Back in the summer of 2012, a few GP editors went to an event called Meatopia on Randall’s Island in New York. It rained like hell that day, and a tornado touched down nearby, but, nevertheless, we walked around and tasted a lot of good meat, including some really good brisket. When Aaron Franklin’s new book, Franklin Barbecue: A Meat-Smoking Manifesto, arrived at our office, we realized on page 126 that he was the guy behind the beef — and he’d been up all night trying to figure out how to get these things cooked. “Brisket can test you”, he writes, “but you just have to persevere… Things can go wrong — hopelessly, horribly wrong — but at the end of the day, there are multiple ways to pull it together.”
And that seems to be Aaron Franklin, proprietor of Franklin Barbecue in Austin, TX, in a nutshell. He’s a no-nonsense, nose-to-the-grindstone kind of guy whose obsession with barbecue started with a New Braunfels Hondo Classic smoker he got for $99. Several handmade smokers and countless briskets later, he finds himself with a “#1 Barbecue in Texas” ranking from Texas Monthly (a veritable ‘cue authority) under his belt and a nomination for a James Beard Award for Best Chef Southwest. We caught up with Franklin to talk about the nomination, the President’s visit and what beer he likes with a tomahawk ribeye.
Q. You’ve got a book coming out this month, a show in the works and you run a notoriously busy restaurant. Dare I ask what else you’re working on?
A. Right now the biggest thing is just working at the restaurant. I’m working on building barbecue pits, of course; that’s a normal thing that always happens. I think the biggest thing we’re working on is getting ready for pop-up dinners we’re doing around the country this summer. We’re doing four cities — Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Brooklyn — picking locations, building cookers and figuring out all the logistics. Instead of, like, doing a book tour, I just kind of want to do some backyard-style pop-ups. So it will be just real small dinners, but organizing is a kind of an undertaking.
Q. What’s the biggest challenge?
A. We’ve got a lot of moving parts. We’ve got all the locations pretty much figured out, and now it’s the logistics of getting barbecue pits to these places. When you go to Chicago, I mean, there might be some guy who’s like, “Oh, I got a cooker.” Well, they might only fit two or four briskets, or you can’t really cook on it. So we’ll build them ourselves. Beyond getting the barbecue pits in line, we’re figuring out who’s going to receive the meat, where it’s going to go, how it’s going to get there — because we don’t just show up and get meat. I get it from specific farmers.
Q. What hours are you keeping at the restaurant?
A. I’m in and out 24 hours a day. It just really depends. Some days I show up at midnight and I cook overnight, then work through lunch; other days I show up at four or five in the morning, cook ribs with the rib cook and then work through lunch, go work at the welding shop until five or six in the evening, come home. Some days I work at parties that start at seven until late at night. I haven’t really calculated my hours, but it’s probably around 70 to 80 hours a week.
You know, I kind of gave [President Obama] some grief for skipping the line, and at the time, I kind of just felt like he was a normal customer.
Q. Your rise to the top of the barbecue heap has been a pretty long journey and you’ve worked very hard. Can you talk about some challenges?
A. Not to sound weird, but I can’t really think of anything that’s been too hard. I try to just let things happen naturally; it’s not a philosophy or anything. I think the barbecue thing happened because I really enjoy doing it. One thing I remind myself constantly is just to take my time and not force anything. Don’t get antsy to open a restaurant or a little barbecue trailer; let things happen organically. Don’t force anything. That’s the way I like building fires, too. Don’t force a piece of wood to do what it doesn’t want to do.
Q. Are you naturally inclined to think this way or do you have some ritual to cultivate that attitude?
A. My morning ritual is to get to that espresso machine as quickly as possible. I am a super-positive person anyway — naturally, like the rest of my family — so I grew up that way. My wife is really positive, pretty much all of our friends are very positive. I think hanging out with people that are bummers will just bum you out, so I like hanging out with happy people.
Q. Do you have specific preferences for your espresso?
A. I tend to go with a pretty medium-roast Central American bean. Colombian, a lot of Guatemalan in there, Brazil. These days probably just a single origin more than anything, but definitely Central American, and that’s also what we put in our espresso sauce.
