Eight years ago Dr. Rich Davis, a Kansas City child psychiatrist and former medical school dean, was just another backyard chef engaged in the familiar quest for yet a better barbecue sauce—the perfect complement to a choice slab of hickory-smoked, lip-smackin’ ribs. Starting with a recipe from a friend of a friend, he recalls, “I changed some of the ingredients and seasonings until it was the best damn stuff I’d ever tasted. It couldn’t get any better.”
Quite a boast, especially in a city that proclaims itself one of the nation’s barbecue meccas. But Dr. Davis may have had a point. His original tomato-molasses-and-vinegar-based creation—K.C. Masterpiece—is Kansas City’s No. 1 sauce in sales and volume. The only K.C. sauce distributed nationally, it now ranks eighth in the U.S. and is the showcase product of a growing $5-million-a-year enterprise. At last count over 30 contestants had won barbecue awards using Davis’ sauce. Food columnist Bert Greene has pronounced it “the barbecue sauce—a flat-out ultimate,” and Cecile Lamalle of the New York Post wrote, “It has my vote for the best on the market. No chemicals, just pure flavor with plenty of zing.”
Dr. Davis, 59 and father of four grown children, quit his psychiatric practice last year to tend to his new business full-time. Now he also produces four other barbecue sauces—Southern style, mesquite, hickory and no-salt. “Everyone tried to discourage him,” says his wife, Coleen, 53. “They told him there’s less than a 5 percent success rate in foods. That just made him more determined.”
Davis’ passion for barbecue goes back to his childhood in Joplin, Mo. and in Topeka where his father, a Santa Fe railroad exec, first taught him the manly arts of backyard barbecue. One of the first things young Davis learned was the difference between barbecuing and grilling or quick searing of meat over high temperatures or live flame. Real American barbecue, from the Spanish barbacoa (the wooden framework Indians used to smoke meats), he says, is done over a smoldering fire of some 200°F, usually with a hooded or partly covered lid, for four to 24 hours depending on the cut of meat. “What you need,” he cautions, “is a slow hand and lots of patience.”
A key and often neglected part of the Kansas City-style ritual is to rub the meat with seasonings prior to putting it on the grill. Sauce should be added only during the last half hour of cooking time. Perfectly done ribs, Dr. Davis explains, “should have a touch of char on the end and a darkened, almost crisp coating” on the outside. He won’t reveal the recipe for his sauce—which can be used to baste or spice up anything from beef, chicken or fish to French fries—but he admits that molasses adds to the unique flavor and thickness of his prizewinning “Black Label” brand.
Dr. Davis stays busy crisscrossing the country, demonstrating barbecue techniques for talk show hosts and pitting his sauce against competitors in supermarket tastings and outdoor barbecue contests. In addition he has co-authored with Shifra Stein Barbecue: Kansas City Style (Barbacoa Press, $9.95), a survey of the city’s barbecue eateries. The book also details the traditional how-tos of barbecue, including its meats, woods and sauces. While sons Rich Jr., 30, and Charles, 27, mind the family sauce business, Rich Sr. and Coleen are already embarked on his next project: a book on the entire American barbecue scene. For this they are traveling through a dozen or more states, sampling sauce-slathered meats in roadside smoke spots.
In his efforts to boost barbecue and his sauces, Dr. Davis once rented a yacht docked on Manhattan’s East River, inviting food editors from national publications to a Kansas City-style barbecue and “blind” tasting of his sauce with three other brands (Kraft, Heinz and Open Pit). The event was almost canceled when fire trucks came clanging up to the dock ready to douse the smoky affair. “The savor of cooking meat stopped them,” says Dr. Davis with a wink. The feast went on—and K.C. Masterpiece won first place.