Born in Malaysia, Harry Soo is convinced that his life journey has been the result of coincidental and sometimes accidental circumstances that have combined to create dazzling and fulfilling experiences comparable to the beauty of the Northern lights. He owes many of those unforgettable experiences to his involvement in barbecue, but his route to barbecue greatness was anything but typical or predictable.
In the United States and in a growing number of countries, Soo, pitmaster and head cook for his competition team, Slap Yo’ Daddy BBQ, has become famous for his success as an elite competition barbecue cook with the trophies and super-sized checks that represent more than 100 first-place finishes and 30-plus grand championships. He still touts himself as a weekend cook, but his success has allowed him to divest Slap Yo’ Daddy to include a catering business as well as an online store that sells his spices, rubs and sauces and even a cooking school held in his backyard about 20 times per year. He maintains a blog on his website and is constantly posting videos with tips, tricks and promotions on multiple social media platforms. But unlike many of his competition counterparts, Soo has maintained a day job unrelated to food or barbecue since day one, spending the last 31 years working as an information technology program manager with the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, a role he committed to long ago and never has taken for granted.
Many successful pitmasters started out cooking barbecue as a hobby and after proving their prowess on the competition circuit boldly took what seemed to be the next logical step. Many quit their day jobs to allow them to dive whole hog into full-time competitive cooking, commercial ingredient and sauce manufacturing, opening restaurants, teaching cooking classes or developing their own line of cooking equipment, gear or cookbooks to sell commercially. Soo took the road less traveled and learned the hard way that a solid career could make his hobby more fulfilling and successful.
Long before he ever thought about cooking his first brisket, Soo’s first real job put him at the controls of a 747 jet as a young man, working as a commercial pilot with Singapore Airlines. It was working as a pilot that ultimately brought Soo from Malaysia to the United States, after working with Braniff Airlines until the company went under and Soo lost his job – a predicament he never saw coming.
That unexpected development marked the beginning of Soo learning computer science as a new career and cooking barbecue for a new hobby. And as it turned out, he took a basic concept he learned in computer science, an algorithm, and applied it to learning to cook.
“I kind of built all these different ideas just like a computer program; that’s what I was trained to do,” Soo said.
He experimented with different formulas, various meats and shared his slow-smoked creations with appreciative friends, neighbors and co-workers for several years. It was on a dare by a handful of those co-workers that Soo entered his first competition barbecue contest in California, without knowledge of the rules or what was involved. As fate would have it, he won the contest, the first of many more in the years to come.
“So, I’m an accidental pitmaster,” Soo said. Soo honed his skills in the next decade-plus by following the guidance of a cookbook written by John Willingham, an iconic championship pitmaster and a hero of Soo’s who he sadly never got to meet before he died in 2013.
“He was my idol,” Soo said.
The part of that journey that did the most to put Soo on the map of the barbecue world was an unexpected invitation to appear on a new TV series on TLC in 2009 – “BBQ Pitmasters.” The docu-reality show featured him in barbecue cookoffs across the country alongside some of the biggest names on the competition circuit, including Myron Mixon, Tuffy Stone, Johnny Trigg and Lee Ann Whippen.
“The reason I got on the show was another stroke of luck,” he said.
Producers were looking for an outside-the-box competitor to round out the casting for the show, and a guy who had been winning a lot of contests, named Harry Soo, was recommended by Kansas City Barbeque Society founder, Carolyn Wells. She had met him and was impressed with his success and standout personality. In addition, the fact that he was based in California, was Malaysian, and cooked with a simple pop-up tent and a rudimentary Weber smoker ensured Slap Yo’ Daddy would fulfill the requirement to add an outside-the-box competition team to the TV series.
“I ended up on the show with no audition, no screen test, no nothing,” Soo said. “Just another case of dumb luck.”
In the Season 1 finale, a “rib throwdown” matched seven elite pitmasters against each other with a $3,500 purse. Harry Soo had garnered credibility with his cooking counterparts by that time and he happily won the throwdown and collected the winnings and the notoriety that capped a season-long wave of accolades that he is still riding more than 10 years later. “On that day, the little engine that could, from California, prevailed,” Soo said.
“The Pitmaster series basically opened up barbecue in America,” Soo said. “That first Pitmasters, Season 1, essentially opened up barbecue to the full diversity of styles and flavors in America,” which he attributes partly to the exponential growth of his YouTube channel, which now has a following of 150,000 subscribers.
Today, Soo sees barbecue not as a means to winning another purse or starting a new moneymaking business venture but more of a privilege to participate and contribute to something that is uniquely American. He said very few culinary trends can trace their roots back to the United States. Barbecue is one.
“We stole the hamburger, we stole the hot dog, we stole pasta from other parts of the world,” Soo said. “But American-style, low-and-slow barbecue is uniquely authentic American and I’m very privileged and honored to be able to cook that.”
Read the rest of the profile on Harry Soo’s barbecue journey in the MEAT+POULTRY Barbecue Report, available later this month in the June issue.