Stumbling across your life's calling when you least expect it offers mixed odds indeed, but for Bam Bam's BBQ owner Cameron Treu, it was more of a "remote" eventuality.
Cameron was watching television one night 10 years ago when he smoked out his Treu calling.
"I was watching a show called 'BBQ Pitmasters' in 2009 — and I didn't cook, grill, none of that," he said during a recent sit down in the office of his well-known Orem restaurant. "For some reason I was flipping between hockey games and stumbled across the very first episode of that show. I bought a little $40 Brinkmann smoker that night."
That was all it took to light a fire under Treu's passion for preparing mouth-watering, finger-licking, sauce-dripping-off-your-chin meats.
"I cooked in the backyard for about a year and just became kind of obsessed with it," he said. "That's a little issue I have — when I find something that I like, I kind of go down the wormhole."
That wormhole has led to possibilities Treu could never have envisioned back when he opened Bam Bam's BBQ in June of 2013. The Orem restaurant has not only become a Utah County favorite among BBQ aficionados, but has become a player on the collegiate and professional sports catering scene. Treu not only frequently feeds teams and coaches at local universities — including BYU and UVU — but has expanded those connections to land a regular gig grilling up his award-winning meats on game weeks for the NFL's New Orleans Saints.
Pretty heady stuff for a guy who first got hooked on BBQ because he was changing channels on his TV a decade ago. How did he actually make that transition? Turns out it was with a lot of hard work.
To state that Treu is a gregarious individual would be tantamount to saying Bam Bam's BBQ brisket tastes good. Both statements are true, but each is understating the reality. Spend just a few minutes with Treu, and before you know it, you're conversing like you're life-long friends.
"I hate the word 'networking' because it feels like a business," Treu said of his outgoing personality, "but I get along great with people, and I love people, so I think that's helped."
After Treu got hooked on BBQ, he moved his family from Utah to Arizona — where the BBQ world was a lot more established — to further pursue his growing obsession.
"I got into my first competition down there, kind of out of dumb luck, and showed up with a tiny little smoker and my wife's Nissan Murano. A bunch of TV cooks were there and it was a pretty good competition," he said. "I ended up coming home with $2,000 and took a couple trophies home. I took a first place in pork. I ended up, my rookie year, 17th in the world at the end of it, and I only did first in pork like one more time after that. To get first in a meat category is a hard thing to do."
After that, Treu was hired by a big retailer in Arizona, BBQ Island, taking a huge pay cut, but devoting himself full-time to BBQ. That company sent him to competitions all over the country, where he continued to do well. It was at those competitions where he made his next big contact.
"I bumped into a guy by the name of John Lewis, who in the BBQ world is kind of the king of brisket," Treu said. "He's in Austin and worked for a really famous place called Franklin Barbecue. For some crazy reason, he moved over to a restaurant called La Barbecue, which is now a really famous restaurant down there, and we had hit it off in a few competitions and he was like, 'Move to Texas. You can live at my house for six months, and I'll pay you $500 a week. I'll teach you everything I know about the restaurant side.' I mean, that's like having Michael Jordan call you and say, 'I'll teach you basketball.' "
With his wife's blessing, Treu did just that.
"I went down there and worked 90 hours a week for $500," he said. "It was crazy."
But Treu took what he learned during that time and — with the help of a $45,000 loan from a cousin — opened Bam Bam's BBQ on June 1, 2013, in the Orem location on State Street that used to house The Hot Dog King. They also took over the site next door, knocked the wall down and expanded.
"To open a restaurant for under $100,000 is crazy, but $45,000 was a miracle," he said. We kind of hit the ground running. I know a lot of people here, and I think it was kind of an untapped market."
Bam Bam's still hadn't reached its first-year milestone when a BYU athletics staff member stopped in, inquiring about the possibility of Treu catering some meals for the football and other university programs, notably basketball, baseball and women's soccer.
"I didn't have a ton of experience with big catering yet, but I knew I definitely wanted to be involved," said Treu, who began feeding the football team during the Bronco Mendenhall coaching era. He eventually became friends with pretty much the entire coaching staff. "You know, it took about a year or so, that coaching staff, that's a pretty tightly run ship over there. But about a year later, it got to where I could just walk in that place like I worked there. We're very close to this day, that coaching staff and I, and I was really sad to see them go. But now it's the same here. That relationship is so cool and they've always been so good to me. Yeah, I love 'em to death. The O-line are definitely my favorites."
