentic, there’s a compromise for the sake of the business. I don’t think Memphis Blues is any exception to this, but so what?

More recent entries into this category include Richmond’s Hogshack Cookhouse, Pekinpah in Gastown and the ReUp BBQ food truck. All are doing their own thing in an attempt to bring varying levels of authenticity to the craft. I’m not going to play critic here since all have worthy offerings, and as I’ve come to learn over the years, there are as many opinions about good barbecue as there are people. You be the judge. And if you want to literally be a judge, go here.

Below is our interview with George and Park. Up front are some BBQ specific questions, followed by some deeper stuff. There’s always surprising and unexpected gems each time we ask these. So, without further delay, let’s get to know these guys…

How would you categorize the type/style of bbq you offer at Memphis Blues?
George and Park: Memphis style (tomato and molasses based, sweet sauce; mostly pork – ribs, sausage, pulled pork; and sauce is served on the side so you can taste the meat).

How do you reconcile the difference between competition-level bbq vs. customer expectations? (I.e. toothsome ribs vs. general public’s preference for fall-of-the-bone)?
George and Park: Competition level is more authentic, we’ve spent the last 10 years educating people on Memphis style. Some people don’t like it, and that’s fine. But the gulf is smaller due to the Food Network.

How do you keep it interesting after ten years?
George and Park: We’re expanding – Franchise development adds a whole new discipline and learning curve – keeps you on your toes! We also wrote a cookbook, called “Bringin’ Southern BBQ Home”; our sauces and rubs are being bottled; promoting our staff; and most of our trips are “research” on eating and drinking new things.

What are your favourite wine/wine varietals to pair with pulled pork, ribs and brisket?
George and Park: For pork – Mosel Riesling, Mosel Riesling, Mosel Riesling! Hands down. Oh – and maybe Pinot Noir. A Cabernet Sauvignon is great with brisket.

What’s next?
George and Park: Moving our North Van store to Robson Street; opening in Abbotsford next year; expanding into Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba… tomorrow, the world!

How do you define creativity and apply it in your career?
George: Brainstorming with staff, talking to customers and using those ideas to get better.
Park: Coming up with something interesting and beautiful from something mundane or ugly.

Where do you find your best creative inspiration?
George: When eating and drinking on trips out of Vancouver.
Park: Books.

What’s the one creative advice or tip you wish you’d known as a young person?
George: Network with people who can inspire you and give you good advice.
Park: Dream big.

Who would you like most to hear speak at a conference?
George: Bill Clinton.
Park: Tony Bourdain.

What’s the craziest thing you’ve ever done?
George: When I moved from TO back to Vancouver in 1989, I drove through the Southern States with a friend. Small town Texas isn’t very welcoming to a Chinese guy and a white guy with long hair.
Park: Came home overland from India though Europe with $40 US.

What did you learn from your most memorable creative failure?
George: You can’t have success without a few failures first. Learn from them, but don’t repeat them.
Park: Stay away from North Vancouver.

What’s your one guilty creative indulgence?
George: Food porn.
Park: Charcuterie making.

What are you reading these days?
George: Keith Richards’ biography, Conan the Barbarian, 21 Indispensable Qualities of a Leader.
Park: The Sheltering Sky by Paul Bowles.

What fact about you would surprise people?
George: I’m 50, and have been married for 20 years.
Park: I’m actually very nice.

How does your life and career compare to what you envisioned for your future when you were a sixth grader?
George: I always saw myself as an entrepreneur (I sold firecrackers to the other kids in elementary school).
Park: I’m not a doctor.

How would you describe what you do in a single sentence to a stranger?
George: I take tough meats, and turn them into tender, delicious food.
Park: I sling meat.

What’s the most recent thing you learned (big or small)?
George: You’re only as good as your staff–treat them well.
Park: I agree.

If you had a magic wand, where would you be in five years?
George: Wintering in a sunny, warm climate.
Park: Body surfing with my family in a Tropical location.

What keeps you awake at night?
George: Bad landlords, City of Vancouver bureaucracy.
Park: My one-and-a-half-year old.

Who has been the biggest influence on your life? What lessons did that person teach you?
George: Chef Alan Dunelle–he taught me a love of food, and to nurture my intuitive cooking.
Park: My Mum. She taught me to be interested in what people have to say.

If you could interview anyone living or dead, but not a celebrity, who would it be and why?
George: Shakespeare–did he or didn’t he write those plays?
Park: Ghandi.

If you could do anything now, what would you do?
George: Practice law.
Park: Live in the Tropics.

Where was the last place you travelled?
George: Paris (eating and drinking – heaven!).
Park: Vietnam.

What was the best surprise you’ve experienced so far in life?
George: When we told people we were opening on Commercial Drive they said we were crazy, it was all vegetarian food. The weekend we opened there were line-ups down the block, and people said thanks for bringing meat to the Drive.
Park: What a joy it is raising a family.

Where is your favourite place to escape?
George: Moorea (I have family in Tahiti)
Park: Hawaii

What was the best advice you were ever given?
George: Buy your location instead of just renting (haven’t managed to do it yet, unfortunately); and leverage your money.
Park: Listen.

What practices, rituals or habits contribute to your creative work?
George: Making my morning espresso helps clear my head, and help me get the day organized.
Park: Reading.

When you get stuck creatively, what is the first thing you do to get unstuck?
George: Meditate, go for a workout.
Park: Read.

If you had fifteen extra minutes each day, what would you do with them?
George: Sleep.
Park: Meditate.

What has been one of your biggest Ah ha! moments in life?
George: Becoming a father, it’s very humbling.
Park: Our first night at home from Vietnam with our six month-old adopted daughter.

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