Published September 29th, 2023 at 6:00 AM7 minute read
A cloud of savory smoke will envelop the Kansas Speedway this weekend as 500 competitive teams duke it out at the American Royal World Series of Barbecue. To prepare, meet three Kansas Citians who are working behind the scenes to promote Kansas City’s most iconic food.
Veronica Scroggins finishes off slabs of pork ribs with a layer of brown sugar and a dousing of apple juice before she covers the pan with plastic wrap and slides it into the smoker.
Scroggins has spent the last year pushing back on deeply rooted stereotypes of gender and race by learning the art of smoking meat at Scott’s Kitchen and Catering at Hangar 29 located at 11920 N. Ambassador Drive near the Kansas City International Airport.
“I think it’s a stigma, like barbecue, manly, grrrrrr! So, nobody ever thinks someone who is dainty can sling meat,” says Scroggins, who describes herself as a blunt talker.
Scroggins, 47, recalls a day in 2008 when a local barbecue legend nearly extinguished her dream of becoming a pitmaster.
She was working at Papa Lew’s Soul Delicious when the gentleman turned up at the restaurant. Cheered on by her employer and her father, Scroggins screwed up her courage and asked how she could break into the ranks of pitmaster.
“He told me straight to my face women don’t cook in my kitchen,” Scroggins recalls. “I’ll tell you he crushed my spirit and my soul … I figured then I’d need to go outside my community to find what I needed.”
Scroggins got a foot in the door working at Plowboy’s Barbecue as a shift manager. American Royal Barbecue Grand Champion Todd Johns took her under his wing, but as she was beginning to learn how to cut, trim and season meat the chain’s three restaurants closed.
Johns encouraged Scroggins to apply at Scott’s Kitchen, and for the last year she has been commuting 25 minutes to train with Scott Umscheid, a white pitmaster and someone Scroggins describes as both “innovative” and “challenging.”
“When I met Veronica, it took me 15 minutes to realize this is a special person and we want her to work with us. I just don’t know if I ever thought about her being a pitmaster,” Umscheid says. “But when she said she wanted to learn all the barbecue stuff, we started aggressively training her. Anyone who comes with a true passion and commitment to learn and grow, I want all of those people.”
These days business at Scott’s Kitchen is growing so fast Umscheid says 99% of the prep is done by his kitchen crew. Scroggins estimates she has put on 2,400 briskets to cook, while only achieving the perfect smoke ring four times.
“There’s a big learning curve. If you force it, you get rough meat. You can’t rush the process. It’s like raising a baby,” she says.
Hazards of the job include busting her head open on the smoker door and slathering packets of French’s Yellow Mustard on her hands to keep blisters from forming when her hands got too close to the heat.
Scroggins has found her way into the fraternity of pitmasters, and she proudly refers to herself as a “Lady Pitmaster.”
“I don’t mind being the only Black girl in the room,” she says. “The training was the key. I pretty much meld anywhere I go.”
She’s just grateful to have finally found a mentor.
“Scott is a different kind of owner. He’s a father figure. Smart. Funny. Challenging. He pushes us to do big challenges,” she says. “It’s amazing to work for somebody who actually pushes you to learn and (one who) pays a woman of color her worth. It took me more than a decade to get here, but I finally made it.”
Food photography often gets a bad rap, mostly because the goal in advertising is to create a stylized product shot.
But there’s nothing fake about Tarik Sykes’ barbecue shots for Proud Souls Barbecue & Provisions, a Colorado-based chain of three stores specializing in grills, smokers, accessories, fuels, spices, rubs and specialty meats.
“My goal is to cook it, shoot it, eat it. And that’s it,” the 44-year-old food photographer says, “And then I want people to say, ‘That looks good,’ and I want to reply, ‘It was!’ That’s it. I want you to know it’s not fake, not like some toothpaste for mayo, or some such silliness.”
When Sykes landed in Kansas City in 2017, he bought a smoker and began to focus his lens on hunks of meat licked by orange flames and branded with perfect char marks. He shoots with a Canon R3, a camera he says is equipped with a sensor adept at capturing tendrils of smoke. He likes to play with contrast to help grill marks stand out. But he’s not a big fan of Adobe Photoshop, preferring to dial the pinkish hue of a prized smoke ring through luminance rather than bumping the saturation.
Sykes honed his photography skills working for nearly a decade on the New York hip-hop scene, including product shots for sneakers and fitted caps. He owns over 500 fitted caps and wears one daily.
“I just treat a brisket like it’s a pair of shoes or a hat, I’m trying to get the right perspective and the right composition on it,” he says.
