Starting a new business always favors the bold and scrappy, but doubly so during an international pandemic. In the case of Justin Easterwood, who launched his regionally diverse craft barbecue spot, Chef J BBQ, in the West Bottoms one week before coronavirus closures started to pile up like cordwood, it wasn’t that much of an adjustment—scrappiness was always part of the plan.
“We started with the February First Friday,” Easterwood says. “We came back in March, and it was good, so we signed the lease. Boom: The city shuts down the next week. I was getting all ramped up for the Big 12 tournament, and when they canceled that I was like, ‘Welp, that’s not good.’”
But about that lease: You’ll find Chef J in the cafeteria area of The Beast, a haunted house. Easterwood converted a concession stand into his barbecue restaurant. And then there’s his equally scrappy smoker, a seven-hundred gallon pit that’s a half century old, formerly owned by a guy in Sioux City, Nebraska.
“I saw it and I said, ‘That’s a good looking pit,’ so I put some love to it and put it back to work,” he says. But it’s not nearly as efficient as a modern pit—he has to feed a fresh log into it every twenty minutes or so during his twelve-hour brisket cooks.
“It’ll chew through a log real fast,” Easterwood says. “Ninety-nine percent of barbecue spots, they’re cooking on Southern Pride or Old Hickory and they can just plug it in the wall and let it go. But we’re not doing that. The only hickory we have is hickory wood. It just takes the time to do it right. Cooking it right, resting it right. I do a real simple rub—just salt, pepper and garlic, it’s real simple. I take a lot of pride in the product I serve. I don’t ever want to compromise quality.”
The work is worth it. Even with his hours limited to Saturday at the moment, Chef J BBQ is already on the top tier of KC ’cue. Everything we tasted on a recent sampler plate was made in-house, and all was great-pushing-excellent. Chef J’s unadorned, Texas-style brisket is moist even in one-inch chucks—it’s top three in the city, for my money.
The other standouts at Chef J are the sausages, ground loose from meat trimmings and cased over several days.
“I’m from an Italian family so with my grandma, ninety-nine percent of what she cooks is homemade,” Easterwood says. “So I grew up with her making Italian sausages.”
Chef J’s pulled pork is basic but gets some extra flair from a spicy yellow mustard sauce, much like the kind you’ll find for pulled pork in South Carolina. Easterwood actually recommends that mustard sauce for his sausages.
“I love Kansas City, but I’ve never been a big Kansas City barbecue fan because the sauces are too sweet—I’m not a big molasses fan,” he says. “I started playing with sausages and I found out about vinegar and mustard sauce, and to me that’s the perfect combination.”