We're incredibly excited to feature Ken Wolfe, a local Wisconsin entrepreneur and classically trained chef with a love for gardening and a "passion for smoked foods, sauces, and BBQ."
Ken had us at smoked foods (a man after our own hearts), so naturally, we had to know more about him and Howling Wolf BBQ, his own line of All natural BBQ sauces and rubs which are available for purchase online and at several Wisconsin stores.
We hope you enjoy getting to know Ken Wolfe as much as we did.
EC: Hi Ken, thanks for taking the time to chat with us. We're excited to learn more about you. Tell us a little about yourself.
KW: Hi, Thanks for this chat! I was raised in Los Angeles, lived and worked in France for 2 years, Wyoming is where my heart calls home. I realized my passion for cooking when I was 5 years old and my mother taught me how to fry an egg. I was hooked! I started cooking professionally in a mentor situation when I was 15. That is about when I met my wife, Jennifer. We have been best friends ever since and she has known me all throughout my career. Jennifer is a ceramic artist selling under the name JD Wolfe Pottery, focusing on modern tableware and serving pieces, so our professions are the perfect compliment to each other.
At the time we got married and started a family, I had a restaurant in Dubois, Wyoming near Yellowstone called Café Wyoming. It’s a beautiful and rugged area with hungry hard working people and real cowboys. That is where I perfected my BBQ sauces and smoking techniques. I had the best homemade smoker that I crafted out of an old double door steel refrigerator. Man, I wish I still had that old thing.
I eventually sold the Café and helped open a 250-seat BBQ joint in Jackson Hole. Once that was running smoothly, we moved back to Wisconsin, where my wife is from, to focus on my BBQ sauce. Wyoming is an awe inspiring place, but when you live 80 miles from the closest traffic light, it can be an isolating place to grow a business. That’s how we ended up in good ol’ Wisconsin!
EC: What sparked your passion for bbq?
KW: My Dad is from Texas, and unlike me, his taste in food is very plain, except for BBQ! On Saturdays when I was growing up he would take me around LA to try every bbq joint he could find. Exploring this cuisine with my dad certainly was impressionable and those father/son adventures stuck with me as I developed my own culinary drive.
EC: We hear you’re a classically trained chef. Where did you train and how was your experience?
KW: At 17, I had been accepted into the CIA (Culinary Institute of America) and while I was waiting for the next round of classes to start, I began working at a local fine dining restaurant in Los Angeles. The chef was impressed with my passion and growing skills, so he convinced me to take a different route with my training. He set me up with an exclusive culinary apprenticeship at the elite Century Plaza Hotel, the largest 5 star hotel in Los Angeles at the time. Being the favorite place of the rich and famous, its where Michael Jackson would hide out when trying to get away from his fans, sneaking through the kitchen to avoid any crowds. Its also where Ronald Regan stayed when visiting LA while president. So many stories of working in that kitchen!
I appreciated the training I got in my 3.5 years of apprenticeship. The hotel gave me hands on experience in every aspect of food service from deli, bakeshop, banquets, pastry and classic French fine dining. If any budding chef has the chance to train in a situation with that depth of experience, I recommend it!
EC: What are some of your most memorable moments and achievements as a chef?
I have 4 moments that stand out to me in my career. For my first job after my apprenticeship I moved to France, just outside of Paris, and was on the opening crew for Euro Disney. The fun, responsibility, and adventure is incomparable to anything else I have ever done. After my work visa expired, I was able to get an extended travel visa and spent 6 months traveling the Loire Valley and northern coastal France alone on a moped with all of my possessions on my back. What a feeling of complete freedom! The culinary education I received in regards to terroir and sense of place was invaluable.
After moving back to the US, I was the lead saucier at the Los Angeles Country Club. It was a really great place to work and the chef is still the favorite I have ever worked under. I make a point of visiting every chance I can when back in the area. The most memorable aspect was starting the culinary gardens where we grew much of the produce that we used in the kitchen.
Another great moment was opening my own Café. Although the hours are grueling and the work is hard, there is nothing like being your own boss and having the thrill of feeding people well.
EC: What are some of the things that you encountered in starting up your new business venture?
