On the Line: Gene Hobel Of Blake's Place, Part One

Good BBQ is hard to find, both figuratively and literally. I almost got lost tracking down Gene Hobel's joint in Anaheim. Found in an industrial park off the 57 freeway and Orangethorpe, 90-degree heat didn't prevent lunchtime crowds from lining up for some hearty 'que. I spent an extended lunch understanding the guy behind the concept.

Who is Blake?
Blake is my son, who was 6 months old when we opened. He's now a junior at Cal State Fullerton, studying business and playing lacrosse. Not only is he the namesake of our restaurants, but you can find him working at both our Los Alamitos and Anaheim locations. One day he plans to take over the family business.

Culinarily speaking, Orange County has the best:
Variety of ethnic foods. We have the freshest sushi available, hole-in-the wall restaurants of all nationalities, Little Saigon, Little Arabia … what can't you find in Orange County at this point?


Let's talk about the remodel that took place when getting Blake's opened. What kinds of renovations did you make?
Blake's Place in Anaheim was a small sandwich shop in an office park called Pickles 'N' Peppers. The only thing that remained from that restaurant was the hood and the front counter. We replaced and added equipment, including a smoker inside the cafe that is no longer there because we needed more space for seats.

One stereotype about your industry, and whether it's true.
That it's the toughest industry to be successful at. A lot of times, you find that people with no restaurant experience go into the restaurant industry and have a hard time making it work. It's not that it's a difficult industry, but, like anything, you have to put careful planning and consideration into your business before starting. Never open a restaurant on a whim, and you'll be that much closer to finding success.

Why did you go into BBQ?
Though I was classically trained at the California Culinary Academy, I wanted to create a business where I didn't have to be in the kitchen all of the time, because I also have front of the house experience and enjoy talking to my guests. I focused on BBQ because, at the time (and this was pre-Food Network BBQ hype), I wanted to bring real pit-smoked BBQ to Southern California. I worked for an independent BBQ restaurant in Orange County for a few years, and decided that I wanted to open my own business. Why do it for somebody else when I can do it for myself?

Favorite meal growing up:
Skirt steak shish kabobs. Back in the late 60s, skirt steak was a very economical cut of meat. I was 10 or 11 years old when I first started assembling them and grilling them for my family on the old backyard charcoal grill. The marinade was a mixture of teriyaki, soy, BBQ, pineapple and whatever else I could find at the time. Now skirt steak prices, flap meat prices in general, are ridiculous.

Most undervalued ingredient:
A cook's care and pride. You can taste when someone puts their heart into a dish. It's not the ingredients, it's how they're used and how much love you put into it.

How much time passed from the time you attended culinary school and the time you launched Blake's? What were you doing?
Eight years. I first took a job as director of food and beverage at a private club in Santa Monica. I was then offered a position with Claim Jumper restaurants where I stayed for a few years. Then I was recruited to help an independent restaurant owner build his business locally. I opened two restaurants for him, gaining the experience to open my own establishment, Blake's Place. Now, we're about to celebrate our 20th anniversary in February.

Favorite places to eat.
Full Moon Sushi in Tustin, Supatra's Thai in Yorba Linda and Wahoo's Fish Taco.

Most frequently asked question by guests.
How long things are smoked and, “Can I see the smokers?” Most people are stunned at the size of our operation. We can smoke 3,500 pounds of meat at one time.

What's the largest catering request you've handled?
5,000 guests at a corporate company picnic that we've been doing annually for several years now. It's a lot of coordination, and sometimes chaos, but it's a great feeling when you pull it off.

What's the one thing people didn't tell you about working in foodservice?
How wonderful the immediate gratification is that comes from someone enjoying your food. It's an indescribable feeling when you love cooking like I do.

Where was your most recent meal?
Mahi mahi at California Fish Grill. When you don't have a lot of time and you need quick service and a quality, fresh, piece of grilled fish, that's the spot.

What did you learn in culinary school that you might not have if you didn't?
Basics. Everything goes back to the basics. Whether you're grilling a filet mignon or a hamburger, there's a right way and there's a wrong way. I also gained a complete understanding of restaurants, including purchasing, preparation and service. It was essential for me.

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