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Aaron Franklin on Perpetual Madness and the Art of Barbecue

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Aaron and Stacy Franklin
Aaron and Stacy Franklin
Photo: Gabe Ulla /

Austin's wildly popular Franklin Barbecue moved into a new building back in March. And just about three months after that, in the July issue of Bon Appétit Andrew Knowlton called it the best barbecue in the United States. Needless to say, business is relentless and booming.

I met up yesterday with the restaurant's proprietor Aaron Franklin and his wife/ collaborator Stacy. Over some beers, deviled eggs, and chicken liver toast at the Spotted Pig, we discussed his method, the character of his restaurant, and the madness of it all.

What are you doing in New York?
Just hanging out. One of our best friends moved here about three weeks ago, and he seemed a little homesick. So we figured we'd make it up here. A band called Archers of Loaf played on Saturday in Brooklyn. They had a reunion show. Pretty unlistenable.

Why unlistenable?
Sloppy indie rock from the 90s. The Chapel Hill scene and all that stuff.

Tell me about your barbecue.
We stay pretty traditional. Some people use ovens or real wood, and some people do whatever. We only use wood. We stick to a simple Texas style, which is a dry rub, and the meat's good enough to not need sauce.

Some places that do this don't even have forks and knives, like the old school stuff. That's what we do. So, butcher paper, a tray, meat by the pound. You dig in with bread, crackers, pickles, and onions. It's a German/Czech kind of thing: leftovers from old meat markets.

What kind of wood do you use?
Oak. We use it for everything. In Central Texas there's a lot of oak, so it's plentiful. Mesquite has a lot of sugar so it burns really fast and has a sort of acrid flavor. Oak is mid-tempered, so it's good all-around. You get a good smoke-to-heat ratio. It's a mild flavor.

What makes people love it so much if, as you say, it's traditional?
We just do it well somehow. Instead of staying up all night and watching a fire, a lot of people just use ovens. You could put the meat on at night in an oven and throw a log in there, set it at whatever temperature you want, and come back in the morning: "Hey, somehow it's done!" As opposed to us, which is all wood with a bunch of fires going on all the time.

If you pay attention to it on a real fire, it's better because it gets more smoke and you control it a little bit more. It takes way more art, I'd say, because there are so many variables.

And the majority of people use ovens?
At this point, kind of. There are a lot of people who do it for money and don't really have their heart and soul into it. Most people seem to think that what we do is really hard. I guess we got lucky and have a talent for it. Most people can't figure out how to cook a brisket to save their lives. It's usually tough, it's dry, it's overcooked, it's this, it's that.

It's just the touch, then?
Kinda. And just really spending the time on it. It's mostly just patience and not being lazy. It takes like eighteen hours to make a brisket. We work twenty-two hours a day to make enough food to last two or so hours.

We open at 11AM. Lately we've been serving a bit more food so we can stay open longer. We're probably serving our last customer at 2PM.

Not like we could have done anything about it, but the Bon Appétit thing was completely out of nowhere. It's like Y2K right now. It is crazy intense.

Someone will come up and ask for a sandwich. "Fantastic! A small order. Good for you." And after a pause, they'll say, "And I need nine pounds of blah blah blah." Are you kidding me? Almost everyone gets something for themselves and then a bunch to-go.

We actually talk some people down nicely. We'll ask how many people they intend to feed. If it's two, they don't need nine pounds.

What are you doing currently to deal with that, especially in the wake of the "best" article.
Well, right now we are pretty much just playing catch-up for a couple of weeks. We're trying to make more food. But like any real barbecue place, when you start making more food, the quality tends to decline. You just can't give every piece that attention.

And you can't immediately get more people to work there, because the people that tend the fire need to really know what they are doing. That's why there are so many old people doing this stuff, because it takes so long to figure it out. It's us and nine other people. Only two or three of those people are smoking stuff.

You're planning on extending hours, right?
Yes. Right now I should be at home welding, except I'm not. I'm making a new smoker in the backyard. Since we're in Texas, we have beaucoups of room. [Texas accent] "I'm gonna build me a smoker!"

It's going to double what we do and hopefully let us open at nighttime. Right now we are doing 35 to 37 briskets, each of which feeds about 10 to 15 people. So this enormous, twenty-foot long smoker will hold 37. This thing is frickin' ginormous.

It'll be the same menu?
Yeah, same thing, we just will be able to serve more of it, and the lines will hopefully be shorter. The sense of urgency won't be there if you know that there's enough food. We're also hiring a few more people.

