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From Egypt to Austin: KG BBQ owner masters barbecue fusion

Austin pitmaster Kareem El-Ghayesh is pictured as one of the participants of Netflix's latest season of "Barbecue Showdown," premiering July 4.
Austin pitmaster Kareem El-Ghayesh is one of the participants of Netflix's latest season of Barbecue Showdown, premiering July 4.

Remember your first bite of Texas brisket? Kareem El-Ghayesh certainly does.

In fact, that first bite was so inspiring that he moved from Egypt halfway across the globe to pursue his newfound passion for Texas-style barbecue in its home state.

After winning over customers to his smoked meats truck, KG BBQ, El-Ghayesh is now hoping to win over the judges in the newest season of Barbecue Showdown, premiering, appropriately enough, on July 4 on Netflix. He is one of nine pitmasters vying for a grand prize of $50,000.

El-Ghayesh joined the Standard to discuss the show and his barbecue business. Listen to the interview above or read the transcript below.

This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity:

Texas Standard: I understand Netflix claims tens of thousands of barbecuers applied. It’s quite an accomplishment to get selected for this show. I understand your barbecue stood out in large part because of how you infuse it with flavors from back home. What is it? A little bit of Egypt by way of Texas?

Kareem El-Ghayesh: I found my deep love for barbecue on a random visit to the U.S. back in 2012, when I came here to visit an Egyptian friend. I tried barbecue and it just captivated me. I fell in love with it, and I’ve changed my whole life around to pursue this passion.

I quit my job and left my country and moved here to cook barbecue for a living. I trained under so many pitmasters here in Austin, and I got the inspiration from working with some of them and seeing what they do with barbecue and the fusions they create to fuse my own food. I really think that the future of barbecue is moving toward fusion.

» WHERE THERE’S SMOKE: Check out stories from Texas Standard’s ongoing barbecue series

What do you infuse in your barbecue that makes it different? I mean, when I think of Egyptian cuisine, I often think of dishes like shawarma, for example.

Egyptian cuisine is highly underrated. A lot of it is what you think of in Middle Eastern or Mediterranean cuisines like the fresh breads, the fresh salads, pickles, tahini, yogurt, lots of garlic, herbs and mint — all of these lighter, brighter, fresher notes that really complement barbecue, because barbecue is quite rich, you know. You can eat it and, like, you don’t really crave it for a while.

Now, of course we’re talking before the official premiere. So I guess you are prohibited from telling us how the competition has actually ended, right? I mean, there are some limits on what you can tell us?

Yeah, yeah. Also it’s going to be more fun if you watch it without knowing what happened.

I’ll respect that, but let me ask you how you found the experience. Was it difficult?

Yes, it was a difficult experience. Long hours of shooting in the cold weather and staying out there on set for long periods of time. I would go back home late, exhausted, and then we would be called back the next day at 7 a.m. The experience was rough, but I did enjoy being on this show.

My biggest takeaway was meeting the cast. Going through such a tough competition, we quickly bonded together and built a family. It almost feels like you’re at war. We just met each other and then we are going through this test together. After a super long, rough day of physical and mental stress, one person would be missing. It almost feels like you’re fighting for your life.

But we built such a powerful connection with this cast and we plan to tour the country and visit each other. We have big plans for after the show comes out of getting together and cooking together.

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Well, you know, thinking about your journey from Cairo, I understand you were in corporate finance, is that right? And now here you are, a celebrated pitmaster in the Texas capital city. What a journey.

And to go halfway around the world to start up your business, I bet you have some advice for people — perhaps aspiring chefs or barbecue enthusiasts — who dream of doing what you do, what you’ve done. Sort of throwing caution to the wind and going for something that you have such a passion about.

You know, it really is a story fueled by passion. I feel like this is my secret sauce, passion. I moved forward and I did not look back, even though it was a very tough decision. It’s not just about leaving my country and leaving my family and friends.

The move was really difficult. Convincing my Middle Eastern family that I’m leaving a stable corporate job with financial benefits and stable income and future, and then going to work in a trailer in a kitchen in Texas, like for nothing. I left all that to become a line cook for another six years. I started from the bottom of the ladder.

I have done so many things and I have been accepted and have been shown so much love from the community. So my biggest advice for people, chefs, entrepreneurs, young folks that have this fire within them, is to listen. You’re not going to hurt yourself by trying or failing. Failing is the only road towards success. You have to embrace failing, and you are going to fail, and you’re not doing it right if you don’t fail.

So, this is my biggest advice to everyone: Listen to that voice of your heart and pursue your passion. Even if you fail, at least you’ll know that you’ve tried. At least you’re not going to regret the fact that you never tried.

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