BBQ King Ken Walker On Hanging Up His Spurs After 2 Decades

By Sophie Steiner, February 23, 2024

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Long-standing Shanghai legend Ken Walker was the man that introduced the city to true Texas smoked, grilled, and flame-licked meats.

READ MORE: Glistening Fat-Laden Brisket and Smoky Ribs at the New Bubba's

Well, after two decades, the BBQ king has announced his retirement; he'll be passing on the tongs for his iconic and longstanding restaurant Bubba’s to Smoke KCQ founder Matty Waters.

A venue that has stood the test of time, Bubba's first opened its doors way back in 2006. And, although it has moved and expanded to different corners of the city over the years, its loyal fan base has remained – a testament to its garnered legacy.

Before this Texan hangs up his spurs, we sat down with the pitmaster to hear about a bygone era of Shanghai's food and beverage scene, and tease out all those unmentionable stories he can now tell...

Ken Waker, circa 2007

How, when and why did you move to Shanghai?
I first came to Asia in 1996 and worked out of Hong Kong doing a lot of [corporate communications] projects in China.

I just loved coming to Shanghai during those years, with all the bikes and the easy way of life, while at the same time seeing everything kind of bubbling up, as if someone was slowly turning the heat up higher than a simmer.

You could tell big things were about to happen.

I got a chance to move here in 2004 while I was working back in Texas and jumped at the opportunity. I arrived without a job and was planning to get corporate work.

Image by Sophie Steiner/That's

So how did you come to open the first ever Texan BBQ restaurant in Shanghai?
As a true Texan will do, I was seeking out barbecue to eat. My primary, stomach-fueled goal when arriving in Shanghai was to find the best BBQ – a taste of Texas home.

I chased restaurant promo after promo, where they were doing barbecue this and barbecue that… and, well, none of it was barbecue in my book.

Places were doing grilled sausages, chops, and steaks, and calling it barbecue. For us in Texas, that’s grilling, not barbecuing.

Which is how I recognized an opportunity in the market for a Texan to show the people here what real barbecue is all about.

I decided what this city needed was a REAL barbecue joint, and – as such – I set out to open one.

Ken Walker (left) with the Governor of Texas, Rick Perry (right) at Bubba's in Shanghai

Did you have any food and beverage or BBQ experience?
No*, actually I had never worked in a restaurant before opening Bubba’s.

*For the purpose of this article, I’m not counting the one month I spent washing dishes at Denny’s. I’m also going to gloss over the month I worked at the lauded Chucky Cheese, before getting fired for drinking on the job. Why, oh why, would they put a high school kid on the wine station?! 

But those are stories for another day and time...

Ken has built every smoker for each Bubba's location

What were some of the challenges of opening a BBQ joint in Shanghai back in 2006?
We need to sit down over a beer (or a few) for these stories!

Since the full recount of all of these tales could fill an entire novel (and I might get detained for telling the truth!), allow me to do it my way...

There was the time… I got caught using illegally imported USDA beef (it was not available in China in those days) and had to read the import regulations on meats as my punishment.

There was the time… a moonlighter from a utility company came to me and offered to do a certain project for 20% of the official quote. But, after he finished, he went and turned me in for having an illegal installation. I ended up paying almost the full price after all the fines, fees, etc.

There was the time… I needed a larger plumbing pipe connected to a larger main line, but it was very costly, so my security guard did it himself during the night over a few days.

There was the time... I searched high and low for the USD$30,000 smoker that had been imported and abandoned by a failed F&B venture here in Shanghai. After about a month of detective work, I finally found it and bought it for just RMB3,000, thus leading to the full-on launch of Bubba’s. Without a good smoker, there isn’t gonna be good barbecue!

Let’s just say there were many challenges, but with a little hongbao here and there, many of those challenges could be swept under the rug. Many challenges, many hongbao.

Hongbao in my dreams and hongbao in my nightmares. Hongbao everywhere.

Original Bubba buck mounts brought from Texas

What was the F&B scene like during that time compared to now?
It was a different time, let me tell you.

As for the F&B scene, it was much more consolidated for Western venues – as in there were like five or six total Western restaurants in the entire city.

Can you imagine?

It was fun like this though. Everyone knew everyone else in F&B; one didn’t have to look very far or hit too many venues for the party.

