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Chicago’s Restaurant Community Rallies to Help Selfless Pitmaster in Hospital

Chicagoans may not know Hipolito Sanchez’s name, but the restaurants and chefs they love do

A smiling men with sunglasses holds up a skewer of meat over a crowded grill.
Hipolito Sanchez has a passion for barbecue.
Courtesy of Rene Sanchez
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.

Chicago diners might not know Hipolito Sanchez’s name, but they may have tasted his work at popular restaurants across the city including Smoque, Cafe Marie-Jeanne, Kimski, and more. Sanchez is a beloved figure among the industry, a jack of all trades — an eager problem solver who’s repaired barbecue smokers, consulted on recipes, and helped create curbside service plans during the pandemic.

Known to friends as “Hip” or “the Mayor,” Sanchez is the one right now who needs help. Last month, the 45-year-old man checked into Illinois Masonic Hospital after weeks of coughing and fatigue. He told friends that he was suffering from pneumonia, and he lost about 30 pounds in two weeks. Fearing COVID-19, he eventually allowed a friend — chef Rafa Esparza of Finom Coffee and Evette’s — to drive him to the hospital.

As it turned out, it wasn’t the novel coronavirus. Doctors would perform two open-heart surgeries to replace two of Sanchez’s valves. His younger brother, Rene, says Sanchez hopes hospital staff discharges him from intensive care unit today, now that his condition has stabilized.

Although Hipolito Sanchez has never worked regularly at a restaurant, he runs a barbecue catering business, Slow Motion For Meat, and is a pitmaster who’s participated in barbecue competitions all over the country. However, the pandemic has cancelled events hurting his business. Friends say instead of focusing on when life will return to a semblance of normalcy, Sanchez has poured his energies into charity work. He’s teamed up with Kimski in Bridgeport for its Community Canteen, and worked with Fight2Feed — two efforts that address food insecurity. Rene Sanchez says his brother also prepared Christmas and Thanksgiving meals for those inneed over the holiday season.

Last week, friends started a fundraising campaign to help with health care costs. Industry workers know this tune: Few have health insurance. So far, the campaign has netted about $32,000 toward its $45,000 goal. Friends and family are asking for the public’s help in raising money using GoFundMe.

Esparza, who has worked catering events with him, says Sanchez has an engineer’s mind. He recalls a wedding in Wisconsin where the electricity went out — a situation that would normally spell doom for the traveling rotisserie smoker Sanchez’s determination, which Esparza likened to TV’s MacGyver, led him to wiring the smoker to a car battery. The scheme worked, but they had to move the car every few hours to make sure the battery didn’t die.

Four people smiling under a festival tent with brisket.
Hipolito Sanchez (left) with Barry Sorkin (center left), and the crew from Smoque BBQ.
Courtesy of Rene Sanchez

Esparza met Sanchez five years ago when Kimski opened. Sanchez gave Kimski the smoker used for the restaurant’s chicken wings. Sanchez also used his carpentry skills to help Esparza open Finom Coffee in Irving Park. Esparza says he had to force Sanchez to accept money.

“That’s why people are so fascinated by him,” Esparza says. “If you sell him short — pun intended — that’s at your own peril,” he says playfully, referring to Sanchez’s diminutive size.

Sanchez grew up in the suburbs and went to Streamwood High School. His younger brother said he was always an altruistic person: “Basically he wants to meet everybody and to talk to everybody,” Rene Sanchez says.

Hipolito Sanchez also worked for Verizon, selling phone and internet services. That’s how Sorkin met him, as Sanchez was Smoque’s account rep. It wasn’t until later that Sorkin bumped into Sanchez at a barbecue festival when he discovered Sanchez’s life on the competitive barbecue circuit. He’s flown to competitions in Texas, and North and South Carolina. “He probably could cook circles around me in every scenario,” says Sorkin, whose barbecue restaurant is among the best in the city.

During the pandemic, Sanchez helped Sorkin figure out curbside pickup at Smoque, suggesting ways to improve customer service. Esparza describes his friend as a Renaissance man. Apparently, he also has a history as a DJ, spinning records at venues like the Warehouse — the West Loop nightclub where legendary DJ Frankie Knuckles was music director.

Chicago restaurateur Danny Beck — owner of Beck’s, Toon’s, and Pearl’s Southern Cafe — met Sanchez a few years ago while Sanchez worked for Smoque at Windy City Smokeout, the barbecue festival organized by Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises. Since then, Sanchez has worked at all of Beck’s restaurants, helping with crawfish boils and wing festivals, and even worked as a doorman.

Beck says Sanchez called him last week after his first surgery. He didn’t want to talk about chest scars or how he was healing. Instead he asked Beck for a favor. He asked his friend to come to the hospital with food to feed the hospital staff that cared for him.

“It’s a testament to his character,” Beck says, adding that he and his wife arrived at Illinois Masonic on Friday afternoon with sandwiches and wings: “When the mayor calls, you do what he asks.”