Bob Sargent’s first obsession was Chinese cuisine, but when he decided to open his own restaurant last year, the Boulder-based caterer chose a concept that had nothing to do with General Tso’s chicken. Instead, the Ghost BBQ & Spirits specializes in smoky plates of ribs, pulled pork and brisket. Find out why a New York native like Sargent decided to launch a barbecue joint, what he thinks the impacts of a minimum wage hike might be, and what he did while on tour with the Grateful Dead, in our conversation below.
Westword: You started Savory Cuisines Catering more than a decade ago, but the Ghost BBQ is your first restaurant, right?
Bob Sargent: I started Savory fourteen years ago, and we did the food at the Avery Brewing Company for five years, so technically this is my first restaurant.
Tell us a little about it how it came to be. Had you been thinking about making the move for a while?
When Avery moved to Gunbarrel, I immediately started looking for the next thing. I get bored easily, so I was hoping something like this would come along. I ran into Cheryl [Liguori], who is the CEO of Z2 Entertainment, the company that runs the Boulder Theater, and I asked her what was going on with the space, and she asked if I wanted it. The rest is history, as they say.
Savory Cuisines Catering offers all types of food. What led you to focus on barbecue at the Ghost?
I had never done true barbecue before a few years ago, and when I saw the space in the theater, I just knew. I have always wanted to do barbecue, and Boulder needed a true barbecue spot downtown.
Are you from a big ’cue state, or just passionate about barbecue?
I’m from upstate New York, so I came into barbecue late, but I love it.
What are you trying to do at the Ghost that makes it different from other barbecue joints?
We are 100 percent wood-fired, wood-smoked, with no gas or charcoal, and everything is prepared from scratch daily. No shortcuts.
What are you most proud of on your menu?
The brisket. I have to have a little every day.
Why did you decide to start cooking?
I’ve been in kitchens my entire life. When I was in my early twenties, I was watching Great Chefs and I thought, “This is it, this is what I’m doing.” I just loved the pace and the energy of the restaurant, especially the kitchen. A restaurant is alive. It hums. It breathes. Electricity is palpable. There is nothing like it in the world.
If you hadn’t become a chef, what would you be doing right now?
I would probably be doing graphic design or some kind of art. I spent a lot of time in art classes in high school and college, so it makes sense — the craft, the color and creativity.
What’s your earliest food memory?
There are so many, but the first time I had Chinese at fifteen, I was blown away. I had a mother who basically cooked every day, and she did a great job keeping it healthy and creative. That said, when I had my first Chinese, with all of that salt and sugar in an entree, I couldn’t stop thinking about it. So I would skip school to watch Yan Can Cook and make Chinese for my friends at lunch.
How long have you been in the business?
Thirty long years.
What’s a career highlight?
Right now it’s the restaurant and watching it grow. It’s similar to watching a child grow. It changes every day, and soon it should be walking on its own.
Do you have a signature dish?
Any coconut curry, whether Thai, Cambodian or South Indian. I love the flavors and colors that curry can create.
Hardest moment in your career, and what it taught you:
Once I didn’t get the position I wanted. The chef said, “You are a caterer, Bob,” and I thought, “This guy is crazy.”
Do you find time to cook at home? If so, do you have a go-to dish?
I cook at home five days a week — curry, stir fry or risotto.
Name one famous person, living or deceased, whom you’d like to sit next to at dinner.
Anthony Bourdain. That guy has the best life. These days, though, I would take my daughter, Madeleine, over anyone, but she is in college far, far away. She was always there with me. I remember we would go hiking with her in a backpack when she was one. We would stop by the restaurant at lunch, they would be in the weeds, and I would put her on the end of the line at rush, and she would just smile while we crushed the rush.
Favorite road trip you’ve ever taken, and where you went:
I was on the Grateful Dead summer tour twice, and it took me everywhere. I spent two summers on tour, but we were not caterers; we just sold food to keep on keeping on. That said, I learned a few things about production, timing and budgets. We would rush out of the show…and make 200 or 300 grilled cheeses. Then we would wake up early and make 200 or 300 tofu breakfast burritos.
If you had to eat one thing for the rest of your life, what would it be?
Spaghetti and meatballs.
What wouldn’t it be? That is, what’s your least favorite food?
Anything pre-packaged. If you can’t pronounce the ingredients, they most certainly shouldn’t be in your body.
Your motto is:
It used to be to “Out-Work Everyone.” Now I have to work smarter. The body and the mind demand it after forty. Plus, the game is changing, and the generation coming up in this industry is different. They have different expectations, and to stay alive and retain employees, you have to develop your style to accommodate a different generation. That requires a great deal of thought.
How would a $15 minimum wage impact your business?
I don’t think it would affect us much, because my average is already over that. The problem would be that most everyone would have to make the same money, and I can’t justify paying a prep person who has a penchant for hangovers the same as my chefs who come in motivated and positive, day in and day out. If you pay the dishwasher $15, what will you have to pay chefs?
Best tip for a home cook:
Learn proper knife skills, and don’t be afraid to try new things. Experience is simply the name we give to our mistakes.
The Ghost BBQ & Spirits is located at 2028 14th Street in Boulder. Find out more at 303-998-9350 or
theghostbbq.com. See our slideshow of Bob Sargent and the Ghost at westword.com.