One of the early BBQ Cook-Offs, circa 2012

Let's rewind a bit. When was your passion for BBQ first lit?
One of my few hobbies dating all the way back to my high school days happened to be smoking meats.

My dad had purchased a little Brinkman bullet smoker to do a turkey for Thanksgiving. I recall that it turned out really delicious, but after that day, he never touched that smoker again.

Me on the other hand – I was hooked.

I started playing with briskets, chicken, fajitas, smoking burgers, all while toying with my own rubs and sauces.

I’d pack that thing up and take it to lake parties and feed as many people as I could, just for the fun of it.

My love for feeding people went hand-in-hand with my love for diving deeper into the world of smoked meats.

Over time, it just became a thing with me that stuck.

WechatIMG1392.jpegBubba's Cool Docks location

Why the name Bubba’s?
I picked the name Bubba’s because it sounded sort of like the word father in Chinese, baba. And also, back home, it’s a word we use for “good ol’ boy,” or a person known for being easy going and everyone’s friend.

And that fit with me, so that became the name.

There are lots of Bubba’s barbecue joints in the US, by the way, and none have a relationship with each other, except that they’re probably run by a 'bubba' character.

WechatIMG1397.jpegThe original Bubba's logo, first drawn on the back of a napkin by Ken Walker

What are some of the highlights (and lowlights) of your culinary career in Shanghai?
Highlights: Getting Bubba’s opened and operating, and even at one point expanding to three shops at one time.

On top of that, the thousands of people I have been lucky enough to meet over the years that came through my doors to enjoy some real good barbecue.

That has been one of the biggest rewards of my entire career; many of those people I have maintained relationships with until today.

And, above all else, I met my lovely wife at Bubba’s!

Lowlights: Having to close two of those locations, and eventually the original location due to landlord issues. But Bubba’s always perseveres.

What are some of the changes (for better and for worse) you’ve witnessed in Shanghai over the last 20 years?
That’s a tough one. I’d say a great change was the growth of Shanghai, and with it, the addition of so many culinary options, including dozens (hundreds even?) of Western options.

As for the worst, during the downturns in the economy, when many foreigners left (and also when many others were 'asked' to leave), this made it very difficult for a lot of brands to survive.

Chili Cook-Off Circa 2015

You started Shanghai’s Chili Cook-off in 2006 – one of the most well-attended and longest running food festivals in the city – and kept it running to today. Who made the best chili you’ve ever tasted in this competition?
Wow, that’s even tougher than the last question. There have been so many great ones (and usually multiple great ones) in each year’s cook-off.

To answer, I’d have to say Tabasco Guerrero (the original chef from Pistolera) is of the most memorable.

That dude won the Cook-off three years in a row, and it was during the years when we had 20-30 teams competing and crowds exceeding 1,000 people.

What an accomplishment it was for him to win three!

To top it off, after he left Shanghai for a few years, he came back for a short stint at Pistolera. And guess what? He won again that year.

Ken Walker presides over one of the many, many Chili Cook-offs

Who has inspired you most throughout your culinary career?
I’ve actually never had inspiration from any specific individual or chef.

Where I’m from is considered the barbecue belt of Texas, and so I drew inspiration from some of the places I frequented growing up: Black’s, City Market, Southside, The Salt Lick, Rudy’s, The County Line…

Those names might not mean much to you, but they are legacy and legend status Texas barbecue to most Texans.

Image by Sophie Steiner/That's

If you didn’t own one of the most successful Texan BBQ joints in the country, what would you have done instead?
Well, prior to Bubba’s, I worked in a corporate marketing roll, so that’s probably the direction I would have continued.

And perhaps, just perhaps, I would have invested in property instead of a restaurant back then, and today I’d be on a beach somewhere with a cigar in my mouth. *Wink*

What does a Texan do when he hangs up his spurs?
He starts looking for a beach and a cigar! Haha.

Well, I’m going to focus on my health and regain some strength this year. I doubt it’s 'retirement' for me, I’m just not that type.

I do indeed have a few ideas up my sleeve for an F&B concept here in Shanghai that’s a surefire winner.

Stay tuned, Shanghai!

[All images courtesy of Ken Walker, unless otherwise stated]

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