A Culinary Journey:
From Boston to the Bayou and Back
Firefly’s BBQ Founder, Executive Chef and Owner
Born and bred in Boston, Firefly’s BBQ Owner and Pitmaster Steve Uliss developed his passion for food early on, amid the lox and half-sours at his grandfather’s Brookline grocery and deli, Bluestein’s. At the top of his class studying culinary arts at the Massachusetts vocational high school he attended, at the age of 16 Steve was already hard at work as a cook in a local chain of high-volume restaurants owned by Barnsider Management. He was accepted into the Johnson & Wales “Eight-Week Wonder” program for talented young chefs, and went on to complete his degree at the university in Providence, RI in just three years and eight weeks.
After graduation, Steve went back to work for Barnsider, quickly becoming a chef at their Colorado Public Library location in Brookline. He left the organization briefly, heading down to Florida to help his aunt and uncle open a small French-style café in Florida. But missing the bustle of Barnsider’s high-end steak and seafood kitchens, Steve came back to New England and decided to get full management training. Barnsider promoted him, first to bar manager, and then to the youngest general manager in the company’s history.
Having begun to make a name for himself in the New England restaurant industry, Steve was recruited by a headhunter to join the Northeast Motel Group (later renamed the Peabody Hotel Group), owner of several Holiday Inn franchises around Boston. It was while working for Peabody that Steve fell in love — not only with barbeque, but also with his wife Amy, who was a catering manager for the company.
Peabody was in the process of renovating and rebranding all of its restaurants, and as food and beverage director for one of the hotels, Steve joined a junket to the “Memphis in May” World Championship Barbecue Cookoff. It was at this event, according to Steve, that he was “blown away by barbeque.”
“In the culinary competitions in which I had competed in Boston, we were serving people tiny, little plastic cups of chowder,” Steve recollects. “The Memphis in May festival opened up a whole new world to me, with judges crowding around giant 18-wheelers where the pitmasters were smoking whole hogs and slabs of ribs. I was fascinated by the intense aromas and flavors, and by how these guys could take even the toughest cuts of meat and make them melt in your mouth and tantalize your taste buds. I was hooked. I had found my style of cooking.”
It was also at this event that Steve was introduced to John Willingham, who the Barbecue Hall of Fame refers to as “a barbeque genius.” Willingham, who passed away in 2013, became a lifelong friend and mentor for Steve. Taking Steve under his wing, Willingham invited him to join his River City Rooters barbeque competition team. After traveling the country competing with Willingham’s winning team, Steve was determined to “someday bring ‘real’ barbeque to Massachusetts.”
Back in New England once again, Steve was approached by the Saunders family, owner of Boston’s Park Plaza, Copley Square and Lenox hotels, to help them with their restaurants. The Original Sports Saloon in the Copley Square Hotel seemed like a natural fit to serve barbeque. But without a smoker, Steve felt like he was “faking it.” So he had John Willingham build him one. The custom-built smoker was trucked up from Tennessee and rolled through the hotel lobby into the kitchen. Steve had been using Willingham’s line of dry rubs and sauces, but now with his own smoker onsite and a passion to innovate, he began to develop his own recipes.
“At that time, a few others were doing barbeque in the Boston area, like Redbones and the East Coast Grill, but no one was competing,” Steve recounts. “So we helped bring barbeque competition to Boston with an event on City Hall Plaza that drew teams from all across the country.” Steve’s Original Sports Saloon team swept the Boston competition, winning three out of four categories. “It was then that we knew we really had something special,” says Steve. “We started winning locally, then went on to win national championships for authentic barbeque.”
Promoted to Director of Food & Beverage for Saunders Hotels, Steve went on to reinvigorate Diamond Jim’s at the Lenox and to create the Sam Adams Brewhouse, Speeder & Earl’s, Upstairs at the Grill and Tennessee’s BBQ. He and the Saunders were approached by a partner to open additional Tennessee’s BBQ locations, as well as developing a catering business with Tennessee’s trucks and trailers, an enterprise Steve grew until the concept was sold.
A non-compete agreement with Tennessee’s new owners kept Steve out of the barbeque business for a few years, during which time he consulted to hotels and restaurants. But the break only added fuel to the fire — barbeque was in his blood.
Steve, with enthusiastic assistance from his wife Amy and family, opened Firefly’s BBQ in Marlborough, Massachusetts in 2001. Early on, Amy was pivotal in developing Firefly’s highly successful catering business, and Steve and Amy’s two daughters, Carly and Rachel, helped out at the restaurant and on catering jobs in the summers.
In addition to barbeque, the menu has included many of the Southern specialties and comfort food recipes that Steve has come to admire visiting family in New Orleans, including fried chicken, po’ boys, jambalaya, red beans and rice and sweet potato pecan pudding. Despite his New England roots, Steve’s ties to and gratitude for the Southern cooking heritage are strong. Along with several other prominent chefs from across the country, he joined the Louisiana Seafood Council in its efforts to revitalize the industry and raise awareness of the sustainability and benefits of the region’s delicious native seafood including crawfish, oysters and shrimp.
In 2004, wanting to offer the Boston, MetroWest and Worcester areas great music to go along with what had become known as his “bodacious barbeque” cuisine, Steve opened a nightclub adjoining Firefly’s BBQ. Dante’s features topnotch regional and touring Blues, Soul and Rock & Roll performers such as James Montgomery and J. Geils. And in 2016, Steve added The Backyard to the mix, where in warm weather guests can enjoy fun in the sun and good times under the stars with live acoustic music on the weekends, along with raw bar and seafood specialties, as well as the best barbeque and Southern fare in New England — or just about anywhere! The catering business has thrived and now Firefly’s BBQ is the largest barbeque caterer in New England, boasting 12 trucks fitted out with smokers and grills, as well as a food truck. The Firefly’s BBQ S.W.A.T. (Smokin’ Wicked and Tasty) Team has catered everything from weddings to 4,000-guest events for Fortune 500s, local companies, organizations and universities around the region.
Over the years, Steve and the Firefly’s BBQ team have continued to avidly compete in barbeque competitions. They have won dozens of national awards and championships for their sensational smoked brisket, barbeque chicken and ribs, as well as for the Firefly’s BBQ signature sauces and rubs that Steve has developed.
Founder, Executive Chef and Owner
Firefly’s BBQ, Marlborough, Massachusetts
The Memphis in May festival opened up a whole new world to me, with judges crowding around giant 18-wheelers where the pitmasters were smoking whole hogs and slabs of ribs. I was fascinated by the intense aromas and flavors, and by how these guys could take even the toughest cuts of meat and make them melt in your mouth and tantalize your taste buds. I was hooked. I had found my style of cooking.