Chef D’Andre Carter fell in love with the rush of the restaurant industry at eighteen, when he took up working at the soup and salad station of the Olive Garden. Carter said he learned the necessary skills to survive in a high energy kitchen slicing and dicing the veggies served alongside the franchise’s famous breadsticks.

Many a house salad later, Carter now co-owns and operates Illinois-based eatery Soul and Smoke in Evanston, Avondale and Time Out Market Chicago. To honor barbecue with, “the reverence it deserves,” Carter’s menu features slow roasted, smoked and braised meats, creamy mac & cheese and cornbread muffins made from scratch. Soul food favorites, sides and smoked sandwiches are available to-go at all three locations or can be purchased from their pop-up food truck around the Chicagoland area.

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Hailing from a large family from the South Side of Chicago, Carter spent every Sunday preparing a barbecue feast with his grandmother. Though his career plans never centered around the kitchen, learning the basics of brisket, mac and cheese and collard greens fostered Carter’s appreciation for flavor early on.

“What I’ve learned from Soul and Smoke is that barbecue is very personal,” Carter said.

After his Olive Garden experience, Carter attended Le Cordon Bleu College of the Culinary Arts, snagging an internship at the late Homaro Cantu’s acclaimed Moto Restaurant. It was at the now closed Chicago location where he met his wife and Soul and Smoke co-owner Heather Bublick.

Bublick knew she wanted to attend culinary school as a student at the University of Illinois, but made the shift to front of house responsibilities while interning at Moto Restaurant — a role she maintained at Soul and Smoke.

“I got to talk about wine and talk to the customers and share their dinner experience,” Bublick said. “It was neat to discuss the dishes I had worked so long on.”

In 2013, the pair began hosting Michelin-caliber pop up dinners in Chicago and Evanston under the brand name Feast and Imbibe. For a year, Bublick and Carter held their ticketed event at an underground location — “a secret society of fine dining,” as Bublick called it. The five course tasting menu crafted by Carter included a study of quail, smoked octopus and chicken venison pasta and highlighted seasonal ingredients.

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Though Feast and Imbibe primarily focused on private events and weddings, there was a demand from satisfied guests for a more casual affair. With the help of a three-foot smoker much smaller than the restaurant-grade machine Carter uses today, Soul and Smoke was born.

From homemade sauces to two-day marinades, Carter said the classical culinary techniques he learned at Le Cordon Bleu are what elevate every aspect of Soul and Smoke. It is his belief that casual eating is never a cause for lack of flavor.

The early menu emphasized convenience while maintaining quality in a drop-off format. Rather than an elaborate entree and or a delicate amuse bouche, Carter opted for Southern favorites like pulled pork and barbecue chicken sandwiches to grow the brand’s reputation. When hungry diners ordered from Soul and Smoke, Carter said he wanted them to get what they expected: food cooked over a flame to be shared with those you love.

“It had to be comfort food that traveled really well and you could drop off and it would still be good,” Carter said.

When Feast and Imbibe bookings slowed during the Covid-19 shutdown, Carter and Bublick turned to making thousands of soul-filled meals a day for frontline workers and community members. Soul and Smoke worked with District 65 school counselors to provide food to families in need and started a community fridge for residents to retrieve packaged meals. 

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The brand gained traction at outdoor farmers’ markets and riding on accolades of their door to door delivery — The Chicago Tribune claimed Carter had “the best brisket outside of Texas” — Soul and Smoke opened in Evanston in October 2020.

The attention to detail is the key to Carter's success, Bublick said. Pulling from his childhood memories and culinary expertise, Carter is constantly experimenting with seasoning processes to preserve moisture, meat-to-bone ratio of the ribs, when to wrap the brisket and when to let it rest, all to give customers the best barbecue possible.

For Carter, there is more to the cuisine than Southern smokehouses — different styles and spice blends exist across the entire United States. Whether doused in a sweet sauce from Memphis or a thin tangy sauce from the Carolinas, the process is what makes barbecue unique.

“It’s an American tradition,” Carter said. “Everyone has their expectations on what it should be and how it should taste.”

At Soul and Smoke, this means using a spice blend specially developed by Carter. The blend, along with the restaurant’s signature BBQ Sauce and a branded winter beanie, is available for nationwide shipping on their website. 

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Despite the three restaurants they run, Carter and Bublick have kept Feast and Imbibe in tandem with their barbecue business. Bublick said the two menus often share influences — like the pulled pork cigars served at their last event — and the two versatile chefs benefit from the best of both worlds.

“Soul and Smoke is comfort, it’s familiar to me, I know that like the back of my hand,” Carter said. “Feast and Imbibe pushes me to experiment and explore my creativity.”

At the moment, Carter's favorite things on the menu are the Smoked Rib Tips or the Smoked ‘Nduja Sausage using a hot link made in collaboration with Salumi Chicago — though Bublick argues his heart lies with the chicken wings.

As the world begins to reopen, Carter and Bublick plan to turn half of the Evanston location into an event space and the other portion into a sit down restaurant. Given its popularity at block parties and college campuses (including Northwestern University), rolling out another food truck is also in the works.

“People really like what we’re doing here,'' Carter said. “We just want to spread the love.”

Photos courtesy of Neil Burger.