GRAND PRIZE BBQ KING: AN INTERVIEW WITH WILLOW VILLARREAL
Photo by Eason Photography
If you’ve ever eaten Willow’s Texas BBQ on Sunday’s at Grand Prize Bar, then you know how serious pitmaster Willow Villarreal is about his barbecue.
I had the chance to speak with Willow during service on Sunday, although because he’s so incredibly busy, I conducted the interview while squeezed in a corner of the kitchen as he kept up with orders. In fact, the pitmaster is making moves to grow beyond his weekly service at Grand Prize and will soon be working with barbecue full-time.
FPH: How did you first get into barbecue?
Willow Villarreal: Well, the way I got into it is that I just became obsessed. I don’t think there’s any real way you get into it. It’s been a few years now of me just trying to perfect my barbecue cooking and trying to learn as much as I can. I think about barbecue daily, I read about barbecue daily, I’m constantly trying to learn more. If you get into barbecue, it’s because you made that choice and you’re pretty silly if you do because it’s hard and a lot of work. Whenever I cook here, I don’t get any sleep. I stay up all night with the briskets to do the service on Sunday. It’s just something I’ve become obsessed with and I’m constantly trying to get better and perfect it.
FPH: Now, you have a full-time job in addition to Willow’s Texas BBQ.
Willow: I do. Well, that’s tricky. I work at Fox Sports and on May 20th, it’ll be 16 years, but May 21st will be my last day. Employees that have worked there at least 15 years were recently offered a severance package to try and cut budget costs and I’m taking it. As soon as I found that out, I was talking to Russell Roegels of Roegels Barbecue — who has become a friend through my barbecue education — and he’s consulting at Typhoon Texas Waterpark to open a new barbecue place inside. He was like, “Hey, maybe I could suggest you as the guy to be the pitmaster for the place,” so that’s what’s happening.
As far as how I’ve been balancing it, my days off [from Fox Sports] are Sunday and Monday. On Thursday, I start buying all my supplies, Saturday morning I usually wake up to buy some more. I go to work, I get off, I come straight here [Grand Prize], season and trim briskets, start my fire, and then I sit up all night with it. By the time we’re done on Sunday night, I’ve been up for almost two days with little cat naps in between, if anything. Then when I wake up on Monday, I’m useless. I don’t wake up until late afternoon. It’s a major recovery day.
FPH: So when is your last day at Grand Prize?
Willow: Sunday, May 8. It’s about a month and a half, I guess. I’m going to try to do every single Sunday. I’m taking a trip to Denver in the middle of April but we fly back on a Saturday so I’m hoping to still work that Sunday. Ever since the news came out, people have just been bugging, saying, “What’s going to happen with Grand Prize?”
I let people know I’m leaving my job and looked at what’s going on with the water park so I could set a last day [for Grand Prize]. I thought about trying to do both, but I can’t. It’s too much.
Since the announcement, it’s like a countdown now. I’ve been at my job for 16 years, so that’s a big thing that I’m leaving my job. The news last week kinda came out of nowhere so I wanted to explain it a little. I have to thank people. There’s been so many people that have helped me, I couldn’t have done any of this without key people. There’s no way I’m going to be like, “Hey, cool, we’re leaving,” without saying “Thanks.” I had a passion and a dream and people really helped me and pushed me and I really appreciate that. I had to thank people. Jasmine in the back, my girlfriend, Next Door [Bar] gave me a spot for the first few months I did it, then Roy getting me over here, just everybody.
FPH: What will your involvement be at Typhoon Texas?
Willow: I will be the pitmaster there. Russell Roegels is consulting them on the business and it’s not going to be my barbecue, per se, and it’s not necessarily going to be what you get at Roegels Barbecue. It’ll be something we come up with that will still be a top quality product.
When I took the job, I wanted to make sure I wouldn’t be in a situation where I was cooking mass produced barbecue. I was assured it’ll be a quality product. Unfortunately, we’re not doing ribs out there and that kind of bums me out, but there will definitely be brisket.
FPH: Since the position is seasonal, do you have plans after the season is over?
Willow: My plan is to open up my own spot. Russell wanted me to do this so I can make sure that this is what I wanted to go with and to do it on a full-time basis, instead of how I’ve been doing it, only one day a week, to make sure this is really what I want. It’s instead of going from one day a week and then dumping all my money into [a business] and being like, “What the hell did I get myself into?” Going out there and getting that experience, doing it five or six days a week on a larger scale — a way larger scale than what I do here — and making sure I still have a passion for it. I don’t see that changing. I’m ready to start my second life. I’ve been doing television stuff since I was 16 years old and there’s nothing left for me in that. I have to do what makes me happy and this is what drives me every day. So, I’m pretty excited that I actually get to do it every day. You know, I wish it was a little different, like I was at a spot in town, but as long as I’m putting out a quality product, I’m going to be happy with it. And damn, I’m excited about getting off work when the park’s closing and getting a beer and going down to the lazy river. That’s gonna be awesome.