I step past the chain-link gate and knock on the kitchen door loudly enough to be heard over the hood vents inside, where Gregory Emilis Beard is wedged between a griddle and a fully loaded prep table. He pauses just long enough to pour me a glass of fluorescent-red Kool-Aid from a gallon jug. Tropical Punch, his favorite—and the only flavor he serves.
Sign up for the Cook's Country Dinner Tonight newsletter
10 ingredients. 45 minutes. Quick, easy, and fresh weeknight recipes.
As we talk in the heat of the small kitchen, Beard doesn't stop moving. He smothers chicken wings in gravy, throws burgers on the griddle, and fires off a slab of meatloaf with sides of mac and cheese and mashed potatoes for a takeout order. He cooks, chops, stirs, and answers an endless stream of phone calls. Chef Greg's Soul “N” the Wall is a lean operation, and Beard can't afford to slow down. The nimble rhythm of his kitchen work shows me that he loves it, and as we hop in the car to deliver an order, he declares, “I turn down nothing but my collar.”
Beard recalls that he was inspired early in life by his father, a self-made businessman who owned both a collision shop and a small restaurant called the Sunset Inn, also in Detroit. He grew up working on cars but was drawn to the kitchen, looking forward to days spent shopping for groceries with his dad and watching him cook. He jokes that he “traded one grease for another.”
At 20, Beard landed his first professional cooking job at a hotel in Los Angeles. “When I saw what the cooking world had to offer—making gravies and dressings and soups and sauces from scratch—it opened my eyes.” He learned that good food didn't need to be complicated.
Beard tells me he knew he was destined to open his own restaurant. Like his father, he wanted to connect with people and serve his own style of food, what he calls “urban flavor with a twist.” The opportunity came in the summer of 2006 when a former restaurant space in a weathered, red-brick building just off West 7 Mile Road in Detroit opened up.
The spot was formerly occupied by Brother's Bar-B-Que, a locally owned joint with a loyal following. They specialized in barbecued ribs and chickens, sold by the whole, half, or quarter, but their most avid fans came for the so-called Boogaloo sandwich, a barbecue-flavored Sloppy Joe–style hero smothered with cheese and sauce and served on a sub roll.
Boogaloo Wonderland SandwichesDon't call it a Sloppy Joe: This Detroit sandwich has a name all its own.
As soon as Beard opened Chef Greg's Soul “N” the Wall, customers began asking for the Boogaloo sandwich. The problem? Beard had never even heard of, much less tasted, a Boogaloo. But Beard isn't one to let customers down. From the beginning, he's maintained an open-menu policy: “If you want it and I've got the ingredients, I'll cook it.” So he set to work learning all he could about the Boogaloo.
Through trial and error and with plenty of feedback from fans, he finessed a recipe and brought the sandwich back to life. He named this new version the Boogaloo Wonderland sandwich in honor of his friend, Grammy award–winning songwriter and Detroit native Allee Willis, who wrote the song “Boogie Wonderland” for Earth, Wind & Fire in 1979.
As Beard sees it, he “found something old, borrowed the concept, and turned it into something new.” When I ask him why it was so important to him to reinvent this sandwich, he collects his thoughts for a brief moment and says, “When you jump on the ride of life, it's important to bring something to the table.”