By John McNeilly
Driving or walking down Catoctin Circle, near the intersection of South King Street in Leesburg, you may notice a captivating smell of smoked wood. The aroma, made up of a mix of dried pecan, apple, cherry, mesquite, hickory and oak is reminiscent of family gatherings and backyard barbecues.
On closer inspection, lazy puffs of aromatic white smoke can be seen drifting steadily upward from a strategically placed smoker, located in front of the Yummy Pig barbecue restaurant at 17 Catoctin Circle.
This is no accident.
Jim Thompson, 44, owner and chef of Yummy Pig, credits his spouse and business partner, Blaise, for making this tactic their first marketing idea. It’s had its intended effect. He said the delectable smoke works wonders drawing hungry patrons to the restaurant, which this month is celebrating two years in business, the usual demarcation line for success in an industry with an 80 percent-plus failure rate.
“This was Blaise’s first marketing/branding idea and it was brilliant,” he said with a laugh. “Many customers have told us it got their attention while driving by.”
Thompson, who grew up in Manassas, said he’s had a love of preparing good food for as long as he can remember. He attended Stratford University’s culinary school in Tysons Corner and, after graduating with a foundation in classical French cooking, he embarked on a 20-year career that included working as an executive chef for the Macaroni Grill chain, regularly promoted and ultimately responsible for training cooks in hundreds of newly opened restaurants throughout the Mid-Atlantic region during the 1990s. But, after tiring of the non-stop travel and brutal hours, he took a pay cut to labor and learn in some of the most celebrated restaurants in Manhattan, including Aquavit, with Swedish celebrity chef Marcus Samuelsson, and the Gotham Bar & Grill, with legendary chef Adam Portale, who spawned the equally luminous chefs Tom Colicchio and Wylie Dufresne.
Thompson said this career track was purposeful. He wanted to follow up years of corporate restaurant experience with a fine-dining sensibility, drilling down on technique and flavor, to establish a firm foundation so he could one day launch his own business.
“That was always my dream,” he said.
Thompson returned to his Virginia roots in October 2000, working as an executive chef for a $14 million-a-year hotel catering group. In addition to mastering the complicated specifics of large-scale catering, and thinking about pursuing luxury-hotel dining, Thompson then met Blaise, a former paralegal and sales and marketing executive. They were married and today are the parents of a 13-year-old daughter. (Thompson also has a daughter and grandchild from a previous relationship.)
In 2005, Thompson was ready to plant his flag in the brutally competitive, sink-or-swim industry of the restaurant and catering business.
He and Blaise launched catering company Fusions Cuisine, which they now operate out of the Yummy Pig space. The company quickly developed a reputation for quality food and grew rapidly. But in 2015, the couple was offered an opportunity to take over the space at 17 Catoctin Circle, after The Q Company closed. Thompson and Blaise originally planned to develop a Gastropub-themed place focusing on fine food and local craft beers. Instead, he stumbled on an unusual, but ultimately fortuitous, problem: what to do with the massive “Mac Daddy” smoker installed in the back of the tiny kitchen.
“It would have cost me more money to remove it than to use it,” he said. Thompson set out to master the beast, which he said, “still works fantastically.”
And Yummy Pig was born.
That restaurant’s name came about almost by accident as Thompson and Blaise sat around drinking beer with friends and playfully bandied about possible names for the new place. “I said it out loud and everyone laughed and I knew that was it,” he said.
He’d always loved barbecuing for friends and family—the ultimate in “hang-out cooking,” Thompson said—and started experimenting with smoke and flavor profiles, and combinations developed over his 20-year culinary career. He designed and developed recipes with varieties of smoke and flavor combinations that were, he thought, original in a strictly ideologically cleaved barbecue industry, which he says he has zero interest philosophically weighing in about.
“Barbecue is subjective. Some folks like smoked versus roasted style, others like the mustard-vinegary sauces over the sweeter, saucier kinds, but who can really say which is better? Who can judge peoples’ individual tastes?” he said. “I just wanted to use my experience as a chef to make nuanced, great-tasting food.”
It didn’t take long for Thompson to realize diners loved his results.
“It comes down to flavor and technique, and I know both well,” he said. “My 20 years of experience in the kitchen eliminated the need for constant experimentation. I knew exactly what I wanted to do.”
The gastropub concept gave way to meeting customers’ enthusiastic response to his highly original barbecue compositions, such as the unorthodox introduction of things like raw kale (simply dressed with olive oil and vinegar), fried pickles and wings (secret ingredient: yogurt), and a variety of smoked-meat empanadas, burritos and tacos.
Of course, the classic barbecue offerings of smoked brisket (Texas-style), ribs, chicken (Memphis) and pork (North Carolina-style) are available on the menu as well. A variety of regionally conscious barbecue sauces are made in house from scratch.
In a tribute to the original gastropub idea, though, Thompson said now that he’s established a steady menu popular with customers, he’s committed to expanding local craft beer and wine selections, as well as offering a bevy of classically made cocktails. The restaurant also recently introduced live music on Wednesdays and Fridays, although Thompson is quick to note they’re not a late-night establishment. He’s also begun hosting a weekly trivia night sponsored by local craft breweries that features meal and brewery specials and prizes for participants.
At the two-year mark, Thompson, Blaise and his 18-member staff are confident about the restaurant’s future. It’s in the second year of a five-year lease and it’s across-the-street neighbor, Virginia Village, is slated to undergo a major renovation. Factor in downtown Leesburg’s booming dining scene and Thompson feels confident about his establishment’s future.
“There’s so much going on in Leesburg right now to make this area a dining destination. That success will benefit us all,” he said. “Nothing would make us happier than to be the go-to neighborhood bar and restaurant in the middle of something resembling Old Town Alexandria. It’s an exciting time, for sure.”