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Chef sold barbecue from a gas station before opening unique outdoor restaurant

Disney, SeaWorld and BBQ: Chef Alfred Mann wants his live barbecue experience to be Orlando's next big tourist destination.
"In my culture, a barbecue is just a time when everybody gets together and cooks," said chef Alfred Mann. "Barbecue means kids, family, fun, parties and food."
"In my culture, a barbecue is just a time when everybody gets together and cooks," said chef Alfred Mann. "Barbecue means kids, family, fun, parties and food."Terri Peters
/ Source: TODAY

Chef Alfred Mann has held various titles across the restaurant industry, from an executive chef at an Italian restaurant to a personal chef for professional basketball players.

But the cuisine that captured Mann's heart from the time he was a small child is barbecue.

"I grew up in Kissimmee, Florida, eating barbecue from a gentleman named Gene Daniels," Mann told TODAY Food. "His style of barbecue was North Carolina. He'd make vinegar-based sauces and I remember there was a train that passed through where he was barbecuing and the train would stop and guys would get off the train to get his food, even though they had a schedule — that was my first experience with really good barbecue."

Mann says his love of barbecue started when he was a young child who would eat at a barbecue restaurant near his Kissimmee, Florida home.Terri Peters

Mann carried lessons learned from his childhood mentor into his cooking career, eventually founding a catering business in 2012 and cooking barbecue out of a small gas station and grocer near Orlando, Florida.

Mann's barbecue was popular, and between catering orders and daily customers, his business outgrew the small building. The barbecue business temporarily closed while Mann developed a path forward.

"The phone calls kept coming in, like 10-15 people a week asking where we were, if we relocated and when we were opening back up," Mann recalled.

Today, Chef Mann serves his own barbecue at Munchie's Live BBQ, an outdoor barbecue restaurant near Orlando, Florida.Terri Peters

Then, Mann remembered a small campground and retreat center located down the road from the gas station where his barbecue business began. Camp Ithiel, a 20-acre plot of land located on a scenic lake, seemed like the perfect spot for the next phase of Mann's vision.

The idea for Munchie's Live BBQ, an outdoor barbecue dining location and drive-up take-out service, was born.

"I figured, I'm from Florida, I like the outdoors: fishing, hunting, boating and the beach," said Mann, who transformed a plot of dirt located on Camp Ithiel into a beautiful outdoor dining area, complete with smokers and picnic tables.

The outdoor space, located at Camp Ithiel, offers a picnic dining area and lakeside outdoor activities.Terri Peters

Guests who reserve the full VIP experience at Munchie's Live BBQ, which opened in January 2021, spend one hour enjoying the grounds of Camp Ithiel, relaxing in hammocks, playing miniature golf or fishing until chef Mann rings the dinner bell. Then, it's time to sit at picnic tables and enjoy Mann's cooking for a one-hour dining experience.

In addition to classic barbecue staples like ribs and chicken, Mann gives guests options like suckling pig, whole salmon and smoked lamb. In a kitchen on the property, sides like collard greens, macaroni and cheese and baked beans are prepared and served with cold glasses of lemonade and sweet tea.

At a recent preview of Munchie's Live BBQ, I had the opportunity to sample sides and meats from Mann's menu. It's really good. Terri Peters

Mann's secret to delicious barbecue?

"Our style is slow, low and patient," he said. "We marinade everything and our wood is aged. And, we make our own charcoal. We start by burning wood on the ground. We burn off impurities in the wood until it's white hot and then transfer it to the grill so you won't taste lighter fluid or gas, you'll taste the meat, the spices and the seasoning."

For Mann, the unique dining experience is all about sharing something he loves with his guests.

"In my culture, a barbecue is just a time when everybody gets together and cooks," Mann explained. "Barbecue means kids, family, fun, parties and food. When I say barbecue, that's what I think of. It's something that switches on fun, when you say barbecue."

Guests of Munchie's Live BBQ can relax lakeside on hammocks until chef Mann rings the dinner bell.Terri Peters

Mann said he hopes families will relax lakeside with him during their trips to Orlando, a popular tourist destination due to the abundance of theme parks.

"We want to be that Orlando destination," he said. "You get online to plan your trip to Orlando and you do Walt Disney World one day, Munchies the next and then SeaWorld. You take a break here and relax."

Mann, who has worked in the restaurant business since he was 13, has two children of his own and said his own relationship "broke" because of the demanding hours he worked to build his career.

It's that firsthand knowledge of the toll long hours can take on family life that inspires him to fire up his smokers.

Mann hopes his eatery becomes a tourism destination for lovers of barbecue and those who want a relaxing outdoor experience during their Orlando vacation.Terri Peters

"I want to give other chefs and really all people who work hard a place where they can come and spend time as a family," he said. "Instead of going to a restaurant behind four walls, you can go somewhere outdoors where you can eat and have a family experience by the lake. You can take your shoes off, get your feet dirty, get grounded for a moment and then go back to your busy life."