Philip Thompson is probably the only pitmaster in all of Kansas City with a vivid memory of his very first time eating smoked brisket.
By this time, Thompson was a decade out of culinary school and heading a kitchen at the Capital Hilton in Washington, D.C.
“I was just really blown away by it, and that really sparked my excitement,” he says. “About a month afterward, I bought a smoker and that was it.”
Not long after he set up his Traeger, Thompson started working little bits of barbecue onto his menu at the “Hinckley Hilton” (the hotel where Reagan survived an assassination attempt), where he cooked for high-profile events like the famed White House Correspondents’ Dinner.
“Back in my high-end hotel days I did a lot of sous vide, and it’s all about time and temperature to create textures,” he says. “Essentially that’s what barbecue is—the same philosophy, you’re just cooking over fire.”
In some ways, Thompson is a surprising choice to lead Q39 after the passing of legendary founder Rob Magee, who recently lost his battle with colon cancer. Thompson is a native of southern England, and his experience with barbecue in any form dates back less than a decade. On the other hand, Thompson is a perfect fit. Like Magee, he’s a classically trained chef who is used to working large, high-profile events. That’s the background Magee wanted his successor to have.
“I think people are going to look at me and think, ‘wow, a non-native guy who’s not really done barbecue before’—maybe it’s a little out of leftfield for some people,” he says. “But my classically trained background is very similar to Rob’s, and I can bring that chef-driven aspect to the restaurant.”
Thompson’s other chief qualification is his deep appreciation of Americana. After he finished culinary school but before he launched his career, he flew to New York and got in a minibus with a group of twelve total strangers to spend the next two months adventuring across the country, Road Rules style.
“It changed my perspective on how I saw the world,” he says. “In England, you can travel around and you’ll see a few different things but it doesn’t change too much. I was just blown away by how different every state was that we visited. My mum picked me up from the airport and I remember very vividly the first thing I said was, ‘I want to move to the United States.’”
On that trip, he saw everything from Bourbon Street to the Badlands. He didn’t make it to Kansas City, though: “We went all the way around but never hit the middle.”
That finally changed during the pandemic when he decided to join his girlfriend on a trip to visit her sister in KC. Mostly, they ate at home. But toward the end of the trip, he got antsy to try the local specialties and asked his guests to take him out for the best barbecue in the city. That brought him to Q39.
“I also remember that one very vividly as well,” he says. “I remember really phenomenal barbecue—I really loved it.”
Thompson has spent the last few months learning the restaurant’s processes and immersing himself in ’cue culture, shadowing members of Magee’s old barbecue team at a competition in Osage City to retrace his steps. He was likewise bitten by the barbecue bug.
“We talk about how we do competition barbecue at Q39, so I have to know what a competition is in order to bring that to the restaurant,” he says. “I loved it. It was similar to getting home from traveling the United States and telling my mum I wanted to move. I got home and immediately said, ‘I want to do that again, I want to get out on the circuit.’ I want to get out, get new ideas, see different things and bring that back to the restaurant.”
Martin Cizmar is the editor of Kansas City magazine.
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