Chow Town

Some of KC’s best barbecue comes from an unsung hero, pitmaster Bill Chaney

Barbecue pit master Bill Chaney has built nearly 20 pits for the KC area's best known restaurants

In the first of our “We the Pitmasters” series, we meet Bill Chaney, 85, who built his first brick barbecue pit for Russ Fiorella in 1957. Chaney has constructed nearly 20 pits in and around Kansas City and he represents a link to Kansas City barb
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In the first of our “We the Pitmasters” series, we meet Bill Chaney, 85, who built his first brick barbecue pit for Russ Fiorella in 1957. Chaney has constructed nearly 20 pits in and around Kansas City and he represents a link to Kansas City barb

At the end of a Monday lunch rush at Fiorella’s Jack Stack Barbecue in Overland Park, the heavy iron doors of the restaurant’s main brick pit swing open to reveal a drip hierarchy.

Crusty barked briskets drip their fat down onto fire-kissed pork spareribs and sizzling sausage, then down another row to mahogany wings and bone-in chicken. As soft pillows of hickory-scented smoke waft around the meat, a braising pan of baked beans is carefully positioned at the bottom to catch every last drop of liquid gold.

The key to pit barbecue is to cook low and slow, with heat rather than fire. But it’s not enough to build a brick box. The elements in the construction of the pit — spacing between racks, size of the firebox, smokestack design — impact how effectively a pitmaster can control the final succulence and tenderness of the meat cooked within.

“Your drippings fall on your wood and put some flavor back into the meat,” says master pit builder William “Bill” Chaney. “People used to eating real barbecue can tell the difference. I can tell whether it was cooked today or yesterday, cooked in an oven or with wood.”

Chaney — a diminutive yet spry 85-year-old dressed this day in a plaid shirt, stiff new denim jeans and a well-worn ball cap — is modest about his contributions to the local barbecue scene. He insists he’s only been doing his job, building pits to the specifications and preferences of his customers.

But the skilled bricklayer is also an unsung hero in Kansas City’s barbecue legacy, one with links all the way back to Charlie Bryant, a disciple of Henry Perry, who history books say was the first man who sold barbecue here.

Since 1957, Chaney has built close to 20 pits in and around Kansas City, including all the Jack Stack locations except Lee’s Summit, LC’s Bar-B-Q, Winslow’s BBQ, Smokehouse Bar-B-Que, The Stack Bar BQ and Summit Hickory Pit BBQ. And although he did not build the legendary Arthur Bryant’s pits, since 1962 Chaney has been their go-to guy, patching up the cracks as the restaurant closes down every New Year’s Eve for a week of maintenance.

To build the fire-breathing beast at the Overland Park Jack Stack, Chaney spent a month laying 2,000 refractory bricks designed to withstand intense 4,000- to 5,000-degree heat.

The first 6-by-7-foot pit Chaney built for the restaurant in 1997 proved too small for the heavy lifting of daily service and today is used primarily to sear steaks. The current 9-by-9-foot pit was added in 1999. The biggest pit Chaney ever built was the double pit in Jack Stack’s banquet facility south of the chain’s Martin City restaurant that is used for catering events for up to 10,000 people.

Chaney doesn’t get the chance to build as many of these wood-burning brick pits anymore. It’s not that the physical labor is too much — he still works regularly as a construction contractor.

No, blame it on the dawning of a new breed of smokers and rotisserie ovens powered by gas or electricity, what Chaney dismisses as “barbecue ovens.”

Sure, the new gadgets can accommodate a couple of wood chunks in the firebox for seasoning, and the temperature gauges undoubtedly take a lot of the guesswork out of producing consistently tasty barbecue for the masses, but purists argue that it is a far cry from the intensely smoky flavor imparted in a brick pit.

“If you don’t have a pit, you don’t have barbecue,” insists Ardie Davis, a local barbecue philosopher and chronicler who will be inducted into the American Royal’s Barbecue Hall of Fame this fall. “You don’t just throw a bunch of bricks together. You have to understand heat control, venting, getting wood smoke — but not grease smoke — into the meat. Bill has an innate understanding of how all that works.”

Seasoning the pitmasters

Chaney was born in Jefferson City in 1931 and moved to Kansas City as a child. By the time he was 12 years old, he would occasionally work as a dishwasher to earn 25 cents an hour and a sandwich from Charlie Bryant, Arthur Bryant’s older brother.

Charlie Bryant had apprenticed with Henry Perry, a pitmaster from Shelby County, near Memphis. Perry had arrived in Kansas City via steamboat in 1907. According to “Kansas City: A Food Biography” (Brown & Littlefield) by local culinary historian Andrea Broomfield, Perry had begun learning the art of barbecue at age 7. He eventually worked as a steamboat cook and a saloon porter.