KW: I love the creativity involved in running your own business. Delegation and finding the right help are some of the biggest challenges for me.
EC: You used to have your own restaurant. Any chance of resurrecting that venture with a focus on your sauces?
KW: I would love to have the opportunity to regularly serve up my bbq to the public again. I do have a few ideas brewing. Just looking for the right time and place. Stay tuned!
EC: That sounds exciting! How often do you experiment and try out new recipes for your rubs and sauces?
KW: I have a number of fantastic recipes waiting to be brought to market, so until I get those into production, I won’t be doing too many new rubs and sauces. In the meantime, I spend a lot of thought coming up with new recipes using my existing products. I love challenging myself to come up with vegan recipes. People automatically think a bbq sauce is only going to be for meat, but I like to stretch that thinking and come up with new approaches. You can find a lot of my recipe ideas on my blog. I also post them all on Instagram and Facebook.
EC: Where do you get your inspiration for your recipes?
KW: Its all about the spices! I take flavors from around the world and play around to enhance the essence of the foods I am using. I also look at new recipes as a way to solve a problem, for example, how to make vegan food appealing to a wide audience. People who don’t regularly eat vegan have low expectations of enjoyment. It doesn’t have to be that way!
EC: What are some of your favorite types of bbq to eat?
KW: I love a Carolina style bbq where you slow roast a whole hog and chop the meat with the cracklin’ and juices. So good!
EC: What is your favorite Howling Wolf BBQ brand sauce and rub?
KW: Its like asking which is my favorite kid, but if I must choose, the Cranberry Orange is probably my most versatile sauce. It is a great balance of sweet and tangy and chars up beautifully on the grill to get those perfect caramelized fruit flavors. At home I use the Land & Sea rub most often. Its really an all purpose flavor enhancer. I haven’t found anything I don’t like it on.
EC: Where do you see yourself and Howling Wolf BBQ in 5 years? 10 years?
KW: In 5 years I would like to see further distribution for the Howling Wolf brand, and I hope to be serving up good bbq to the public by then. In 10 years I hope to have more time for fishing and quality time with my family!
EC: What is your favorite restaurant in Wisconsin?
KW: I love Pig in a Fur Coat in Madison. They know their pig! I love the doughnuts at Field Table in Madison on the square. Always a delightful surprise. I’m also really proud of our hometown café The Natural Way. They have a small menu, but it changes every day and the food is executed perfectly. Local, organic, delicious.
EC: What would you eat as your last meal alive?
KW: Duck. 10 ways.
EC: If you could meet anyone in history, dead or alive, who would it be and what would you ask them?
I love talking to people who are passionate about food no matter who they are, whether it is a professional chef, a bbq pit-master, or a devoted home cook. There is always something to learn from each person. If I had to choose one historical person, it would be Auguste Escoffier who revolutionized cooking by standardizing the traditional French cuisine. I’m fascinated by his devotion to demystifying cooking. Great taste doesn’t need to be difficult.
EC: What are a couple of things on your bucket list?
KW: Take my wife to the Loire Valley. Climb a mountain with my children.
EC: What do you like to do for fun when you’re not working on Howling Wolf BBQ?
My hobbies still revolve around food! Gardening is a passion I share with my wife. We skipped having a garden last summer because of time constraints and it was the worst decision ever! I also love fishing. I’d love to be able to do more ice fishing. Being from SoCal it is something I don’t know much about. Hunting mushrooms and foraging of all kinds is another passion of mine.
EC: Do you have a website for our readers to learn more about you?
EC: What advice would you give anyone that is looking to start a food business?
KW: Dive in! There are smart business decisions one needs to make, like having good capital backing and a strong marketing plan, but ultimately it will be your drive that carries you through.
EC: Can you share some tips on seasoning meats?
KW: Keeping it simple, the number one question I have from customers is “How do I use a rub?” I tell them you can think of them like a seasoning salt for any number of dishes, try them in mashed potatoes, toss them on vegetables, season a burger with them. To rub a piece of meat, I tell them to liberally coat the meat on both sides, no need for any oil, go start your grill, and when the coals are ready, so is the meat. For a larger roast you can marinate in the spices overnight, but for individual servings, this technique works great.