By Jeff Theodore, Contributing Writer
MARLBOROUGH – When Steve Uliss wakes up each day, he looks in the mirror and recalls words his grandfather told him many years ago.
“My grandfather, who was my mentor, always encouraged me to stay true to myself and not overthink things,” Uliss recounted in a recent interview. “In anything you want to do, he said, make sure it’s what you love and do what means the most to you on a daily basis.”
As the founder, owner and executive chef at Firefly’s BBQ in Marlborough, Uliss says he’s staying true to his grandfather’s wishes.
Uliss mentioned he’d once considered a career in oceanography, “But this is what I was meant to be. Bottom line, I’m a restaurateur.”
For 21 years, Firefly’s has been setting the east-central Massachusetts culinary scene on fire with a scintillating and diverse menu. From ribs to fried chicken, pulled pork to po’ boys, Firefly’s is a mecca of authentic Southern fare and comfort food for the more than 6,000 people who pack the 12,000-square-foot restaurant weekly.
The Firefly’s tagline is “Bodacious Bar-B-Que & Beyond” because, according to Uliss, “You have to offer something that resonates with people, but you can never rest on your laurels. You always have to keep it fresh and exciting.” So while the Firefly’s menu covers traditional American barbecue favorites, Uliss particularly enjoys creating weekly “fresh specials” that are often influenced by international cuisine.
A Boston native, Uliss hails from a culinary background. The grandfather he reveres used to own Bluestein’s, a grocery and deli in Brookline. At the tender age of 16, Uliss became a cook at a local chain of restaurants before moving on to attend and earn a degree at Johnson and Wales in Providence, which is renowned for training successful restaurateurs.
Uliss fell in love with barbecue while working for the Peabody Hotel Group, which owned a chain of Holiday Inns around Boston. Peabody was in the midst of rebranding its restaurants and sent Uliss to attend a “Memphis in May” World Championship Barbecue Cookoff, where he met the King of Barbecue, John Willingham.
“He trained me,” Uliss said of Willingham, “He taught me to appreciate both the science and art of BBQ.”
“BBQ is a uniquely American phenomenon with countless regional and personal variations,” he said. “When I’m in my restaurant, going table to table, shaking hands and kissing babies, I aim to educate people about BBQ, making sure they know the difference between a St. Louis rib and a baby back rib, or a sweet Memphis style BBQ sauce versus a zestier North Carolina style sauce.”
Through the years, Uliss said, his cooking process for barbecue has evolved.
“New Englanders tended to have milder taste buds back when I started my restaurant,” he said. “So, we perfected a dry rub that made our ribs spicy and sweet. It’s more of a subtle spice rather than a blow-you-away kind of spice. We use a well-balanced combination of peppers that won’t overwhelm the palate but tantalize it.”
At Firefly’s, Uliss said, the spare rib is the most popular dish requested by patrons. It’s also the one that’s garnered the top prizes when Uliss has cooked it for the many barbecue competitions he’s won.
“It’s our signature rib,” he said. “It’s a trim spare rib with the right marbling and meat-to-bone ratio, and no cartilage.”
In addition to the restaurant, Firefly’s operates a flourishing catering business, which in August served 11,000 meals during one week at MIT. And located within the restaurant is Dante’s, a live music performance space and popular sports bar with 17 big-screen TVs and an extensive collection of draft beers, whiskeys and creative cocktails.
Uliss said Saturday nights are the busiest for the restaurant.
“It’s the crème de la crème for the week,” he said. “You get locals, regulars and people driving from as far away as Leominster and even New Hampshire. It’s a date night, friend night, celebration night. So we ensure we have all hands on deck.”
For the foreseeable future, Uliss, married to the love of his life for 30 years and the proud father of two grown daughters, plans to stay in the thick of it all.
“I’m not going anywhere,” he said. “And we’re always looking for creative new ways to enhance the brand.”
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