From PEOPLE Magazine Click to enlarge
After making a memorably teary exit from the final cook-off of Top Chef's inaugural season in 2006, Tiffani Faison eventually moved back to Boston, where she first earned her culinary chops by working under star chef Todd English. Although she found work at a couple of high-end restaurants, she was still feeling unsettled. "I was really homesick," she says. She wasn't yearning for a specific place, but a certain cuisine. "My mother has roots in the South," says Faison, who grew up as an Army brat, living everywhere from Oklahoma to Greece. "No matter where we moved, my mom's cooking was what brought us together." Not being able to find the same quality of southern food—like the fried chicken and collard greens Faison used to request as a kid to celebrate her August birthday ("My poor mom sweated it out at the hottest time in the kitchen," she recalls)— motivated the chef to open up Sweet Cheeks Q near Fenway Park in 2011. So while many of her Top Chef peers were busy whipping up dishes like "bone marrow with sea urchin," Faison, 35, focused on ribs and pulled pork. "I wanted to do something that was really straight-up," she says. "Not black-eyed-pea risotto, just black eyed peas." But Faison wasn't looking to run a low-key operation. "This is the first restaurant I've owned, so 'good enough' was not good enough," she says. "My poor opening staff; I was like, 'We need higher standards of service!' 'We need to make sure this is the best barbecue restaurant in Boston, if not the country.' " Faison also insisted the restaurant have plenty of homespun touches. "All the drinks are served in mason jars; I wanted it to be fun but just shy of kitsch," she says. "I wanted it to be sweet, but not Disney BBQ." Nevertheless, Faison's restaurant has attracted some pretty colorful characters. "We got a huge takeout order from Jay-Z and Kanye West when they were playing here," she says. "They even tweeted about our biscuits."

One downside to her Sweet Cheeks success: Faison is working on raising money to open her own fine-dining restaurant, and "now people are like, 'Aren't you a barbecue chef?' " she says. "The truth is, if you're a good chef, you can do anything."