Scottish born, Texas taught restaurateur blazes BBQ trail
A sign above the door at Celtic Cowboy BBQ in Edmonds reads, “Enter as strangers, leave as friends,” – it’s a motto owners Steve and Lisa Freeman have extended not only to their customers, but to their employees, as well.
A former scientist, Steve Freeman, 47, has used the scientific method to perfect his menu, and he’s applied the same analytical skills to find and bring out the best in his employees.
Celtic Cowboy provides in-house Southern-style dining at picnic tables covered with red and white checked tablecloths, carryout and catering services.
He keeps his small restaurant, located on 70th Avenue West, thriving with the help of nine employees, two of which have special needs. Freeman said he needed a dependable, reliable staff – and, he’s found it.
He admits that in the four years he’s been open for business, there’s been a bit of trial and error in finding the right combination of employees.
“One of the main goals was to try and acquire employees that want to show up and have a positive attitude,” Freeman said, “and want to help us realize our dreams and move us forward as a barbecue restaurant.”
Staffers Elliot Arnold and Ben Albertson were matched with Freeman’s business through Provail, a local organization that assists people with disabilities.
Freeman said he was interested in creating an inclusive workplace, and he contacted Provail over a year ago to be matched with employees who have special needs.
“They’re part of our community,” Freeman said, “and we don’t want to be in a position where we turn our eye to other people who can show a skill set and capability of being able to do work in the workforce.”
Arnold and Albertson began working at Celtic Cowboy about four months ago and help with dishwashing, prepping to-go containers, filling sauce cups and restocking – “a lot of tedious tasks that are involved in restaurant work that just need to get completed,” Freeman said.
He said Arnold and Albertson have become part of the team, as the other staff members have welcomed them. Arnold, 21, said he’s typically wary of people and keeps to himself, but at Celtic Cowboy, he chats with the other employees and enjoys his work.
“He doesn’t really talk very much,” Freeman said, “but he is very receptive to everything that is going on around him.
“We all get along really well. What I’ve been really proud of is the younger kids who have kind of taken him under their shoulder and let him know that it’s OK – just because you have a disability doesn’t mean you don’t belong with all of us.”
It takes the cooperation and teamwork of the entire staff to produce about 500 to 1,000 pounds of smoked meat, from ribs to chicken, brisket and made-from-scratch sausages, each week.
Freeman learned how to smoke meat in the mid-1990s while living in Austin, Texas. He was born in Scotland, moved to the U.S. when he was 2 years old, and spent about 25 years living in the Southwest – six of those in Austin.
“This is something you wouldn’t learn going to a chef school or a culinary arts program,” he said. “This is really a kind of tried and true experimentation out in the backyard with a smoker.”
An obsession with cooking hit Freeman “like a ton of bricks” in his late 20s, and he realized he could use his background as a scientist to pursue a new found passion.
“I realized that being an ex-scientist and having an analytical skill set and being able to put things together – acids, bases, salts, spices,” he said. “There’s definitely a connection and a link there, and I think in some respects I’ve been given a gift.
“It’s kind of like an old form of alchemy, if you will.”
He also credits his Scottish roots with teaching him how to make do with what’s on hand.
“Being raised in a Scottish family,” he said, “we obviously weren’t well off, but you made do with what you had.”
If a recipe called for something that was unavailable, Freeman learned “to go in a different direction.”
“I think that’s probably the start of being creative with food – that you don’t have to have such strict barriers and guidelines.”
Altogether, he said he’s been barbecuing and smoking for about 30 years, and he’s “‘pretty much perfected all the recipes at this point.”
Perfection comes by way of experimentation for Freeman. He has a traditional trailer smoker in the parking lot of Celtic Cowboy, a Southern Pride commercial smoker in the restaurant kitchen, and five more smokers at his home in Edmonds.
“To me, everyday is a chemistry experiment,” Freeman said. “Everytime it comes out slightly different no matter what you do – there’s different flavors coming from the wood, and there’s slightly different flavors coming from the meat.”
After leaving the biotech industry due to the “volatility” of the job market, Freeman spent about 5-6 years testing and refining his recipes.
“It creates enough of a variety for me to enjoy eating the food, time in and time out,” he said. He’s found that a combination of applewood and oak, “which is slightly sweet and forgiving,” works best for smoking, and diners who visit Celtic Cowboy will get consistent flavors. Freeman experiments with new and different menu items at home before bringing them to the restaurant.
“I never get tired of food,” he said. “It’s a gift that we all can share. Very few things in life can get you really, really excited and happy, but I definitely think food is one of them.”
He also has a passion for sourcing local food from using St. Helens beef, which is Northwest raised and grain-fed, to Double D Ranch grass-fed beef from Oregon to the organic greens he purchases daily from PCC.
“We try to keep everything Northwest focused, from our vegetables to our meat and produce,” he said, emphasizing the use of quality ingredients over less expensive ones.
“I’m not really about reinventing the wheel,” Freeman said. “I’m about doing things the old-fashioned way – using high quality meat and appropriate spices, and smoking times with the proper selection of wood and try to keep that as consistent as possible.”
Celtic Cowboy makes everything from the 26-ingredient sauces to sausages to cured bacon from scratch and inhouse.
“I’m pretty much convinced, if you taste the food,” Freeman said, “you’ll be back.”
Celtic Cowboy BBQ is at 21104 70th Ave. W. Hours are: 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday, 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Friday-Saturday, noon to 6 p.m. Sunday and closed Mondays.