After five years of service that included a tour in Afghanistan, U.S. Marine Derrick Foster went from making daily meals for his fellow leathernecks to working in Michelin-starred and James Beard award-winning restaurants. Yet despite having worked in acclaimed restaurants like Corton, the Musket Room and Le Bernardin, Foster says his passion and burning hearts desire lies in his native Kansas City BBQ.
He turned in his fine-dining tweezers for some hickory wood and a smoker, and plans on showing Orange County the history, tradition, craft and testament that goes into the KC pit with his barbecue pop-up, Ember.
“I’ve seen a lot of BBQ popping up lately in California and I think people are treating it as a trend, and for me it’s not a trend," he says. "To me it’s a lifestyle."
Foster has chosen every purveyor he uses for his BBQ for their sustainability and dedication to quality. He plans on bringing Smithfield spare ribs, 1855 brisket and Rancho Gordo for his baked beans. “I cook the beans till they’re soft and add my brisket scraps to it, fresh jalapeño, onion, garlic and my BBQ sauce and couple of other don’t-worry-about-it secret ingredients.”
It's not a career Foster could've predicted when he was in Afghanistan in 2010. “I wasn’t really cooking before I went into the service,” admits Foster. “My first restaurant job was with Ruth Chris Steak House and I was a busser.”
But after a gig with influential Kansas City chef Howard Hanna, Foster took his boss' advice and took advantage of his military education benefits to attend the CIA (the Culinary Institute of America) in New York City. “From a young age, I grew up watching Bobby Flay, Emeril and Jacques Pépin,” he says. “I’ve was always been attached to cooking, but didn’t know what kind of cooking I wanted to do.”
Comparing culinary school to the military, he embraced the discipline and intensity of the kitchen. When Foster graduated from the CIA, he had a job offer lined up with the Musket Room but instead decided to take a job offer in California to help open Tempo Urban Kitchen in Brea. Soon after Tempo, Foster connected with Little Meats (a unique supper club in Los Angeles that bridges the gap between passionate chefs, artisans and the hand-to-table movement) owner Robin Chang through Instagram and became a rotating chef.
He put on a pop-up called, “God, Guns, Country, Food”—a play and homage inspired from MRE (ready-to-eat) meals and dedicated to those who returned and those who gave all. “I had a couple of buddies that were in L.A. that I served with and invited them to come to the dinner," he said. The most stunning dish was a dessert he called “Bite the Bullet” — milk chocolate shaped into bullets filled with Japanese masago crispy rice and painted copper using pastry dust.
“It represented our deployment to Afghanistan and all the rough times we went through,” he says. “It was kind of controversial because this is when all issues with gun rights in California were going on. I wanted to give a foodie experience but at the same time, I wanted to explain that we fought to protect our country.”
That pop-up series led Foster to work with Sang Yoon at Lukshon in Culver City as his test chef and recipe developer. He used that gig to launch Ember in 2015 but wasn’t able to fully focus on it until recently. Now, the 31-year-old is set to debut his Kansas City BBQ at Native Son Alehouse this Saturday August 26th.
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He’ll be selling brisket slices, sliced fresh to order and succulent pulled pork. “I do my own scratch BBQ sauce and all my own rubs,” he says. “In Kansas City, we’re known for our cheesy corn so I do my own take on it where I make a mornay sauce and add fresh corn off the cob." Kansas City is also known for its burnt ends and Foster says he specializes in making fabulous burnt ends, which he likens to a "meat marshmallow."
“Love is what makes BBQ, you have to love what you’re doing to make good BBQ,” says Foster. “If you don’t have the time and patience, it’s not going to work out.”
Come out to Native Son Alehouse this Saturday 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. and get down on some Kansas City BBQ. See you there!
Ember BBQ Pop-up at Native Son Alehouse, 305 E. 4th St. #200, Santa Ana, (714) 204-0337; Follow Ember Pop-Up BBQ on Instagram @emberpopup