Sykes began posting his barbecue photos at @bbqwithrikrik and garnered sponsorships from affiliated businesses such as rubs, sauces, charcoal, wood chips, smokers, etc., as well as project work for competitive teams and barbecue restaurants.
Until this summer, Sykes made his living as a custodian while trying figure out a way to turn his side hustle into a full-time career. Outside of Texas’s famed Robert Jacob Lerma, there aren’t a lot of photographers specializing in barbecue, and still fewer specializing in both photography and videography.
Richard Fergola of Fergolicious, an award-winning, Gardner, Kansas, competitive team, met Sykes when he walked into the barbecue store he worked at with phone in hand casually filming for Instagram. Sykes wanted to meet Fergola, who has been featured on Season 5 of “BBQ Pitmasters” on Destination America & Food Network’s “Chopped.”
The two men hit it off and Fergola invited Sykes to barbecue-related events to shoot. Sykes’ big break finally came two months ago when, with a helpful nudge from Fergola, Sykes was hired as a full-time employee of the newly opened Proud Souls’ first Kansas City store at 8646 N. Boardwalk Ave.
“We’re lucky to have him. He has a great eye and understands barbecue,” says Fergola, who is director of marketing and Proud Souls and will compete in the American Royal Barbecue Competition with Sykes by his side this weekend.
Fergola’s favorite shot is a portrait Sykes took of him holding a jiggly, fat and juicy slice of brisket that bends over his index finger to show off the tenderness.
“Coolest barbecue picture there is, period,” he says.
But Fergola credits Syke’s rise to bonafide barbecue photographer to knowing how to cook (as well as barbecue and grill), a skill set that is learned over time and often incurs a separate expense for a business.
As the amount of content needed for both storytelling and advertising increases, bringing photography skills in-house increasingly makes sense for businesses.
“Social (media) keeps evolving, and businesses need to have a place in social and, so being consistent and pumping out content, whether it is reels, full videos or photos, or whether it is a call to promote something going on in the store (is important),” he says. “People in the store can do it, but a lot of businesses are taking the leap to bring it in.”
While mingling with other photographers through his barbecue pursuits, Sykes recently has added freelance sports photography at Kansas City Royals games to his resume.
“I’ve never been for the spotlight. I’m more (comfortable) behind the camera, but barbecue is the catalyst for the other dreams,” he says.
Bernetta McKindra is the granddaughter of Henry Perry, the man widely celebrated as the father of Kansas City barbecue.
Perry died long before McKindra was born, and few family members talked about him. She had only a vague understanding of her late grandfather’s contributions to the culinary art form until she learned in 2017 that he had been posthumously inducted into the American Royal Barbecue Hall of Fame in 2014.
“Growing up we knew Henry Perry was a ‘Barbecue King,’” McKindra says. “But we did not know the extent of what that meant because we were Black, and a lot of Black people barbecued.”
Perry arrived in Kansas City in 1907 as part of the Great Migration. He worked as a porter in a saloon and a year later opened a stand selling barbecue. By the time of his death in 1940, he had grown prosperous enough to boast several restaurant locations.
Today, one reason Perry’s name remains significant is the link to Arthur Bryant’s and Gates Bar-B-Q, both restaurants that trace their roots to pitmasters he trained.
Perry also had a knack for using marketing tactics of the day. He took out ads proclaiming himself the “Barbecue King,” and most importantly for the current understanding of his legacy, the local press covered his business and related charitable pursuits.
“Like the (article) in 1920 saying he fed 1,000 people. What gives me such pride is this isn’t oral history. This is written down. This is documented. These are newspaper articles. Wow, they stood in line for his barbecue!” McKindra says.
Since 2017, McKindra has been warmly welcomed into contemporary barbecue circles, and while she enjoys her sudden celebrity, she has decided to use the Henry Perry legacy as a way to help others gain a seat at the table.
A year ago, she created the Henry Perry Foundation, a nonprofit devoted to helping promote the ideals of Black entrepreneurship through leadership, charity and financial literacy.
“It’s so much of what I’ve always done: taught leadership and opened doors,” says McKindra, who has spent her career as a nonprofit professional. “This is an opportunity to bring people forward.”
Although McKindra is unable to add to her grandfather’s historical record through personal anecdotes, she will continue to play a key role in extending Henry Perry’s legacy into the future.
“In history, if you don’t have an advocate, you go to the sidelines,” says Michael Sweeney, an independent researcher and historian who has served as archivist for the American Jazz Museum and the Black Archives of Mid-America.
“What she provides is a sense of authenticity and a sense of connection,” he continues. “The other thing the foundation does is expand his legacy beyond barbecue. In that way, he becomes more than a name on the road to something else.”
Jill Wendholt Silva is Kansas City’s James Beard award-winning food editor and writer.