Q. President Obama, among other notables, visited your joint. How has the experience been for you?
A. I try not to think about that kind of stuff. I really just kind of keep my head down and keep working.
Q. We’re talking about the President of the United States here.
A. You know, I kind of gave him some grief for skipping the line, and at the time, I kind of just felt like he was a normal customer. Like, “Hey, how’s it going?” Then a few hours later I kind of started to think, “Oh, crap! We just hung out with the President.” He sat there for probably about 45 minutes just talking to another lady for a while, and yeah, he was a really cool dude.
Q. How important is the provenance of the meat you use?
A. I’m really super-duper breed specific. I’ll just talk about brisket first since that’s probably the one that people care most about. The briskets are all Angus. They are all-natural — blah, blah, blah — but they are not purely grass fed. They are free grazing, and they are fed organic grain, but grass-fed brisket is absolutely horrible. They don’t have the fat to carry on for the long cook. They just don’t taste very good, anyway. So that’s very important, and then I am really specific about where our stuff comes from and what they are getting fed and all that kind of stuff. I spend so much time on this, and when everything is working smoothly, when I just order and it shows up, it’s great. But when something goes wrong is when it really gets to be a headache, when you’re trying to properly source meat. For example, a couple of years ago we got our brisket from Creekstone. They had a fire about a year and a half ago and their plant shut down, which was a problem. I’ve found myself on the side of the road in the middle of winter trying to get meat because there’s a blizzard in Kansas or something. We won’t serve commodity meat, though, from an ethical standpoint.
Q. Are there other breeds that you get excited about? Piedmontese or whatever it is?
A. Not for beef. I get more excited about where things come from: local ranches. That’s the stuff that really excites me, the fact that I can call the guy who raised the cow or raised the pig. If I cook whole hogs, I know I can go to a certain farm or a local butcher. So it’s more about sourcing local than breeds. But Angus really does taste a whole lot better, in my opinion, than other breeds. Around here we’ve got Akaushi; Wagyu, of course, is everywhere, but my money is totally on Angus. I just think it has a deeper flavor. If you’re dealing with prime Angus that’s from a reputable place, more than likely it’s going to be almost as marbled as a Wagyu or something like that.
Q. Correct me if I am wrong here, but I understand that you trim the fat from the brisket — from the deckle.
A. Yep, that’s correct. Well, the deckle — we’re getting into technicalities here. The deckle is that fat layer between the rib cage. So if you flip the brisket upside down, which is technically right side up, on the leaner side of the brisket, that’s the deckle. So that we don’t really trim…but I do trim the subcutaneous fat off the top, though not completely. You’re going to render a certain amount, so if you know how hot you’re going to cook and how much fat it’s going to render, you can trim off a certain amount so you don’t have the big blob of fat. You want to have a balance between meat, subcutaneous fat, marbling and bark. We keep a balance there.
Q. And this is a Central Texas old-school-versus-new-school thing about trimming that fat, right?
A. Yeah, I totally think trimming is a new-school thing. I don’t know who started it, but I gradually started doing it when we first opened up the trailer. I wonder who did start that? I don’t know. But after we were cooking, we were like, “Ah, okay, we should trim that.” So then I just started trimming a little bit more off, and we’d see an improvement, and then you learn how to do it. We kind of grew into it I guess. The old-school thing is: you get a crappy piece of meat, you cook it, then trim that fat off when the brisket was done and you just had a brisket with one completely bald side to it. If you can get that crispy bark in there, that’s the part that you want, anyway.
Q. Well, this isn’t meant to be a morbid question, but: what would be your last drink and meal if you had to decide?
A. I would probably say just a really good steak, a baked potato and a beer. It would probably be a tomahawk, a big bone-in ribeye — probably Angus, dry aged of course, cooked straight on the coals. That’s my perfect steak. Then the beer, it depends on the day. I tend to only really drink local beers. I think one of my all-time staples is a brewery here on Fifth Street that’s called Live Oak Brewery, and they only sell here in town. They have an amber called Big Bark, and that’s the one staple that we always have at the restaurant. I think that is such a perfect barbecue and meat beer.