When Jonathon Draper met his wife, it was “love at first bite.”

The two were working at the same restaurant at the Hotel Nikko in Chicago and things clicked. They’ve been married 13 years and have four children.

But despite all the Oak Park couple shares, Draper, 42, refuses to reveal the secret recipe for his homemade barbecue sauce to his wife.

King of the grill

Last month, Draper won the first “King of the Grill” cooking contest, held at McCormick & Schmick’s Seafood Restaurant (One East Wacker Drive) in Chicago.

The 100-plus contestants were asked to come up with an imaginative barbecue recipe. Draper won a $75 gift certificate to the restaurant, a gas grill, and his dish was used on the menu at the restaurant.

But the award wasn’t for his barbecue sauce. Draper-who works as director of purchasing at Park Grill in Millennium Park-didn’t want to use his super-secret barbecue sauce recipe for the competition because he’d have to share the ingredients with the chef at McCormick & Schmick’s.

Instead, he chose to serve Caribbean pork tenderloin and brown-sugar glazed pineapple.

He hopes to bottle and package his barbecue sauce for sale one day, it’s just a matter of finding a company that wants to dish it out.

From dentist to food guy

Draper started off as a pre-dentistry student at Loyola University Chicago. But when he landed a job in the restaurant business, he felt an “unkempt passion” in himself and knew he had found his calling.

“Everybody goes to the dentist to get their teeth drilled out and have a bad memory of that,” Draper said. “But you go to a restaurant for a great experience, and when you can actually provide that, it’s awesome.”

As director of purchasing for two years, he makes sure the supplies are up-to-date at the Park Grill, and maintains the restaurant’s building. He majored in math for his pre-dentistry program and said some of the skills are transferable.

“Being familiar with the mouth is always good in the restaurant business,” he said. “You’re just putting things in instead of pulling things out.”

Draper has worked at several restaurants, tallying more than 20 years in the food service industry. Naturally, he also likes to cook at home.

A few years ago, he put together a barbecue sauce he describes as: thick, deep red, sweet, tangy, a little spicy and all-around “well balanced.” It’s become a favorite among family and friends. “It’s awesome, it tastes really good on anything,” said Molly, 11, the eldest of his four kids.

Draper has always dreamed of releasing the concoction to the general public for mass-consumption.

“This is not a barbecue sauce for the light-hearted eater,” he said. “You have to be willing to lick your fingers and deal with stickiness on your fingers and hands and the corners of your mouth, but it’s well worth it.”

Draper said he spends countless hours in the kitchen trying to perfect the recipe, mixing new batches and tasting until every nuance is perfect. He often asks his wife, Ginny Fallon, 42, to go purchase the ingredients but never tells her the quantities that need to be used.

“Because then she could bottle it and leave me,” Draper joked. “It’s just my thing, my shtick, my hallmark if you will… It’s the whole mystique and aura of the thing.”

“It’s fine with me, I have no intentions of making it, just eating it,” Fallon said.

Draper keeps the recipe encrypted on his computer and hidden somewhere on paper. He says maybe one day he’ll share it with his children, after they’re “sworn to secrecy.”

Grilling for the Fourth

Draper slathered his secret sauce over steaks, salmon and pork chops last week and fired them up on the grill to celebrate the Fourth of July. The sauce goes “fantastic” with anything, from ribs to chicken, “it doesn’t matter.” Draper loves to experiment. He has also created four different marinades to accentuate his meats: Italian, Mediterranean, Asian and Caribbean style.

Draper has a certain fearlessness in his cooking that he hopes other chefs will share.

“My advice to anybody that really loves to cook is: don’t be afraid to try things, don’t be afraid of food, don’t be afraid of what other people are going to say,” he said. “If you think it’s going to work, do it.

“You can’t be afraid to cook. You can’t be afraid to try something, and that’s true with everything.”

The winning recipe

Caribbean Pork Tenderloin and
Brown-Sugar-Glazed Grilled Pineapple

4 each whole pork tenderloin

2 golden pineapples: skin and slice in inch-thick rings-do not remove the core

12 whole Yukon Gold potatoes: pre-boil, cool and halve

1-2 bunches of watercress

2 bunches cilantro (1.5 chopped fine, 0.5 whole for garnish)

8 clove garlic (minced fine)

1 tsp. fresh thyme chopped fine

1 tsp. fresh mint chopped fine

½ ounce fresh ginger

1 Tbsp. paprika

2 Tbsp. chili powder

1 tsp. allspice

2 tsp. cracked black pepper

½ tsp. cayenne pepper

¼ cup orange juice

¼ cup lime juice

½ cup extra virgin olive oil

Season to taste with kosher salt

½ cup brown sugar

Combine all herbs and spices and add 1/4 cup of olive oil

Use half the mixture to marinate the pork tenderloin; allow to marinate for at least one hour or up to 24 hours.

Add half the remaining oil to the marinade. Toss a quarter of the remaining marinade with the potatoes and season to taste with salt and pepper.

Add 1/8 cup of oil to the remaining marinade as well as the brown sugar and coat the pineapple with the rest of the marinade.

Drizzle watercress with the last of the olive oil and season lightly with salt and pepper.

Grill all but watercress until done or tender.

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