Rob Magee is reimagining barbecue with Q39

Q39 owners Rob (left) and Kelly Magee stand in front of his wall of barbecue awards.

Q39 owners Rob (left) and Kelly Magee, and a host of barbecue awards.

A timer dings as the Wednesday lunch crowd begins to thin at Q39 (1000 W 39th Street) – the new barbecue joint on 39th Street. Chef and co-owner Rob Magee glances toward the open kitchen, where oak burns on the wood-fired grill, to make sure someone is checking on the beep signalling another round of meat has finished its slow turn in the Southern Pride smoker.

There have been a lot of dings since Q39 opened two weeks ago, part of Magee’s plan to reinvent barbecue in Kansas City as a sit-down experience where a server brings you a cocktail and a plate of pork belly.

“Whether a guest believes barbecue is on a grill or in a smoker, whether it’s indirect or direct cooking, we have a smoker and a grill. We’ve got them covered,” Magee says. “The two best things in Kansas City are steaks and barbecue and that’s what we do.”

Born in Staten Island and raised in New Jersey, Magee, 49, saw his future in a kitchen at an early age. He thought it would take him to Hawaii.

“I wanted to be a chef because then I could go anywhere that I wanted,” Magee says.

He graduated from the Culinary Institute of America in 1986 and spent the next seven years cooking in Dallas. His ability to manage a kitchen and cook led him to a series of executive chef and food and beverage director positions with hotels in the Sheraton, Omni and Westin chains. His childhood dream of travel was fulfilled with stops in Houston, Charlotte, Nashville and Denver.

“With hotels, you get the opportunity to work with so many ingredients, which is phenomenal,” Magee says.

In 2000, he came to Kansas City as the food and beverage director for the Westin Crown Center. A year later, he was hired as the executive chef for The Hilton Kansas City Airport. And there, four miles from where visitors to Kansas City first touch down on the tarmac, he honed his barbecue skills.

Magee’s competition barbecue career began in Lenexa 12 years ago. Since then, Munchin’ Hogs has twice been the top team in the nation and spent seven consecutive years in the top 10 of the Kansas City Barbeque Society’s national rankings. Their trophies line one wall of Q39.

“It got to the point where I was just throwing kitchen sinks at the judges,” Magee says. “I made a maple pomegranate rib glaze, mango orange cilantro chicken, and a tamarind glaze on pork. That one [the tamarind] either finished first or last. They either loved it or hated it.”

At their peak, Munchin’ Hogs was competing in 40 events a year. But as Magee prepared to open the restaurant, he slowed down on the barbecue circuit. He still intends to fire up his smokers for The American Royal in October.

“We’re breaking into a new market with the restaurant. We’ve got barbecue and a wood-fired grill and we’re bringing it up to the next level with a full-service bar and an open kitchen,” Magee says.

In the coming weeks, they’ll be building out the to-go area with a wrought-iron fence and pergola. It will be a place where people can pick up their orders or sit at one of four tables and eat a sandwich.

Q39 is just the start of what could be a series of restaurants from Magee. He has ideas for two other concepts (no, he won’t elaborate), both revolving around barbecue.

“People have told me a million reasons why you can’t do competition barbecue in a restaurant,” Magee says. “But I can tell you that’s exactly what I’m going to do.”

The dining room at Q39.

The dining room at Q39.

How do you achieve competition barbecue in a restaurant? We only cook whole brisket. People told me you couldn’t cook whole brisket. You can. You just have a limited amount of burnt ends you serve.

A lot of barbecue restaurants cook their big meats and hold them all day. We put ours on at night so they can come off and have an hour to rest before being served. And then we put the brisket on at 9 a.m. so it can come out by 4:30 p.m., so our dinner customers get the same quality as they would at lunch-time. We also smoke our chicken and then finish it on the wood-fired grill. That’s what gives it such a moist breast.

We make everything from scratch. Our bacon is brined for three days and then smoked. I bought a grinder and sausage maker and spent four months teaching myself to make sausage. We grind our own burgers, they’re half brisket and half chuck — all Certified Angus Beef. Our potato salad is homemade with tarragon. We have a spicy pickle slaw with jalapenos for our brisket burger and we use Granny Smith apples for our Southern slaw to top our sandwiches.

What’s been the feedback since you opened? We look at everything – Yelp, Facebook. And we talk to our servers to find out what people are saying. We make sure that the value and the portion size match up. To that end, we were doing a seven-ounce burger and we made it an eight-ounce burger.

What’s your favorite ingredient? On this menu, it’s got to be chipotle. That comes from being in Texas so long where chipotle and cilantro go hand-in-hand. I picked up a lot of Southwestern cooking and my barbecue shows it. It’s like learning from your mom.

We have a chipotle ketchup with smoked chipotle in it. With the chipotle in our adobo sauce, I like to leave the seeds in and pulverize it. If you use it in the right quantity, it adds a nice spice that heats up your mouth. But it’s not like other peppers that heat you up from the tip of your mouth to the back to where you’re coughing. It’s balanced.

Tell us a bit about the barbecue sauce at Q39. I believe spice is good with food. It opens up the palate. I believe super spicy is bad, it ruins what you’re eating. We offer four sauces: zesty, classic, chipotle cilantro and honey glaze. The classic has a ketchup base with molasses, dark brown sugar and a fruit we bring in from Europe by the palate. We sell our own barbecue and rubs. I never made them available while I was on the barbecue circuit, but now we’re opening up the floodgates.

The smoked salmon salad at Q39.

The smoked salmon salad at Q39.

Where do you like to go eat? I like pizza from a wood-burning oven. Pizzabella has awesome pizza downtown. They have a dynamite sausage pizza and a wild mushroom pizza that is good and rustic. If I’m going for mac n’ cheese, I got to Beer Kitchen. I get the truffle mac and cheese with peas.

If I want value, I’m going to Texas Roadhoase. I love going out and picking my own steak. If you don’t, you will get a vein in the steak. For seafood, It’s McCormick & Schmick’s, I love sea scallops, halibut and sea bass.

Do you have a favorite moment in the kitchen? I did the other day. Twice. Here. I was tired from working a lot of hours. And people ask, ‘aren’t you excited?’ And I say, ‘I’m too busy to be excited.’ But it was Saturday night and I was back on the barbecue station because that’s where I am all the time. I looked to my left and my right and I grabbed my wife and pulled her over to the side.

I told her, ‘this is my restaurant and it’s great. There are people here and look at them all enjoying what I’m going.’ I’ve done that all my life, but that was pretty cool.

[Images via Q39]

Jonathan Bender

Jonathan Bender is the founder of The Recommended Daily.

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