On this week's Special Sauce, John Stage, founder of the insanely popular barbecue mini-chain Dinosaur Bar-B-Que, reveals the unusual way he discovered his calling. Growing up, Stage had a soft spot for his mother's Italian-American cooking, especially her lasagna; his father, Stage tells us with a chuckle, was the one who taught him to drink. But he didn't take an interest in cooking for a living until he ran afoul of the law at age 18 and ended up in prison for three years. There, Stage worked in the prison mess hall. "I actually looked forward to coming to work. I loved the action of feeding people," he explains. (Stage did so well at that gig, he was promoted to cooking in the officers' mess hall.)
Once released, after unsuccessful stints as a bricklayer, a roofer, and a construction worker ("I was terrible at all of them"), Stage began his professional career in food by cooking at biker conventions. After a few years of grilling steak sandwiches with marinara sauce and sausage-and-pepper heroes at fairs in a converted Arnold bread truck, Stage finally tasted real barbecue after driving his Harley to Memphis. "Memphis was Shangri-la," he says. "It was Mecca to me. I tasted real smoked meat, and it was awesome."
Stage opened the first Dinosaur Bar-B-Que in Syracuse in 1983, and, after many years spent improving his ribs and wings, expanded to Harlem. The critical firestorm he encountered there led Stage and his late brother to tattoo themselves with a succinct message to restaurant critics. What is that tattoo? You'll just have to listen to find out. Besides, the arc of Stage's life story—from prison to biker conventions to Dinosaur Bar-B-Que's explosion in popularity to the recent opening of Apizza Regionale, a farm-to-table pizzeria in his beloved Syracuse—is so fascinating, almost cinematic, you'll want to listen anyway.
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