Treu's relationship with those from Mendenhall's staff — which mostly moved with him for the Virginia job — remains tight. In fact, the staff has a miniature version of the Bam Bam's statue (the pig out front of the restaurant), which is used to honor their coach of the week. The good vibes were further cemented when Virginia came across the country to play at Boise State in September of 2017. Virginia hired Bam Bam's to feed the team after the game, where, in a major upset, the Cavaliers handed the Broncos their worst home loss since 2001.
Treu has much love for the teams he caters for, but no love lost for the home fans in Boise State's stadium.
"I've done something at Boise State for like three or four years straight and it's like the worst stadium," Treu said. "Worst fans in the country. Meanest. Rudest. Nastiest."
Treu doubled down when questioned whether he would mind being quoted on that.
"Heck no! Boise State fans are the worst. It's so funny — Logan is tough. I'm on the field at the (University of Utah), and they can be a little tough, but nobody has anything on Boise State. They're great fans, obviously, for them, but there's a group in the end zone, right where you walk out of the visitors locker room, there's a group right along the end zone where the locker room is that is just, they're brutal. But you have to respect it."
It was during BYU quarterback Taysom Hill's senior season in 2016 that he was introduced to Treu by some of his offensive linemen. Hill became a Bam Bam's regular, and so it was that during Hill's first year with the New Orleans Saints, that he called Treu with a request. It was about a month before Christmas, and Hill wanted to gift each of his fellow quarterbacks — All-Pro QB Drew Brees and backup Chase Daniel — a smoker. Not only that, he wanted Treu to come to New Orleans to personally teach a BBQ class to the quarterbacks contingent.
"And here I am trying to keep my cool," Treu said of the phone call.
After arranging the smokers, Treu called Hill back with an additional proposition. Since he would be coming out to teach the class, what about feeding the entire team? Hill ran the request by the team chef and he was all for it.
After practice on a game-week Thursday, Treu taught the QBs everything he possibly could about grilling meat with a smoker.
"Of course, a lot of the players and coaches leaked in because they smelled the food coming out of the quarterbacks room," Treu laughed. "It was really fun. Drew (Brees) took incredible notes. That guy is so disciplined. He took notes like crazy. I'll never forget it. It was so cool."
The next day, Treu fed the entire team. That Sunday, the Saints beat their main rival, the Atlanta Falcons. The Saints figured they were on to something good.
"And so the chef called me the next week and said, 'You want to come back out?' " Treu said. "And so I ended up going out four times in five weeks to finish that season because they won every game."
The deal continued into this season, with Treu feeding the team once a month and helping the Saints march all the way into the final minutes of the NFC Championship game, where a Super Bowl berth was denied largely by a blown pass interference call.
A similar deal is already in place for the 2019 season, with Bam Bam's scheduled to cater a meal a month to the Saints.
"When you have Bam Bam's cater for you, it's much more than just being fed incredible BBQ," said Hill. "You are gaining a lifelong fan and a loyal friend."
An added bonus to Treu's gig is getting to see Hill's continued success with the Saints, as he plays more and more roles for the team other than just backup quarterback.
"It's been really fun to see him out there," Treu said of Hill. "He's so loved. I remember the first year he was out there, we'd go out to dinner. ... It's funny because the first year no one, except really diehard fans knew who he was. This last year, we only went out about two or three times because everyone knows him. You go to the black and gold (team apparel) stores and you see the jerseys: Brees, Kamara, Hill. You're seeing (No.) 7's pop up everywhere in the dome. It's been so cool. He's the grittiest — I mean, his story of overcoming injury, you know, he's a special guy. ... I feel fat as it is, but when I'm around him, I feel horrible! It's like knocking on a table. Dude is cement. He's just awesome. He works his butt off, he's so strong. And the team loves him. There's just very few people that will overcome what he overcame, but then do anything they ask — and succeed."
The typical day at Bam Bam's actually starts at 3:30 the previous afternoon when meat is put on to start smoking. The cook on duty each day, then arrives at 4:30 a.m. the following morning to season and trim the meat and get it ready for the day. Everything is typically done by 10 a.m. so it can rest. Bam Bam's is especially known for its brisket — but you would be remiss not to try the ribs, smoked turkey and sausage, in addition to a bevy of delectable sides, as well.
Bam Bam's has become something of a legend in the local market — and beyond — and Treu attributes that to the overall food quality.
"I think food will always take precedent over everything else," he said. "If the food is not good, who cares how cool it is or whatever, nobody's going to come back. Especially when you have to charge what a BBQ joint has to charge. Because there's so much labor, and the meat we use is pretty expensive, high-end meat. So to get somebody back in the door to spend $15 to $20 for lunch, you know, it's got to be good. People need to feel like they're getting their money's worth. It's a labor of love, BBQ, that's for sure."