A savvy self-promoter, Perry decided to sell barbecue, a food that since George Washington’s time had only been given away at political picnics and rallies. In an interview with The Kansas City Call, Perry boasted there was “only one way to cook barbecue: over a wood fire, with a properly constructed oven and pit.”

Perry’s success selling barbecue from a cart and then various restaurants around town encouraged other African-American entrepreneurs to join in. By the 1930s, there were 100 barbecue restaurants in Kansas City, about the same number as the Kansas City Convention & Visitors Association estimates are active today.

Chaney credits his masonry skills to a hard-driving boss named Lawrence “Larry” Bolbecker, who came to Kansas City from Harrisburg, Pa. In 1957, Chaney teamed up with small contractor Archie Pierce to build a pit for Russ Fiorella, who was starting the family’s first restaurant, Smokestack Barbeque at 8129 S. U.S. 71.

One of Russ’ sons, Jack Fiorella, was still in high school in those early days, but the business grew and was handed down, first to Jack and his siblings, and then to Jack’s son-in-law, Case Dorman.

The family members continued to contract with Chaney for projects both at the restaurants and in their homes, and Chaney became like an extended family member. Chaney still occasionally gets together with Jack for a snoot sandwich at the Tenderloin Grill on Southwest Boulevard.

“He’s so nonchalant,” says Chaney’s 51-year-old daughter, Vonda Chaney-Logan, who lives in Raytown and grew up eating plenty of Jack Stack barbecue. “He doesn’t feel like he’s done anything special. It’s a job, and that’s just how he treats it, but if they didn’t have him, they wouldn’t have barbecue.”

Though a new generation would brand Chaney’s skills as “artisanal,” he saw it as nothing more than a means of survival: “Being black, it was hard keeping work, so I had to work for myself.”

While Perry and Arthur Bryant were terrific self-promoters, Chaney is about as low-key as they come: “I’m only the builder, not the cook,” he insists. “If you had me cooking, it would burn up.”

Over the years, Chaney, whom Vonda insists knows his way around his Hyde Park kitchen, has come to prefer a steady diet of beans and greens over delicacies of the flesh.

“When you work in a barbecue all the time it becomes a meal you don’t crave,” he says. “My wife used to say, ‘Baby, don’t bring anymore barbecue home!’ When you work around it, you got the scent on your body, and you carry it in your nose. You get over it.”

Oven vs. pit

When Bill Angell arrived at Fiorella’s Jack Stack from his native New England in 2009, he knew he would have a steep learning curve.

He spent his first year and a half working as a kitchen manager to learn the finer points of ’cue — “and that’s not a lot of barbecue time when you think of pitmasters who have been at it for 30, 40, 60 years,” he adds.

As the lunch rush in the dining room subsides, Angell, who is now general manager of the Overland Park restaurant, takes a few minutes to admire the restaurant’s brick pit, pointing out the “beauty of the configuration” — a series of racks that allow the chicken and sausage to cook at 400 degrees above the fire, and the ambient heat to cook the ribs and briskets layered above.

“The briskets that are all the way at the top are rendering as the process goes on,” Angell explains. “In our day and age, fat has a terribly negative connotation. But for us it’s absolutely awesome here because all of the rendered fat drips down on everything else we’re cooking.”

At the bottom of the hierarchy is the braising pan of the restaurant’s famous hickory pit beans.

“You get that drip coming down there from pork and beef and it adds a flavor you cannot get anywhere. People frequently ask for the recipe, or at least the ratio, but what they don’t realize is there’s a step in this entire process you can’t replicate at all if you don’t have something like that,” Angell says, again pointing to the heart of the operation.

The pit doors are open so the blackened interior can be cleaned and powerwashed before the firebox is stoked for another round of cooking. But in an operation of Jack Stack’s size there are, of course, Southern Pride ovens creeping into the periphery of the kitchens.

These newer rotisserie ovens distill barbecue artistry into a science, which is admirable and, frankly, safer than tending a live fire, Angell says. After all, someone has to keep close tabs on the pit, which operates daily from 4 a.m. to 4 p.m.

“We have to have someone watch every single minute because these things can go up in flames in a second,” Angell says. “But what you gain is the ability to touch, watch and control every single element of the process. You are so much more involved in the cooking process itself, as opposed to closing the door and letting the temperature tell you when it’s ready. I mean, this is really where the art takes place.”

Evolution meets revolution

LC Richardson of LC’s Bar-B-Q fame is an old-school pitmaster, the kind who prefers to monitor the pit by putting a hand directly into the belly of the beast.

