Dominique Leach wanted the name of her food truck-turned-barbecue restaurant in Chicago’s Pullman neighborhood to be grounded in love, so she chose Lexington Betty Smokehouse, an ode to her resilient grandmother Betty King of Lexington, Mississippi. “She had been through so much and lived her life with so little, and I wanted to show her she deserves a legacy,” says the chef and pitmaster.
For Leach, a native Chicagoan, her happiest memories revolve around family gatherings at the table, heaping comforting, homemade food onto plates. Lexington Betty Smokehouse, then, is a return to those feel-good roots. But following culinary school, it was the world of fine dining she plunged into, working at the likes of the late Spiaggia and the Art Institute of Chicago with the same tenacity she applied to basketball when she was growing up. The industry, however, wasn’t inclusive enough to accommodate her ambition.
“I very much come from that ‘shut up and do your job’ era in the kitchen. There was not a voice for women—certainly not for young Black women with a passion to be great,” Leach recalls. “I knew how strong of a chef I was, but I felt like I needed the support of my community to lift me up.”
Determined to break barriers on her own terms, Leach launched a catering company with her wife Tanisha in 2016, and a year later, it morphed into the Lexington Betty Smokehouse food truck that was destroyed by a fire a short while after. Undeterred, the couple eventually opened their first brick-and-mortar outpost in 2019 (the current South Side location debuted in 2022), and Leach built a fan base through her TV appearances on Chopped, Fire Masters, and BBQ Brawl, as well as her retail product line.
To this day, the sexism and racism that plagued Leach’s years in other establishments still stings. “I have to remind myself,” she says, “that I’m worthy of celebration.”
This article originally appeared in HD’s October 2023 issue.