The Next Generation: Lillie’s Q, Chicago and Florida
By Kathleen Squires
October 25, 2013
Though Quito McKenna, 65, a retired Air Force colonel, claims he has no predecessors in the restaurant business, his famous BBQ restaurants—the Destin, FL original and two Chicago spin-offs, are named after his mother, Lillie. And though he claims making barbecue is in his blood, he says he really learned the ins-and-outs of the restaurant business from his son, Charlie, 37, a former fine-dining chef who has worked at esteemed spots such as Tru and Avenues. Dad’s recipes plus son’s restaurant skills and mom Teresa’s business savvy equals award-winning, family-run ‘cue. Father and son told us how it all started.
Quito: I started cooking barbecue when I was in the Air Force, usually doing big fundraisers. Charlie helped me from the time he was a little kid. He was cooking tri-tips and just blowing people away on how he did that. And then, when I retired from the Air Force, I went to work for Viking Range and ran a cooking school in Atlanta, Georgia. Then I started catering. We started entering contests. And we started winning. And I said, 'You know, this barbecue is pretty easy. I need to open a place.' So, there was this little place in Destin, Florida, and I bought it. Charlie was in Chicago. He was doing fine dining. He was the hoity-toity guy, and I brought him to the dark side.
Charlie: I remember when I was about six and seven years old, and I'd be flipping the tri-tips when we were doing the catering events for the Air Force. And then, also, my grandmother, Lillie, who the restaurant is named after--she's your typical southern grandmother. Big into cooking. All our family events always revolved around food. So when I was younger, I'd be in the kitchen with her and I'd be interested in learning about biscuits and gravy and her pound cake and her cornbread stuffing that she used to make at Thanksgiving, which was one of my favorite dishes, and I still make today.
I went Florida State University knowing that I needed to get a four-year degree or my dad would be pretty upset. While I was there, I just got into cooking and I decided I was going to go to culinary school, but I knew if I dropped out of college, I'd be a dead man. So I found out that Florida State had a good hospitality restaurant program. I finished my four-year degree. From there, I went to the CIA in New York.
QM: Charlie had it in him from a child. We just did a big event in Chicago—the Windy City Smokeout. Charlie's daughter, Hope, was on the trailer seasoning the ribs, rubbing mustard on them. She's seven years old and she's on a trailer with gloves on and an apron rubbing mustard on ribs and seasoning them, and everybody's standing back there going, 'Look at that little girl!’ She's does that stuff real good, too, like her dad did.
CM: I'm actually hoping she doesn't want to get into the business, though, just because I know how taxing it can be on your personal life and your family life. You know, it's a business that you have to be around a lot, obviously. I'd rather her be a fashion designer or something that she can make her mark with. Something a lot cooler than a restaurant owner.
QM: But I would say the best part it is that it's all family. We go places, we get to bond, we get to be with each other. It's not like two different careers where we don't even know what each other's doing. It's great to go some place and win a competition together. The challenging thing is trying to get things done together when we're so far apart, with him in Chicago and me in Florida. But somehow, it magically comes together and it always works out.
CM: Obviously, growing up, I was very close to my dad. We did a lot of stuff together. We'd hunt together. We fished together. He was always at my soccer games and all that sort of stuff. He was like one of my best friends. So being apart now, I think one of the best things is that we get to meet up for something. We either have events, like the Windy City Smokeout, or we have a competition, where we meet. So it actually helps us to get to see each other a lot more than maybe we would if were just like two accountants or something like that.
But a lot of the close-knit families - even if they are accountants - a lot of their family time revolves around either cooking together or being in the kitchen together or Thanksgiving dinner or Christmas Eve or whatever your little traditions are. Most of the families that I've seen that are really close, tend to revolve around food and that sort of atmosphere. So, I mean, it just makes us that much closer. Because not only do we have those events, but we also have a restaurant that we have to promote and revolves around food.
QM: I think the best thing I've learned from my son is to rely on someone's education and knowledge. Because he has the education and knowledge by going to the culinary schools, so when he comes up with an idea to do this, I can't say, 'Wait a minute. I've been cooking barbecue for 17 years, don't...'I was in the Air Force and I ran a cooking school. I didn't run a restaurant. That's totally different. And when he says, 'Hey, this is what you need to do with your employee. This is what you need to do here.' I listen because he's already been down that road. So the knowledge that he's given me, not only in the food, but the management, is unbelievable. It makes my life a lot easier. I don't have to reinvent the wheel.
CM: I would say dedication to your job and hard work is what I learned from my Dad. I always, growing up, had seen my dad in the military and then had also seen him do other things. The way he just approaches his job and his career, like really putting a full effort to it and not half-assing anything. His work ethic is definitely something that I really respect about him. It drove me once I got in the restaurant business. This is a business that you have to put a lot of time in and you have to work hard at. And then you have to have some humility that people are not going to like this or that, but if you put in your time and you put in your hard work, then in the end, it's going to be successful.