The 33-year-old Aaron Franklin started smoking briskets on a cheap offset barrel smoker in his backyard, went to work for local barbecue legend John Mueller and then, in 2009, opened a barbecue trailer. In March, he launched his phenomenally popular brick-and-mortar restaurant. It opens at 11 a.m. and typically sells out of its 700 pounds of meat ( including 35 luscious, highly acclaimed briskets) by 1:30 p.m.
The trim, black-haired Franklin arrives at his restaurant around 3:30 a.m. to tend the pits; his briskets, rubbed with salt and pepper, go on the indirect, white-oak-fueled pit at 9 a.m. and, depending on each one’s readiness, are taken off between midnight and 4 a.m., then held in a warmer until the restaurant opens.
On a barbecue tour of central Texas last week, Smoke Signals caught up with Franklin on Sunday before he opened and talked with him about authenticity, popularity and the demands of public expectations.
Jim Shahin: Have you tried barbecue on the East Coast?
Aaron Franklin: Yeah, I was at Fette Sau [in Brooklyn]. And they’re doing a great job there. He really cares about what he’s doing. But up there you can’t have real smokers. You have to have gas or electricity. I’m just a hardcore purist on this stuff.
JS: What don’t you like about wood-fueled ovens?
AF: You can tell the difference. Rotisseries [used in a lot of gas and electric smokers] have juices dripping on top of each other, so you never get that great crunchiness [on the “bark” or exterior]. And the flavor can be good, but a lot of times it’s kind of flat.
JS: You have lots of wood here.
AF: Yeah, that up there [pointing to the top of the pile] is nine months old. Down there, about 12 months. I like well-seasoned wood because I like to burn pretty dry, pretty clean. Otherwise, you can over-smoke the meat.
JS: The incredible success: Did it take you by surprise?
AF: Yeah, I’d say so. I visualized [the restaurant] might get to the point that it had a line on Saturday. All good barbecue joints have a line on Saturday. I severely under-estimated how difficult it would be to keep making more food. We make almost 700 pounds (of meat), and it all goes in two, two-and-a-half hours.
JS: What do you attribute the phenomenon to?
AF: I don’t know. Barbecue is pretty hot stuff right now. I don’t know if we got in at the right time for the buzz. It’s certainly good barbecue. It’s not cooked in an oven or anything. I think it’s partly that and partly the service. I don’t know.
JS: You’re a barbecue rock star.
AF: I don’t pay attention to stuff like that. The Bon Appetit thing, I did read that. I thought, “Holy God, we have to get more smokers.” The Bon Ap thing was huge. All of us thought, “What are we going to do?” It’s a balance of meeting the demand and keeping it really good. Laymen think you can just make more. It’s not that simple. It takes us 20 hours of work to make it happen.
JS: Do you think you’re the best barbecue in Texas or America?
AF: No. I think nobody can be the best. It fluctuates so much. There’s nothing but variables in barbecue. The outside temperature. The wood. The size of the meats. The way the fire is burning that day. You can make something good. I don’t think you can say it’s the best. It’s the expectations then — you can’t have unreal expectations. Everybody has an off-day. And there are so many opinions on barbecue.
JS: Is there additional pressure, now that you have received all this publicity?
AF: Yeah, tons of pressure. I get headaches now. There’s pressure to keep it good. Pressure to keep people happy. Pressure to build more smokers to keep up with the demand. [He’s personally building a gigantic new pit to handle the demand.] But we are lucky. We’ve got to be some of the luckiest people out there.
JS: Tell me your thoughts about authenticity.
AF: I think the number of people sticking to traditional methods — all wood and all that — it’s getting few and far between. And people watch so much food TV, they think they go to culinary school and it’s just another type of food. But it’s not just another type of food. Barbecue is different. It’s not about ovens. It’s about wood and fire. And it’s about community, about going up the road to get some wood [from a competitor] when you run out, about family gatherings, about helping each other out. Barbecue means more than just a sandwich or just being the best. It’s not a competition. It’s more special than just, like, lunch.