Thursday, July 24, 2008

A life’s ambition grilled just right

Laurel chef has served presidents, dignitaries and local truckers

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Bryan Haynes⁄The Gazette
Dave Welch of Laurel, a classically trained chef, sells barbecue in front of the Savage MARC station five days a week.
On a recent morning, David ‘‘Dave” Welch was cooking spare ribs, pork chops and sausages in the sweltering heat by the Savage MARC train station when his cell phone rang for the fourth time that hour. The call was from another regular inquiring about the day’s menu.

It was a typical workday morning for Laurel resident Welch, a classically trained chef. About seven years ago, Welch’s passion for barbecue led him to turn a successful hot dog stand business into Dave’s BBQ and Catering, a side-of-the-road barbecue and catering enterprise. Now he regularly competes—and ranks—in national barbecue contests.

‘‘I’ve always barbecued, but friends of mine were into competitions and said, ‘Dave, you’ve got to come out and cook with us,’” said Welch, 56. ‘‘Once I got into barbecue I said, ‘That’s it, that’s all I want to do.’”

Five days a week, Welch’s work uniform consists of a long apron and a baseball cap bearing the name of his barbecuing team, The Freestate Smokers.

He changes his menu daily, selling pulled pork on Mondays, slow-cooked brisket on Tuesdays, chops on Wednesdays, ribs and pork chops on Thursdays and chicken on Fridays.

‘‘He does a good job with it—he makes a lot of his own recipes,” said friend and frequent patron Mike Demski. ‘‘When you eat Dave’s cooking, it’s his own style. He doesn’t copy anybody.”

The Freestate Smokers, which started competing in 2004 and has been listed by internationally recognized barbecue nonprofit Kansas City Barbecue Society, has won awards at four national contests each year since 2005. Last year, the KCSB named the Freestate Smokers to its list of Teams of the Year for high marks overall in meat categories.

‘‘You just get into it,” said Welch, who graduated from Laurel High School. ‘‘Everybody can cook steaks and that sort of thing ... but there are certain foods that just take a lot [of effort].”

Welch, whose catering business sees him cooking and serving up barbecue at corporate picnics and parties three or four times a month, cooks his brisket for 14 hours and ribs for about four.

‘‘I run out of meat every day,” said Welch, whose 50 to 75 daily customers are mostly truck drivers. ‘‘I have regulars [to] whom it doesn’t make any difference ... how hot it is. Some people come three times a week.”

Truck driver and frequent customer Charles Fox, whose employer company is based in Pennsylvania, is a die-hard fan of Welch’s cooking and location when he’s on the road.

‘‘It’s convenient—I don’t have to stop at a truck stop, and he’s got good food,” he said as he paid for a pork chop sandwich July 17.

Though Welch, who is married and has three children and two stepchildren, is not by nature an early riser, he said he loves getting up on weekday mornings to cook.

‘‘If you don’t love what you do for work, you’re hating life,” he said. ‘‘That’s why people do dumb things—they hate their jobs. Even when I was fixing hot dogs, I loved it. I love getting up in the morning to go to work.”

E-mail Anath Hartmann at