Friday evening was a flurry of activity on the grounds of Sar-Ko-Par Trails Park in Lenexa as nearly 200 teams began preparing for the Great Lenexa BBQ Battle. Burgeoning BBQ pitmasters lit the tinder in their smokeboxes while teammates fretted over just how much fat to trim from a pork butt.
But under a nondescript tent along the long line of cooks hoping for BBQ glory, Roeland Park resident Paul Kirk sat back. This wasn’t his first rodeo. But after 36 years competing at the Lenexa event — which has since 1984 been the official Kansas State BBQ Championship — Kirk is ready to hand over the reins of his operation to the next generation.
Kirk had been working as a chef at a road house-style restaurant in Lenexa when some colleagues encouraged him to enter a BBQ competition. He decided to give it a try in fall 1981, signing up for the American Royal. The experience was, as he describes it, “a disaster.” A flat tire, untested equipment and inexperience had him scrambling just to get something submitted to the judges. So he was more than a little surprised when the results came back and he’d taken first place in the chicken division and second place in ribs.
The next year, he was one of just a dozen competitors to enter the inaugural Great Lenexa BBQ Battle, founded by Lenexa residents Alan Uhl and Pat Dalton. He took the grand champion title in that event.
“My trophy was a case of beer — minus two,” Kirk recalled. “I don’t want to say who took them. But maybe it was Alan Uhl and Pat Dalton.”
From there, Kirk’s place as a fixture on the Kansas City BBQ scene only grew. Friends started calling him the Kansas City Baron of Barbecue – a name that’s stuck. In 1989, he began teaching BBQ classes, passing along the tricks of the trade to hundreds of would-be smoke-and-sauce experts. He’s written 12 books on barbecue technique, and has taken his knowledge abroad with classes in Norway, Ireland, Canada, South Korea, Switzerland and England. He’s a member of the Barbecue Hall of Fame.
And he’s the last of the cooks who competed in the first Great Lenexa BBQ Battle back in 1982 to still be active in the event. Though he’s been to competitions all over the country, it’s remained a highlight for him each year.
“It’s unreal the camaraderie at BBQ competitions,” he said. “My kids kind of grew up here.”
Next year, he plans to hand control of the Kansas City Baron of BBQ team over to his daughter. It would be the first time in the event’s history he wasn’t listed as the team leader.
“I’m going to turn it over to my daughter, I think,” he said. “I’ve been threatening to do that for a few years now. But I’ll still be out here. I’m sure the ‘bank of dad’ will be financing the whole thing.”