texasmonthly.com: How long ago was your interest in cooking sparked and where does your inspiration come from?
John Youk: It goes back to my mother and my grandmother. I always hung out in the kitchen with them when I was a kid and watched them make delicious things. And when the opportunity presented itself, in the garage, oddly enough, I thought it was time for me to start cooking. I had a little experience before that, so cooking and grilling wasn’t hard to take up. I enjoyed it, and so did others.
texasmonthly.com: Were you a die-hard fan of NASCAR before you landed a job with the organization? Was this any sort of a dream come true? And can you really point at the awful bologna sandwiches as your impetus to start cooking?
JY: Absolutely. As a kid I would listen to whatever races I could get to tune in on my radio. There wasn’t a whole lot going on in southeast Pennsylvania; it’s not exactly racing country, and I couldn’t even get races on the TV. They’d show you the start of a race and that was it. But once I got my driver’s license and my own car, I was always at the races. A dream come true is one way to put it. Bologna was the only bad part.
texasmonthly.com: Now that you’ve published a popular book and presumably have all sorts of publicity appointments, do you still have time to devote to cooking, hunting, and fishing?
JY: It’s getting tough. I definitely noticed that this past hunting season, but this is also something that’s important to me, and something that I have to do. There’ll be more hunting and fishing down the road, that’s for sure, but right now, I have to deal with other things.
texasmonthly.com: What kind of reaction would you get from NASCAR drivers and others in your beginning stages, before you had mastered cooking and grilling?
JY: The truth is, the drivers aren’t there for the crew guys. Most of the time, they could care less what’s going on. They’re the main show. But once food enters the picture, everything changes [laughs]. Everyone wants to be your buddy.
texasmonthly.com: Your book has a very colloquial redneck tone. How did publishers and editors initially react to your prose?
JY: They loved it. We laughed a lot about it. The redneck thing became something that we kind of played on, upping the Southern shtick in certain sections. No one was ever embarrassed about it.
texasmonthly.com: The inclusion of your own stories and personal advice makes for a highly entertaining portion of the book. Did you have any prior writing experience?
JY: No, not really. I always took writing-intensive courses in high school instead of ones where you read classics and such. So I didn’t have experience, necessarily, but you remember stuff.
texasmonthly.com: In the course of your cooking and racing history, had you been collecting and writing down your tips and tales or does it all just come from the top of your head?
JY: I absolutely wrote things down. There were 27 seasons worth of things to remember. It just went hand-in-hand with the book.
texasmonthly.com: In your book, you wrote enthusiastically of every region in the United States. Do you have a favorite region? How about a favorite cuisine from a region?
JY: I guess my overall favorite is the Finger Lakes region in upstate New York, by the Watkins Glen track. It’s an outstanding race, and the area is beautiful. But with cuisine it’s different, because every region is so different. You go there to see how people live, what they eat, why people like it. It’s not a comparative process, really.
texasmonthly.com: In what region were people the biggest fans of your cooking? I’ll bet you’ve won over many a Texan with your hearty barbecue numbers.
JY: We don’t have a whole lot of drivers from Texas, but they’ve always been supportive of more barbecue [laughs].
texasmonthly.com: Did the racers and others involved help you remember and put together the anecdotes? Did anyone object to anything you wanted to include?
JY: There were no objections; they’re proud of the stories. A handful of them even told me what they thought I should throw in there. I loved it, remembering all those great times with everyone.
texasmonthly.com: You talk a lot about the satisfaction gleaned from hunting your own food and growing your own herbs. Would you say that your passion for cooking spawned from these other passions?
JY: No, it’s actually the other way around. I take my knowledge of food and cooking and use it to take care of my ingredients so everything tastes the best that it can.
texasmonthly.com: A lot of your recipes seem influenced by Mexican and Tex-Mex cuisine. Were you introduced to such flavors via your travels in the Southwest and Texas, or have you always been a fan?
JY: Racing introduced me to it, especially going to tracks in the Southwest. The interest was like, “This is really good; this is really good. How do we make it good, how do we make it better and fuse it with other cooking?”
texasmonthly.com: What is your favorite aspect of barbecue country, or Texas?
JY: Ribeye steaks! I can’t imagine anything better to eat. A lot of people would say chili, and that might be a strong second, but for me, it’s the steaks.
texasmonthly.com: Any plans for a future book?
JY: We’ve talked about another book to go with the first, even talked about it while writing the first one. Whatever didn’t fit into Speedway Grill is still great material for another project.