By Tom Holmes
Growing up, Forest Park Police Sergeant Christopher Chin's family owned a Chinese restaurant on the south side of Chicago. The restaurant closed when Chin was 3-years-old, so he doesn't remember much about its operations. But what he does remember is helping his grandmother cook while his parents were out working. Chin's grandparents immigrated to the U.S. from China.
"My grandmother lived with us, so I spent a lot of time with her in the kitchen where I absorbed knowledge by watching her," he said.
Looking back on family gatherings, Chin said his family ate a lot of Chinese food. But they certainly were not stuck in that culinary rut. "For Thanksgiving, we'd do a traditional turkey. The only Chinese element was that the stuffing would be made from rice," he said.
As he got older, Chin loved watching cooking shows, like "The Frugal Gourmet" and "The French Chef" with Julia Child.
He recalls having a normal childhood living in the Forest View-Sickney area. While a student a Lyons Township High School, he played violin in the school orchestra and was a member of the track and cross country teams. He graduated from Loyola University in 2002 and went to work at a veterinary hospital in Chicago, thinking he might apply to veterinary school.
The more he considered the long, difficult road which he would have to have to travel to become a veterinarian, the more he began to consider other options. "I enjoyed my time at the hospital," he said. "But I didn't know if I wanted my life to go in that direction. I didn't have to be a doctor. I'm not defined by my career."
After doing some "soul searching" and talking to two of his brothers-in-law who were both police officers, he decided to take the police exam. In 2008, the village offered him a conditional offer of employment and, since then, has rose through the ranks to become one of Forest Park's finest.
Over the years, Chin's career path side tracked and swerved, but his love for those cooking shows on the Public Broadcasting Station (PBS) never faltered. He remembers watching a show a few years ago in which chefs smoked a whole hog in the traditional Southern way. Chin was awed.
"You can go to Chinatown and get a roast pig. I had experienced that growing up," he said. "But smoking a pig is totally different than doing it the Chinese way where the skin bubbles up and is crispy like chicharones. I got fascinated."
So fascinated, in fact, that after doing research he went in his backyard and built a cinder block pit for smoking whole hogs. "I had always been doing ribs and partial smokes on my Weber grill," he said. "I'd never seen whole hogs done up north here that way. I like a challenge."
He said smoking a whole hog takes 18 to 20 hours, at 225 to 250 degrees, and starts by burning a hardwood fire down to its coals and then shoveling the coals under the front and back of the hog. Because the coals only last for about 30 minutes, the process is continuous.
"Low and slow. That's the name of the game," Chin said.
He added: "It's a labor of love. When I tasted the first hog I ever did, it was like nothing I had ever tasted. Something clicked. I said to myself 'I've got something here. Everything hits the spots. I can get into this.'"
The problem, of course, is that this particular labor of love takes almost a whole day out your life. Chin adapted by eventually buying two cookers that do not take as much individual attention, even though they require just as much time.
He also learned that his neighbor Juan Silva was a pit master at a barbecue restaurant. The two got talking, discovered that they share a common passion for smoking meats and formed their own catering company in 2016, which they named Beach Avenue BBQ. They also formed StreetSide, a grassroots group that cooks and delivers warm meals, clothing and self-care products to those in need.
In Beach Avenue BBQ's first year, they catered the LaGrange Park National Night Out. Chin also competed in Forest Park's Ribfest. The next year, they earned top honors at the Chili & Beer Fest in Forest Park, coming in first with their autumn chili comprised of smoked pork, chorizo, hominy corn and avocado aioli.
But this year was the year that everything really came together. Chin won first place out of 25 contestants at Ribfest. Beach Avenue BBQ also secured 11 commitments to sell smoked meats at the Brookfield Chamber of Commerce farmers' market.
Chin still practices cooking as a family affair. His son, 3, and daughter, 5, both help him prepare the hog by trimming its membranes, tendons and helping use a metal syringe to inject the hog with a solution of apple cider vinegar, apple juice and "secret ingredients." His son will also hand his father pieces of wood for the smoker and periodically look through the smoker's ports to "make sure the fire is burning well." Likewise Chin's mother and father helped at the Ribfest last month.
"To me, barbecuing is a family-oriented activity," Chin said. "I spend time with the kids. I bring them in and hopefully teach them something along the way."
When asked how his wife participates, Chin answered, "She gets involved by eating."