Famous Dave: Searching the Backroads & Sidestreets for Cookbook Publishing Success

Dave Anderson still remembers his first barbecue experience. "I was six years old, and we had slow-smoked ribs, slathered in a rich and sassy sauce."
Now, 38 years later, Dave is known as "Famous Dave," founder of 30 rib-shack restaurants spread out through Illinois, Iowa, Wisconsin, and Minnesota. Famous Dave's of America, Inc., has been grabbing the Midwest by its taste buds, and his recipes have received top awards across the country--"Best Sauce in America" at The American Royal Barbecue Contest in Kansas City, and "The Greatest Ribs in America" at The Great American Rib Cook-off in Cleveland.

Famous Dave's success came at what might be considered "against all odds." A Chicago-born Native American whose parents are Choctaw and Ojibway, Dave got an early start in business after being inspired by some motivational audio tapes. By age nineteen he had started his own wholesale florist business, but after establishing trade with Sears, K-Mart and nearly every retail florist in Chicago, he got cocky, made some bad decisions, and was bankrupt at age 26.

Dave got out his tapes and motivational books again, joined Toastmasters, and prepared himself for a new career. He was hired by his Ojibway tribe to head up their business operations, and had doubled gross sales within three years. Through the years Dave had kept experimenting with his own barbecue, smoking meat in garbage cans and concocting seasoned sauces. This, combined with his involvement in the tribe's resort business, sparked his interest in opening his own restaurant, and Famous Dave's was born.

Since then, he has spent 25 years traveling across America--down dusty backroads and sidestreets, and into jumpin' blues joints, backwoods smokehouses, country kitchens, rowdy roadhouses, and rustic cabins--searching for great barbecue and authentic American comfort food. "You know, the kind of place where you walk in the door, and you literally find Mom and Pop there doing the cooking. Real home cooking; the stuff you grew up eating," he says. Inspired by the legendary meals he tasted along the way, Dave would return home to recreate his own versions of his road-trip recipes to serve in his restaurants.

Now, all of Dave's signature dishes and accompaniments are put on the table in FAMOUS DAVE'S BACKROADS & SIDESTREETS: Recipes Inspired by America's Down-Home Eateries. This collection of his personal favorites--barbecue, seafood, soups, sides, sauces, and sinful desserts--reflects the best from all-American kitchens across the country. "The book gives my cooking credibility, now that customers can read my story. It's really helped me bond with them. Now they understand the philosophy behind what I'm trying to do in the restaurants," says Dave.

"I did a lot of checking around and found the books I liked the most were by Famous Recipes Press," he says about Nashville custom cookbook publisher. "The key thing for me was (managing editor) Mary Cummings and the way she pulled the whole project together. I wanted a 'real' book, so the realism of the photos was very important to me, and she found the best layout people, the best photographer--she's a real dynamo."

The respect is apparently mutual, as Cummings has nothing but respect for Anderson. "He was there at every photo shoot, attending to all the details. He and (photographer) Mike Rutherford shared a passion for the project," she recalled. "I'm really proud of this project. It's probably the most interesting book we've ever done."

Anderson provided most of the props and sets from his own collection of antiques and memorabilia. Sometimes the attempts at realism required bites to be taken; let the crumbs fall where they may. These shots are anything but sterile studio photos--the "down home" atmosphere really comes through. Cummings says he gave the same kind of detailed care to the recipes themselves, testing them up to 20 times. "I was amazed at the depth of care he takes, and the layers of flavors in the dishes. He's a damn good cook."

All proceeds from FAMOUS DAVE'S BACKROADS & SIDESTREETS go to the foundation he has started to help Native American disadvantaged kids, and the book has opened some important doors, such as getting him an appearance on Regis & Kathy Lee. A recent spot on the Food Network's "Best of the Best" was another piece of great publicity that Cummings says "had that personal stamp of Dave Anderson on it."

"Everything he does has his personality in it, and he changes the lives of everyone he comes in contact with. I've watched the way people react to this book, and all the men that pick it up bond with it, which is really unusual for a cookbook. This is the kind that only comes around once, and I'm sure glad he came our way." Famous Dave's culinary tribute spotlights more than 100 recipes for comfort foods and authentic regional dishes. There's Voodoo Chicken and Mojo Salsa, Beale Street Shrimp and Corn Fritters, and Hot Jive Mashers, all dishes typical of the neighborhood storefront restaurants found in New Orleans and the blues joints in Chicago. Route 66 Truck Stop Chili, Creamy Sweet & Sour Coleslaw, and Caraway Cheddar Cheese Soup have their origins in small town roadhouses and cafes, the last bastions of home cooking. Front Porch Cheesy Grits, Real Honest Southern Fried Chicken, and County Fair Blue Ribbon Peach Pie are reminiscent of country kitchens, Southern hospitality, and all the comfort foods Grandma used to make. And, Log Cabin Chicken Pot Pie, Ketchickan Lodge Salmon Pate, and Drunken Peach Cobbler are common fare found on the tables at rustic cabins and lodges along the timber trail.

To capture the tastes, smells, and moods of this all-American comfort food, FAMOUS DAVE'S BACKROADS & SIDESTREETS boasts the colorful photojournalistic talents of Mike Rutherford, one of the country's premier photographers. Every vibrant page depicts the finished recipe in its authentic milieu, whether it be the live scene of a kitchen counter propped with classic memorabilia or a bustling BBQ storefront. As evocative images of Americana, they are all guaranteed to transport you to the same down-home eateries that inspired Famous Dave.

Dave Anderson is as remarkably unique as his food and his award-winning restaurants. A man recognized for his extraordinary palate, devotion to detail, and dedication to perfection, he is also a silversmith, antiques expert, homespun philosopher, and philanthropist. (All profits from his book will be donated to The Mino-Giizhig Fund, a non-profit foundation that benefits disadvantaged youth. Mino-Giizhig is an Ojibway word for "Good Sky" or "Nice Day." It means there is hope for tomorrow, and today begins a start of life.) In 1997, Nation's Restaurant News honored Famous Dave's of America, Inc. with its coveted "Hot Concept Award" for being the most innovative and exciting new restaurant in the marketplace, and that same year, Famous Dave himself won the "Minnesota and the Dakota Entrepreneur of the Year Award" from Ernst & Young, NASDAQ, and USA Today.