Tracing the trail of BBQ to Kansas City
A stroll down Rue de la Huchette is a tour through quintessential Paris.
Situated along the Left Bank just off the river Seine, the corridor is one of Paris’s oldest streets and home to a number of historic buildings harboring the eclectic shops and restaurants that exemplify the Latin Quarter.
Tucked neatly away at 13 Rue de la Huchette is Rosie’s Smokehouse.
At first glance, the restaurant seems decidedly French, with its elegant wooden storefront and Art Deco-inspired sign. Yet an American flag waves proudly over Rosie’s entrance.
That’s thanks to award-winning pitmaster Mitch Benjamin, the man responsible for turning Rosie’s Smokehouse into the unofficial embassy of Kansas City-style barbecue.
“The owners posted an ad on Craigslist,” Benjamin said. “They wanted the experience of American barbecue in Paris. They wanted the flavors and the tastes.”
Co-owner of Westport hotspot Char Bar, Benjamin is a world champion barbecuer. His team, Meat Mitch, has won numerous awards at competitions like American Royal and Memphis in May, and grocery stores across the country carry his rubs and sauces.
The last two years, Benjamin has been working to open Meat Mitch, a restaurant in the Ranchmart shopping center named after his competitive team. Delays in the shopping center’s renovations put the project on hold. This hiatus emboldened Benjamin to respond to the Craigslist ad earlier this year.
It wasn’t long before the restaurant’s owners, Louis and Melissa Khenane, reached out.
“My pitch to them was that I was a competition barbecue chef,” Benjamin said. “I think that really caught Louis’ eye. He loves brisket, so I told him how my team won first place in the world for our brisket.”
Despite his laurels and his experience with Char Bar, Benjamin had never actually worked a kitchen in a restaurant setting. Before leaving two years ago to open Meat Mitch, his position as a manufacturer’s representative with TaylorMade Golf Company kept him too busy to be part of Char Bar’s day-to-day operations.
“I was nervous during the interview process because I didn’t want Melissa and Louis to think that I was a chef in a restaurant,” he said. “I kept saying, ‘Hey, you need to understand I don’t know the line or the systems or any of that kind of stuff,’ but they said we could learn together.”
After a series of interviews, Louis Khenane invited Benjamin for a two-month stay in France, from March to May, his airfare and a studio apartment provided. All Benjamin would need to bring was a suitcase and his expertise.
With the encouragement of his wife and two children, Benjamin left the Paris of the Plains for Paris on the Seine, a bit concerned over what, exactly, he might find when he arrived.
“When I walked into the restaurant it was absolutely stunning,” he said. “It has a glass ceiling, a really cool walk-up smoker on display, a beautiful bar area. It could have been an armpit, I didn’t know!”
The location had been a restaurant before Khenane, who owns several creperies in Paris, purchased and renovated the space.
There, Benjamin would help Khenane and head chef Paul Patterson, a New Zealand transplant and restaurant consultant, develop Rosie’s menu and brand. But there was a catch: the restaurant had opened two days before Benjamin arrived.
“I thought there would be a couple weeks to figure stuff out,” he said. “But no, it was full steam ahead as soon as I hit the ground.”
From his first day on the job, the communal spirit of Kansas City barbecue was alive and well at Rosie’s.
“Paul was my best mate from day one,” Benjamin said. “One of the first things I did when I got here was teach him how to make a traditional Kansas City-style rub and sauce, how to prepare the meat, slice the ribs and plate it all like we do in America.”
This mirrored Benjamin’s own introduction to Kansas City-style barbecue. Though he’s a pillar of the Midwestern barbecue community, Benjamin is a Lancaster, Pennsylvania, native.
After graduating from Pennsylvania State University, Benjamin took a job with TaylorMade that brought him to Overland Park in 1996. His neighbor, Jim Hickey, ushered him into the world of smoke.
“The house next to me belonged to a couple of empty nesters,” he said. “Their kids were gone and they had a swimming pool and a smoker and a refrigerator full of beer, so I’d go over every day after work and hang out. Jim taught me how to smoke and do all that stuff. I went to the American Royal and saw how fun it was and just immersed myself in that whole world.”
Little did he know he would become the de facto KC Barbecue Ambassador to France. Still, working in a new country posed some unexpected challenges.
“In the States, you don’t run out of cayenne pepper,” he said. “There’s heaps of it. Here, your distributor might not have it for two weeks. The sourcing is inconsistent. Some days you get a 15 pound brisket and the next day they’ll deliver something half the size.”
Benjamin also cut some spiciness from his recipes to accommodate the local palate, but both he and Khenane were committed to delivering authentic fare.
Here in Kansas City, we know what that means.
“We’re making burnt ends,” he said. “No one knew what they were and I’d walk around with some on a plate and give them to customers. Their eyes would just light up. I’d tell them, ‘It’s what Kansas City is known for and it’s on the menu. We’ll have them every day.’”
It’s that Kansas City flair that sets Rosie’s apart from Paris’ smattering of barbecue establishments.
The Beast and Melt are two popular joints, both located near Benjamin’s apartment in the city’s République neighborhood. Benjamin described them as Texas-style, which he said uses simpler salt-and-pepper based rubs and a thinner, more broth-like sauce compared to Kansas City’s trademark spicy-sweet thickness.
Rosie’s menu relies on the diversity of the Kansas City-style, boasting options like Wagyu Beef brisket, smoked chicken and cold smoked salmon.
“In Kansas City, we do all the meats,” Benjamin said. “Ribs, brisket, pulled pork, burnt ends, chicken, we’re consistent and do all of it well.”
And the word has gotten out. Benjamin said business has steadily increased over the last two months.
In true Kansas City fashion, some locals have even developed fierce loyalty to Rosie’s barbecue.
“There are a few customers that come in every day to hang out,” Benjamin said. “They’ve really become part of my life.”
When Benjamin returns to Kansas City on May 5, he plans to jump headfirst into preparations for Meat Mitch’s opening this fall. In the meantime, he’s making sure Kansas City’s Parisian legacy is secure.
“Louis asked me several times to make sure I train everyone,” he said, “three or four guys who work there so everyone gets it. We’ve taken pictures, written down recipes and methods, taken video of how to do everything. So when I go home and if Paul goes somewhere else, all the procedures are in place.”
Of course, Paris left its mark on Benjamin, as well. Rosie’s is only steps away from jaw-dropping views of the Notre Dame Cathedral. Benjamin was working at the restaurant when the 800-year-old icon caught fire on April 15.
“We watched the building burn,” he said. “Ash was raining down on our hair and on our clothes. At 1 a.m. everyone was in the streets singing. It gave me goosebumps.”
The barbecue seems to have only whetted his colleagues’ appetites for Kansas City. Louis Khenane plans to visit Char Bar as well as Meat Mitch once the new restaurant is open. Patterson, however, couldn’t wait.
“I’m bringing Paul home with me,” Benjamin said, laughing. “He’s never been to the States, so he’s going to come and stay with me and my family then help me compete at Memphis in May in the World Barbecue Championships.”
Paris and Kansas City may be half a world apart, but the City of Lights and the City of Fountains are now bonded by smoke rings.
“I am extremely grateful to the owners and the city for the opportunity and for embracing me,” Benjamin said. “I know I have made lifelong friends.”
Char Bar is at at 4050 Pennsylvania Ave. in Westport. Meat Mitch will be located at Ranchmart Shopping Center, 95th Street and Mission Road in Leawood.