The Salt
7:16 am
Sat February 18, 2012

At Gates Bar-B-Q, The Ultimate Flavor Lies in Burnt Ends

Originally published on Fri February 24, 2012 11:54 am

How do you know you're in Kansas City, Missouri? Follow the smoke, and listen for this:

"Hi, may I help you?"

At the famed Gates Bar-B-Q in Kansas City, "May I help you?" is a kind of mantra.

It's how people standing in front of the barbecue pits greet all who walk in the door, while ribs, brisket, turkey, and for all I know, pillow stuffing sizzle, pop, and get saturated with smoke and the signature sauce of Ollie Gates, the barbecue master.

"We've been around a long time," Gates says. "We first started in Kansas City there was probably six shacks by the tracks, BBQ joints, as we'd call them."

But times have changed. His restaurants are no joints, and his style of cooking has made Kansas City barbecue a regional cuisine that's known worldwide.

He didn't set out to make barbecue legit.

Ollie Gates just thought that a man shouldn't have to worry about bugs to eat good barbecue, so he stresses keeping his places clean. His employees wear white shirts, which stay remarkably unsplotched, and even ties. The show is in the smoke and sauce.

Gates uses closed pits, which trap the smoke and keeps it wafting through the brisket, or turkey or ribs instead of through your shirt, eyes and hair.

But what brought us to Gates is their specialty: burnt ends. To some people, burnt ends would be — forgive this phrase — butt ugly. The meat is placed directly over fire, and stays there to get black and blistered.

Now some people might look at the black, blistered stuff and say, "Whoa! That goes in the dog's dish!" But Gates says that's where the flavor is deepest and smokiest.

"That's the one that's next to the wood, that's the one where you really get the flavor."

Another feature, in these days of molecular gastronomy in which foods are immersed in baths and evaporators and timed to the second, like a spacecraft re-entering the atmosphere, is that the brisket and ribs are on the fire at Gates for ... as long as it takes.

There are no timers or buzzers; just look, feel, and experience. The cooks here know a rack of ribs is ready when it's cooked so tender you can fold it over like a beautifully worked baseball glove.

These days Gates Bar-B-Cue is even more modern. Ollie Gates oversees his operation from a wood paneled room in one of his six restaurants, instead of the pits. Gates has been in business for six decadecs, but makes occasional minor menu adjustments to fit the times.

"Well, we have vegetables that we barbecue, we put them in the pit," he says. "In fact, our barbecue sauce sauce tastes great on greens. Tastes great on broccoli."

But would even Paul McCartney go to Gates just for the broccoli?

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

(SOUNDBITE OF CONVERSATIONS)

SIMON: How do you know you're in Kansas City, Missouri? Follow the smoke and listen for this:

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Hi, may I help you?

SIMON: Famed Gates Bar-B-Q in Kansas City, may I help you is a kind of mantra. Sorry to use that word in a barbecue story, by the way. It's how people standing in front of the barbecue pits greet all who walk in the door, while ribs, brisket, turkey - for all I know - pillow stuffing, sizzle, pop and get saturated with smoke and the signature sauce of Ollie Gates, the barbecue master.

OLLIE GATES: Who said I was the master?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SIMON: Well, your name is synonymous with barbecue.

GATES: Well, thank you. We've been around a long time. We first started in Kansas City. There were about six shacks by the tracks of barbecue joints, as we'd called them.

SIMON: Ollie Gates is the man behind Gates Bar-B-Q Restaurants. And they are restaurants, not joints - no disrespect to joints. Ollie Gates just thought a man shouldn't have to worry about bugs to eat good barbeque, so he stresses keeping his places clean. His employees wear white shirts, which stay remarkably un-splotched, and even ties. The show is in the smoke and sauce.

Did you stand in your kitchen and say, I'm going to make a barbecue sauce that's going to knock people on - well, I...

GATES: My dad did that - my dad and my mother, yes. I would have to tribute that to them.

SIMON: You smell wood smoke in the restaurant but don't wind up wearing it for most of the day. Gates uses closed pits which trap the wood smoke and keeps it wafting through the brisket or turkey or ribs, instead of your shirt, eyes and hair.

But what brought us to Gates is their specialty: burnt ends. Now, to some people, burnt ends would be - forgive this phrase - butt ugly. The meat is placed directly over fire and stays there to get black and blistered.

GATES: They have a tendency when you're cooking done - especially over the open fires like we do - they have a tendency to burn on the edges of the brisket that we use. And they just cut off a little bit of the meat when they're tearing off a lot of the fat. But most of it is primarily of fat. What we really burn is what the burnt ends are.

SIMON: Now some people might look at the black, blistered stuff and say, whoa, that goes in the dog's dish. But Ollie Gates says...

GATES: People don't realize that but that's where most of the flavor is on the out - not on the inside. That's the one that's next to the wood, that's the one where you really get the flavor.

SIMON: Another feature, in these days of molecular gastronomy in which foods are immersed in baths and evaporators and timed to the second, like a spacecraft re-entering the atmosphere, is that the brisket and ribs are on the fire at Gates for, well, as long as it takes. There are no timers or buzzers; just look, feel and experience. The cooks here know a rack of ribs is ready by how it folds.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: You know it's done right there. That slab is folding like that.

SIMON: It looks so tender you can fold it over like a beautifully worked baseball glove.

Mr. Gates, if I asked you what's the secret to great barbecue, could you tell me?

GATES: Personality, that's it. I mean whatever your personality calls for and what you feel that what your tastes are all about, yes.

SIMON: And so, let - let me play this out a bit. I feel paprika.

GATES: You feel what?

SIMON: Paprika.

GATES: What in the world is that?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GATES: Are you saying Paparika?

SIMON: I thought I was saying the word you just uttered. But I said it incorrectly.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GATES: Paparika.

SIMON: Ollie Gates is a modern man who these days oversees his operation from a wood-paneled room in one of his six restaurants, instead of the pits. Gates has been in business for six decades, but they makes occasional minor menu adjustments to fit the times.

GATES: We have vegetables that we barbecue. We put them in the pit. In fact, you know, our barbecue sauce tastes great on greens, tastes great on broccoli.

SIMON: But would even Paul McCartney go to Gates just for the broccoli? Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.