“The thermostat is in your head,” Richardson says, tapping his temple as he catches up with Chaney on a recent rainy afternoon. “The hardest part is trying to teach my pitmasters how to manage the fire. You’ve got to manage your fire.”

Richardson, 81, grew up in Mississippi and recalls constructing a barbecue pit from an old tire covered with hog wire as a kid. He moved to Kansas City in 1953, worked in restaurants and eventually became executive chef for Farmland Industries from 1973 to 1986.

He took early retirement to open his own restaurant, which attracts legions of high-profile fans, from Chiefs and Royals players to Kansas City-born author Calvin Trillin.

Richardson started his business cooking outdoors over a steel drum until he could afford to build a brick pit. Now he has begun preliminary talks with Chaney to build another pit for an upcoming LC’s restaurant opening in Truman Corners in Grandview next year.

“It’s very expensive, but you make the money back if you have a good product,” Chaney says. “Just look at these people sitting around. If LC didn’t have a good product these people would not be sitting around here at 2 o’clock in the afternoon looking for something to eat.”

Indeed, the cost of a brick pit is forcing many to rely on alternative pit styles. Brick pits — including masonry and iron work only — can cost $60,000, plus the expense of burning an average of five cords of wood a week.

Everything — except maybe the camaraderie of barbecue — is changing with the times.

“Barbecue is the most important force of our local culture. I don’t think anything else even comes close,” Angell says. “It is a huge unifying point, and we’re starting to get the Hispanic community involved. They’ve brought a huge tradition of barbecuing into this community, with places like El Pollo Rey (in Kansas City, Kan.). It is mind-blowing what they do with chicken.”

Over the last four decades, competition barbecue has created a whole new cadre of knowledgeable barbecue enthusiasts who are ready to spread, adapt and improve on that gospel of smoke. Many of those teams from the competition circuit are adding restaurants to their resumes, including Q39, Plowboys and Slaps.

Meanwhile, Chaney — ever the diplomat — notes that during slavery, pitmasters made the best of “the leavings of the white man,” while today barbecue often means tender cuts of Angus or grass-fed beef.

“If I tell you what my dad used to barbecue, you wouldn’t eat it. He used to barbecue ’coons and possums,” Chaney says with a laugh. “Progress is progress. As time goes by, things get better.”

But if you’re still pining for the good ol’ days of smoke and fire, Chaney is your man.

“First and foremost, he’s an artisan and he takes such care when he designs and builds an oven,” says Case Dorman, Jack Stack’s president and CEO. “That was important to us because we see barbecue as an art form. A lot of guys can build a brick box, but not everyone can build an oven.”

Jill Wendhot Silva is The Star’s James Beard award-winning food editor, lead restaurant critic and Chow Town blog curator. Reach her at @kcstarfood.

We the Pitmasters series

In order to form a more perfect union of smoke and meat, we profile pitmasters — wizards of wood, smoke and fire who often work unseen in the trenches. These are the people who perfect and perpetuate Kansas City’s own unique style of barbecue. Look for additional profiles throughout the summer and fall.

Pros and cons of brick pits

As gas- and electric-powered barbecue pits and rotisseries take hold in the industry, brick pits are falling out of favor. Here’s why.

Pros:

Pitmaster controls the fire.

Natural wood smoke seeps deep into the meat for great flavor.

It helps preserve a traditional American culinary art form.

Cons:

Pitmaster must control the fire, avoiding flare-ups and fires that can cause injury or loss of property.

Brick pits are costly to build and maintain, requiring additional skill and manpower to operate on a daily basis.

It takes a lot of wood for the fire, adding another cost.

Burning wood contributes to environmental pollution, both indoors and out.

A tally of Chaney’s pits

Since the first pit Bill Chaney built for Russ Fiorella in 1957, many restaurants have opened and closed, and sometimes the pits have been demolished. The original Smokestack closed in 2006, and the pit is gone. These examples of Chaney’s craftsmanship remain in operation:

Fiorella’s Jack Stack Barbecue:

▪ 13441 Holmes Road, Kansas City, and banquet facility at 13645 Holmes Road.

▪ 101 W. 22nd St. #300, Kansas City

▪ 4747 Wyandotte St., Kansas City

▪ 9520 Metcalf Ave., Overland Park

LC’s Bar-B-Q, 5800 Blue Parkway, Kansas City

Winslow’s BBQ, 20 E. Fifth St. Kansas City

The Stack BBQ, 8920 Wornall Road, Kansas City

Smokehouse Bar-B-Que:

▪ 6304 N. Oak Trafficway, Gladstone

▪ 19000 E. 39th St., Independence

Summit Hickory Pit BBQ: 1012 S.E. Blue Parkway, Lee’s Summit

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