Waffle House Smackdown with BBQ pro John Lewis

By Mike Sutter | © Fed Man Walking | 03.06.15
When you order the All-Star Special at Waffle House, it sets off a beehive dance of coded shout-outs and plate tectonics. “Pull one bacon, drop 1 hashbrown in the ring,” comes the call, and the grill worker “marks” a plate with a jelly packet. The clockface position of that packet — and whether it’s flipped over — determines the toast, the meat, and how to cook the eggs. The famous Waffle House hashbrowns are marked with a few kernels of raw potato, along with bits of onion or cheese and the other signifiers of the “smothered-covered” system of getting your hashbrowns just the way you like them. The waffle? That’s a butter packet by the waffle iron.
Running the Waffle House grill takes an OCD level of discipline, but Austin barbecue pro John Lewis will take on that system — and other top chefs — when he competes in tonight’s Waffle House Smackdown at the Charleston Wine + Food Festival in South Carolina.
Besides the Charleston festival, Lewis — the pitmaster behind La Barbecue, Austin’s best barbecue place (the BBQ plate pictured at left) — is splitting his time between Austin and South Carolina these days as he prepares to open his own shop, Lewis Barbecue, in Charleston in September or October of this year. When that happens, he’ll still play a part in La Barbecue, the trailer he opened in 2012 with owner LeAnn Mueller, playing the barbecue equivalent of executive chef, with Esaul Ramos as his pitmaster de cuisine.
The winner of that preliminary round — hosted by Bon Appetit’s Andrew Knowlton, who spent 24 hours working at a Waffle House — will take on last year’s champion, Chris Shepherd of Houston’s Underbelly on Saturday. In the competition kitchen, the cooks will be judged on how fast and furiously they can work through a series of actual Waffle House orders.
It’s not as easy as it sounds. To prepare for the Waffle House Smackdown, Lewis spent an afternoon last week training with Chuck Swofford, who owns the Austin Waffle House franchises in Northeast Austin on U.S. 290 and near the airport on E. Ben White Boulevard. Swofford has the sweeping white mane of a ‘70s rock star who’s aged gracefully. He guides Lewis through the Lego maze of working the grill, starting with plate size, moving on to code words like “ring” and “scattered” and “quarter,” then showing him the cuneiform alphabet of condiment packets — ketchup, mayo, jelly, apple butter, mustard — that spells out how the finished order should look.
Swofford, whose Waffle House agreement requires him to work the floor like a player-manager, coaches like UCLA basketball savant John Wooden, with dozens of tiny corrections and equally tiny bits of praise. Lewis is a quick study, having done his time as a short-order cook at Austin’s Star Seeds Cafe, where he said a Sunday morning might find him with 20 tickets hanging: “And I could lay them all down at the same time.” With Swofford at his side, Lewis turns out his first Waffle House plate: a photogenic cheesesteak melt with hashbrowns “smothered, covered and peppered” (onions, cheese and jalapeños). It’s delicious, in that cheesy-greezy Waffle House way.
All of this — plus a Friday afternoon tune-up shift at a Charleston Waffle House — for a food and wine festival? “Waffle House is an American classic,” Lewis said. “I did competition barbecue forever. I like competition.” Order up.
(Photos by Mike Sutter © Fed Man Walking)