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Barbecue Chef Smokes Competition, Earns Spot at Upcoming Loop Food Hall

Urbanspace will welcome John Badal of North Branch Gourmet when the Loop food hall opens in 2020

A half slab of barbecue baby back ribs held with metal tongs.
John Badal wants to bring baby back ribs to Urbanspace.
North Branch Gourmet/Facebook
Ashok Selvam is the editor of Eater Chicago and a native Chicagoan armed with more than two decades of award-winning journalism. Now covering the world of restaurants and food, his nut graphs are super nutty.

Urbanspace, an upcoming food hall scheduled to open early next year in the Loop, held a culinary competition on Wednesday between three chefs. The winner, Northwest Side native John Badal, won a spot in the food hall (15 W. Washington Street) with free rent for the first three months. The gimmick gives the hall a little local flavor as New York-based Urbanspace introduces its brand to Chicagoans.

Badal plans to serve up his version of Chicago-style barbecue at Urbanspace: “It’s a rich history,” Badal said of Chicago’s barbecue scene. “We don’t want to emulate every region. We kind of get a taste of all different touches of barbecue.”

He won the competition with a heaping plate of smoked meats that included brisket and pulled pork sliders and candied bacon. He surrounded the meat with pimento spring rolls and smoked cheesy potatoes. Badal bested Sruthi Swaminathan’s Mexican/Indian fusion food and Melody Adeniyi’s healthy African food. Urbanspace’s Eldon Scott told WGN News that Badal’s restaurant experience and execution would translate well to a busy food hall.

Badal is a graduate of Kendall College and works as executive chef at the DoubleTree Hilton in Downers Grove. He went to culinary school with dreams of opening his own restaurant. He gained a love of food from his family and has Assyrian and Armenian roots. For the last few years, he and his wife (Yvonne Aparicio) have sold barbecue sauces and rubs at farmer’s markets at Independence Park and Portage Park. They’re sold under the North Branch Gourmet banner. Badal isn’t sure of the exact name for his barbecue stall, but he wants to incorporate North Branch to give the Northwest Side some love.

There’s still lots to sort out with Urbanspace. It doesn’t have an opening date. But Badal wants to fully commit to his stall. Besides the three months of rent, Urbanspace will provide help with marketing, restaurant design, and support from its small business accelerator, Badal said.

Badal needs to develop his menu and said he wants it to be well-rounded. It will have more than meat. He smokes items using a blend of apple and oak. Lillie’s Q and Smoque BBQ are two premier spots for smoked meat in Chicago, and both have locations in food halls. Neither serves ribs at their smaller spots, a casualty of the downtown lunch rush. Badal may test out baby backs at Urbanspace. South Side Chicago has shaped the city’s barbecue scene with rib tips and other innovations. Badal isn’t sure if the Loop crowd will take to messy rib tips, but he’s open to offering them if he sees demand. He also sees an opportunity to sell his sauces like Lillie’s Q chef Charlie McKenna does at the United Center.

“I know I can’t be Rick Bayless, I know I can’t be Grant Achatz,” Badal said. “But I know I have a skillset with barbecue and I want to pursue that as far as I can take it.”

The judges for the competition included Brandon Hoy, cofounder of Roberta’s, a popular pizzeria from Brooklyn. Roberta’s will have stalls at Urbanspace’s two locations, including one inside Willis Tower. Hoy called the opportunity “life changing” for a chef as it gives them a rare opportunity.

Roberta’s operates in two Urbanspace food halls in New York. When scouting Chicago, Hoy worked with 16” On Center and held pop-ups at their restaurants. Hoy said he spoke with 16” on Center’s Bruce Finkelman about Revival Food Hall in the Loop. It’s a competitive market, and food hall restaurants need to stay on their toes. If Hoy had any advice for prospective food hall chefs, it’s to be concise. Don’t overwhelm customers or food hall management with large menus.

“You have to be small and limit the amount of things,” Hoy said. “Make sure you do them really super well.”

The scene is reminiscent of Food Network’s Food Court Wars, a reality competition that propelled Lincoln Square’s Taco in the Bag into prominence back in 2015.