In the world of barbecue, few men have accomplished more than Kansas City’s renowned Baron of BBQ, Paul Kirk. The recipient of over 530 cooking and barbecue awards, Kirk has won seven world championships, including the prestigious American Royal Open, the world’s largest barbecue contest.
Kirk, who has been barbecuing since the 1980s, was named the Chef of the Year by the Greater Kansas City ACF Chapter in 1990 and is a member of the KCBS Barbecue Hall of Fame. He prides himself on his ability to concoct a recipe on the spot, never test it and still win any contest.
In 1997, Kirk released his first book, Paul Kirk’s Championship Barbecue Sauces: 175 Make-Your-Own Sauces, Marinades, Dry Rubs, Wet Rubs, Mops and Salsas (now in its 19th printing), and his most recent publication, America’s Best BBQ – Homestyle: What the Champions Cook in Their Own Backyards, was released in 2013. In addition, he has written numerous articles for publications such as the KCBS Bull Sheet, The National Barbecue News, The Goat Gap Gazette, Fine Cooking and Chili Pepper Magazine. He and his barbecue have appeared on the Today Show, The Discovery Channel, CBS This Morning, E!’s Talk Soup and Tony Bourdain’s In Search Of.
Kirk currently operates the Baron’s School of Pitmasters — named the third top barbecue fantasy in the world by the Food Network’s Top 5 — around the world and across the United States. Learn more at www.baron-of-bbq.com.
I grew up with barbecue — we had a large family of five girls and two boys; my mother and father both come from a large family. All summer. everybody would come to our house for a barbecue and we (my dad) would BBQ ribs and chicken and have a pot luck BBQ, play horseshoes and badminton. He would cook a case of “2 and down” spare ribs and about a dozen chickens. So I guess that was my start or background in barbecue.
What was your first barbecue competition, and how did it go?
My first BBQ competition was the second American Royal BBQ. I was a chef at a Road House where we served breakfast, lunch and dinner, with steaks, fried chicken and barbecue, where ALL of the BBQ recipes were mine and I guarded them well. My bosses came to me and said that I was good at BBQ, why don’t you get in the barbecue contest and they would reimburse me. Later today, I am going to check the mail and see if the check has arrived! Yet!
I was in only two categories, chicken and ribs. Everything went wrong with me trying to get to the contest… Flat tire on my pickup; borrowed a van Saturday morning. We transferred all of my stuff to the van and remembered I didn’t have any charcoal. Went to the store across the highway, bought charcoal, loaded the van and tried to start the van and the starter just went around and around and didn’t turn the motor over. I went inside and phoned my sous chef and he came over and we stuffed his Toyota hatchback with my Hasty-Bake and Weber Kettle and got down there about 8:30 am, but I wanted to get down there by 5:30 am. Why? I can’t answer that. It’s called not knowing what you’re doing. What else could go wrong?
I prepped my ribs and marinated my chicken, lit my barbecue pits and started cooking my ribs and got them finished too early! Now what do I do? A women on another team said get an apple and slice it very thin and cover both sides of the slabs, wrap them in plastic wrap and place them in a dry cooler and they should be fine, so I did it. I cooked the chicken and had no problems.
Now the dagger falls, they are going to pass out our numbers. Sure enough, I get #13, but since I was 13 on Friday the 13th, that really didn’t bother me.
Now awards… 1st in chicken and 2nd in ribs, so it all worked out.
Of all the competitions that you’ve won, is there one that you’re especially proud of? Or do they all hold a special place in your heart?
All of my World Championships hold a special place for me. When you win the world’s largest BBQ contest and the first Jack Daniels Invitational BBQ Contest, they are special.
What is your favorite piece of meat to barbecue?
That one really shocks people when I answer that question. It would be duck, wild or domestic.
What type of smoker do you use at home?
At home I use two pits of my 15 BBQ pits, my 48 Lang Patio Pit and a Hasty-Bake.
What is one thing — in life or in barbecue — that you wish you’d learned much earlier than you did?
That’s really a hard question to answer, because I try to never stop learning or to try new things. I guess it would be to trust my gut feelings and proceed.
How do you think you’d fare on a timed competition show such as Iron Chef or Chopped?
I have no idea how I would fare. I was invited to compete on Chopped on their BBQ show but I had to decline because I wasn’t sure how my new knees would hold up. If cooked more, I feel that I would fare well, but since I don’t cook everyday, as in a chef job, one never knows. The more you cook, the better your mind works to develop recipes.
What is the strangest or most interesting ingredient you’ve seen someone use in a barbecue sauce or rub?
Another hard question! Probably the strangest would be when I am doing my Pitmaster class and we’re developing the students’ rub and I ask the students, “What are your favorite ingredients, without naming sugar, salt, seasoned salt, garlic, celery, onion, paprika, chili powder or pepper?” And they can’t answer the question. Then one of them came up with saffron!
My answer is, “You would put a very mild $1000+ per pound spice in a rub?”
What do you enjoy most about teaching your Pitmaster classes?
The most gratifying reward about teaching is seeing students be successful the first time, whether it’s making a barbecue rub or barbecue sauce in class and he goes on to win at a competition. One year — and I don’t remember which year — someone calculated that 85% of the ribbons at the American Royal were won by my students. How factual that is, I don’t know either. I have a lot of student that have gone on and opened BBQ restaurants, using the rub and BBQ sauce they developed in my Pitmaster class. John Markus, the brains and driving force behind The Pitmaster shows, is one of my students.
Other than your own, what’s the best barbecue you’ve ever had?
I would have to say I have tasted good and great barbecue all over the world, but the one that hit my taste buds was the chopped pork at the Dixie Pig in Blytheville, Arkansas!
What did you have for dinner last night?
I grilled veal chops, grilled corn, which I cut off the cob, and combined them with caramelized onions and bacon, with salt and pepper along with some creamy coleslaw with toasted candied walnuts and Craisins.
What would you like to do that you simply haven’t found the time for yet?
Be a better marketer. I’m really poor at promoting my talents. I wish I knew how to use social media and promote BBQ. It’s a fun and rewarding way to cook and eat. I would like to teach how to barbecue!
If you could offer one piece of advice to someone who was looking to get involved with competition barbecue, what would it be?
Visit contests, introduce yourself to teams, ask if you could possibly hang out and learn, try to get on a team and see just how much work is involved. BBQ contest are a lot of fun, a lot of work and a lot of money. There are also a lot of good people out there.