Houston Barbecue History

How Anthony Bourdain Came to Love Houston BBQ

“Don’t send me some froufrou chef with perfect hair!” David Klose yelled into the phone when a television producer asked if he would host a New York-based chef who wanted to learn about Texas barbecue.

The year was 2001, and Klose was famous for making pits for some of Houston’s best barbecue joints. The producer figured that if anyone knew where to take the visiting chef, it was Klose.

That chef turned out to be Anthony Bourdain who, at the time, was mostly known for his tell-all restaurant book “Kitchen Confidential” and an obscure TV series on the Food Network called “A Cook’s Tour.”

For the second season of the show, one episode would be all about barbecue, and the show’s producer called Klose to set up a tour of Klose’s pit factory and a local joint that Klose deemed representative of Houston barbecue.

Klose had never heard of Bourdain at the time.

“Our guys spit liquid steel,” Klose continued, trying to impress upon the producer that a fancy chef from New York would probably not get along with the rough-and-tumble crew of welders and steel fabricators at his facility in Houston’s Oak Forest neighborhood.

The producer assured Klose they would get along just fine.

Indeed they did.

When Bourdain arrived to shoot the segment, Klose says, “I looked into his eyes … and knew he was crazy as a loon, just like us.” After a tour of the pit factory, Klose took Bourdain to his favorite barbecue joint: Burns Bar-B-Q in nearby Acres Homes.

“At the time, Dave was coming in all the time,” says Steve Burns, son of owner Roy Burns. “He’d always bring his customers and friends here.”

In “The BBQ Triangle” episode of “A Cook’s Tour,” which aired in June 2003, a very young-looking Bourdain (with perfect hair) interviewed Roy Burns and sat down with Klose for a taste of true Houston barbecue. In the parting shot for the Burns segment, Bourdain proclaimed: “So if you’re on a quiet rural road in Houston and you see a huge line, get in it – you may just get to try one of the tastiest secrets in America.”

Fifteen years later, Bourdain returned to Houston to film an episode of his popular CNN food and travel show “Parts Unknown.” He returned to Burns Bar-B-Q – now called Burns Original BBQ – to tape a segment.

Bourdain at Burns Original BBQAnthony Bourdain at Burns Original BBQ 2016
Photo courtesy Burns Original BBQ

Co-owner Cory Crawford, grandson of Roy Burns (who died in 2009), says the Bourdain team contacted his friend Roderick Dearborne about doing a segment on Slab Culture, a type of custom car originating in Houston. Dearborne recommended they have lunch at Burns Original BBQ.

“Bourdain said, ‘Hey, I know that place!’ ” according to Crawford, who got his friend, Houston rapper Slim Thug, involved.

Though the segment filmed at Burns in June 2016 wasn’t specifically about barbecue, Bourdain toured the pit area and reconnected with Roy Burns’ sons and current pitmasters Steve and Gary Burns, and daughter Kathy Braden, all of whom were at the taping in 2001.

I asked Gary Burns what he thought about his family’s connection with one of the food world’s most famous personalities.

“I’ve never even seen the original show,” he said. “Back then, we were just kids, and we worked all the time and didn’t have time to watch TV.” 

And what about Klose, who introduced Bourdain to Houston barbecue? In the intervening years, his company, BBQ Pits by Klose, has become something of a pit maker to the stars. Klose recently shipped pits to Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen (Klose didn’t know who he was until an employee informed him) and a member of the Monaco royal family (he’s not sure which one).

Klose wasn’t involved in Bourdain’s most recent visit to Houston. I asked if he planned on watching the episode.

“Hell, no!” Klose said. “I don’t have the time!”

A version of this article originally appeared in the Houston Chronicle.
J.C. Reid
Houston Chronicle Barbecue Columnist
J.C. Reid
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