Jeff Stehney walked with the hitching gait of a person bound for the airport carrying one too many bags. In each hand he held a soft-sided suitcase stuffed with a 30-pound brisket on ice. He got as far as the car in the driveway of the Roeland Park home he shares with his wife, Joy, before he went back inside and put the meat in the refrigerator. The co-owner of Oklahoma Joe's was about to fly to the World Brisket Open in Welfare, Texas, without brisket.
A week before that Independence Day weekend in 1992, he shipped his knives, wood — bags of oak and cherry — and spices to a friend in San Antonio. He arranged to borrow an Oklahoma Joe smoker from an area dealer. And when he and Joy touched down in that city, they headed straight for the Kraft Foods commissary (at the time, Stehney was a district sales manager for the company), where a backup pair of briskets sat waiting. Stehney's casual weekend trip was actually a tactical strike that the barbecue world never saw coming.
"I knew that a Roeland Park guy, Paul Kirk, had won it the year before," Stehney says. "He was the only Kansas City guy out of 60 teams. I figured if he could do it, we could do it."
Adding to his confidence was the fact that, less than two months before the Texas cook-off, Stehney and Joy earned Reserve Grand Champion honors at a barbecue contest in Raytown. "I was probably hooked from that moment on," he says.
Each World Brisket Open team was allowed as many entries as it was willing to pay for. At the Don Strange Ranch, in Welfare, Stehney entered two briskets at $100 apiece under the team name Slaughterhouse Five.
"We'd mistimed it, and I remember we're still a good 150 or 200 yards away from the tent when I hear our team name," Stehney says. "I turned to Joy and said, 'I think we just won something. I think it was second place.' Then I started running and I heard our name again. And I know I heard the words 'grand champion.' I stopped in my tracks because we had just won first and second."
As the couple took the stage, the crowd booed. A Kansas City team winning a Texas competition for the second year in a row was an unpopular choice. Jeff and Joy didn't mind. They were taking home gold trophies and prize checks totaling $6,500.
"Joy told me on the car ride back that she had been prepared to give this long, thought-out speech as to why this trip and the barbecue thing was one of the dumbest things she'd ever seen," Stehney says. "Right until we won."
Since then, the restaurant founded on that victory, Oklahoma Joe's, has emerged as an Oz for barbecue travelers, with Jeff Stehney its wizard. The hungry arrive from every state (Marketing Director Doug Worgul claims to have seen Hawaii and Alaska represented in the parking lot on the same day), eager to taste the meat cooked in the six smokers behind an otherwise ordinary Shamrock gas station in Kansas City, Kansas.
Some of the pilgrims stand next to a picture of Anthony Bourdain, the chef and author who included the restaurant in his "13 Places to Eat Before You Die," a June 2009 piece in Men's Health magazine. But most simply line up for the 'cue that has been anointed by food shows and national critics as the reason that humans put fire to meat.
"Oklahoma Joe's is number one without a doubt," says chef Paul Kirk, one of the founding members of the Kansas City Barbeque Society. "In rain, snow or sleet or whatever, at 4 p.m. on a Saturday afternoon, you see that line coming out the door. He found a product that people like better than the other stuff."