The word "chef" doesn't conjure up images of a burly, tattooed former bouncer, but when people get a taste of barbecue and other specialties crafted by Travis Phillips, it is clear that the man known as "Shug, the Painted Chef" knows his way around a kitchen — and a grill.
Phillips recently opened a barbecue spot in the tiny Bulloch County town of Register, but his fame goes way beyond that.
It all started when Phillips began cooking for friends, grilling and smoking meats or making his famous shrimp and grits, at Sinkhole Customs, a motorcycle shop where he worked. That led to him being invited to cook for friends elsewhere, and one day, "Somebody told me, 'You know, you can get paid for doing this,'" he said.
Then, someone did pay.
"They gave me a $100 bill," he said.
He liked the idea of being paid to do something he loves, so Phillips created a logo and started sending out emails. A gig at Savannah Harley-Davidson was his first paid catering job, and he continues to cook for the group monthly.
His pulled pork barbecue, sweet whiskey ribs, coffee-rubbed brisket and traditional sides with a unique kick soon became popular. The catering has become a full-time endeavor for Phillips, from fancy banquets and classy receptions to biker weddings and casual country get-togethers.
He likes to experiment to reach perfection, he said.
"Most of my dishes started out as disappointment in a dish I was served," he said.
On more than one occasion, Phillips, a self-admitted foodie, would visit eateries to try specialty dishes that were touted as unique or superb, but often he would often walk away less than impressed.
"Everything I cook is because I got a disappointing meal," he said. "I came home and fixed (the dish) to how I thought it should be."
Though the newest item on his menu, a smoked bologna sandwich, wasn't created because of disappointment but is his own version of a sandwich he recently enjoyed at another restaurant out of town. This one isn't your Mama's bologna sandwich: It features a thick slab of smoked bologna and some of Shug's special touches.
A man called "Shug"
One has to wonder how a barrel-chested, tattooed South Georgia boy got a name like "Shug." The story is simple.
When Phillips was working as a bouncer, as he escorted an inebriated and unruly young man from a bar one night, the intoxicated man told Phillips that he was "sweet like sugar."
"Another bouncer heard that, and it stuck," he said.
Phillips is originally from Burke County but moved to Bulloch County with his family at age 13. He graduated from Statesboro High School in 1989 and earned an industrial management degree from Georgia Southern University. He has worked with his mother in a family-run convenience store and at Loxcreen plastic extruders in Brooklet, and he's currently employed as a LEAN facilitator with Briggs and Stratton while also running his own catering and restaurant business.
He is covered in tattoos — more than 300 hours' worth of work, he said. He has a story behind each one and has complete arm and leg sleeves, as well as tattoos on his torso, thus, "the Painted Chef." One side of his body features colorful works of art, while the other side is black and white.
"It just turned out that way, and I went with it," he said, laughing. "That side (the one lacking color) is my dark side."
Phillips also collects and restores classic vehicles. His favorite is a 1961 Chevrolet Apache. Restored to appear as though it has an old paint job, it features his restaurant and catering logo. He uses it with his business as well as everyday driving, although he has shown it a few times, too.
He also uses a 1974 GMC van and recently made a new purchase — a project car he will tell more about when it is completed, he said.
The Painted Chef barbecue joint is located in Register at the corner of Highway 46 and Kennedy Pond Road. Phillips has sold out every Saturday since he opened a month ago, despite doubling and then tripling the amount of food cooked.
"I just bought a second smoker just for ribs," he said.
Right now, he features coffee-rubbed brisket, tender pulled pork and whiskey-and-brown sugar ribs. Sides include macaroni and cheese, classic hash (similar to Brunswick stew but thicker and meatier), potato salad, apple slaw, fries and a delectable banana-bread pudding with a whiskey caramel sauce. The portions are not wimpy.
The food is quite popular, but Phillips said he cooks it more for the enjoyment than the money.
"I just want to have fun,” he said. “To watch the expressions on people's faces (as they try his food for the first time) really is cool."
Soon, The Painted Chef will be open Thursday through Saturday and will feature other dishes such as Phillip's famous shrimp and grits, which he says are nothing special. However, it’s the dish for which he is most known, aside from his barbecue.
He will also add rotisserie chicken and other items as he comes up with new ideas, he said.
The restaurant just put up a new sign that indicates whether it is "open" or "sold out." The Painted Chef currently opens each Saturday at 10:45 a.m. and closes when the meat is gone.
To place an order or simply find out if there is any barbecue left on Saturday afternoon, call Phillips at (912) 531-0782.
Herald reporter Holli Deal Bragg may be reached at (912) 489-9414.