There are discussions on websites like Chowhound on the subject of selling spots in line. How do you feel about that?
That's so wrong. Wow, that's wrong. We have this customer who's the first to get here every Saturday. He comes out with his laptop and a lawn chair at about 7:45, and it keeps getting earlier and earlier every week. He lives in California, but he flies in every Friday night to see his wife. He comes in and gets enough food to last the week.

He came in one day and told me, "Last weekend, this guy waiting was talking about selling his spot. The line shut him down pretty quickly, saying they'd beat the shit out of him and his friend."

What if people are actually doing it.
[Laughs a ton] If we knew who they were, we'd tell them it wasn't cool. There are so many people who come wait, have fun, make friends, eat together. A lot of people show up on mornings and start seeing the same people. They get to know each other. They bring each other bagels.

It's kind of like a rock and roll parking lot or tailgating. It's a scene. The great thing about it is that it weeds out the impatient people.

We've been putting out a sold out sign maybe thirty minutes before we open. People show up at like 7AM and bring lawn chairs and ice chests full of beer. There's like 200 people out there before we open. We actually have to pre-take orders before we open to see if we'll end up having enough.

It's a social event...
It's almost like a weird cult. People who wake up at 5AM, drive three hours, wait two hours, and then get a pork rib. There's like 200 people in our line, but there's people ordering food for large groups. Weddings, bachelor parties.

What's a typical day for you?
I get there at about 3AM. I drink a lot of espresso and curse a lot. I pretty much get there, mumble a couple of F-bombs, have some coffee, check the brisket, start getting briskets off, maybe put a couple back on the smoker to finish off. How much room is left on the smoker determines how many ribs we do. On average we do about 28 racks a day. So I start trimming the ribs and then shape them up to fit on the smoker. We have to lose one rib on every rack to double up on the smokers. That takes about 45 minutes.

So I do that, get the fires up to temp, go have another coffee, and watch the fires throughout the morning. It's kind of a scramble. Like a Muppets episode or something.

How did it get this crazy?
It was really just through the internet and bloggers. Stacy was making money and paying the bills for a while. So I started doing the barbecue by myself in a trailer. I didn't know if it was going to make any money, but it didn't really matter, since it didn't really cost us anything to get going.

It started getting a little bit busier, and I had to get a buddy to start helping out during lunch. We started getting a couple of little reviews here and there within the first couple of months, and all of a sudden, there were fifteen people in line. Totally unexpected.

Initially we were open until 4PM, and it just kept getting earlier and earlier. So we started making more and more food, and it was pretty comfortable for a few months. And then one day I realized the smokers were totally full and that there was too much food and that we were selling out in like twelve minutes. That was when we had one smoker, which maxes out at about 300 pounds a day.

So we started building a second smoker, Stacy then quit her job, and we hired another guy. That was when we began to look for a building, since we were in a pretty unpleasant parking lot and there just wasn't enough room.

It seems like that cycle just keeps on going.
It does. It's just never enough. We're already too big for the building we're in right now. If we wanted to add more seats, we'd need more restrooms according to the city.

Having never gone to your place, it seems that the popularity is overwhelming. Is it a restaurant?
It's a full restaurant, except we're only open about three hours a day.

What I'm trying to get at is whether it's totally frantic or if you can sit down and eat somewhat calmly.
The cool thing about it is that it's surprisingly laid back. It's not some crazy deli with people screaming out numbers. We don't rush people. It's a personal thing. People may have been in line for three hours, have 200 people behind them, and it doesn't matter. We'll have a conversation, and I'll make sure they get the part of the brisket they need and explain to people what we do. We do not shovel people out.

That reminds me: Paula Forbes of Eater Austin told me that Tyson Cole [chef/owner of Uchi and Uchiko] recently likened what you do to being a sushi chef. You take time and care personally cutting every piece.
It's how it should be. You feel ripped off if you go to a place and don't see a guy cut it. It's like you went to a restaurant and got a weird piece of meat that looks like barbecue.

What we do is a little like Katz's Deli. We'll throw a piece on the counter for you to try or give an extra few ribs to you for waiting.

Barbecue is a community kind of thing. We're going to have friends and family over, drink beers, cook this thing for a long time. It's engaging and heartfelt. There's so much labor that goes into it that we want to present it the way it should be presented. We're not there to make money. We're there to do what we do and do it well.

How much of what you do is technical and how much is intuitive?
It's kind of a weird combination. There's a scientific side to everything. You can look at the temperature wood is burning at and see what flavors are coming out of it and how compounds break down. Or you can look at a piece of meat and gauge temperature-wise when collagens are breaking down and meat fibers start to release or tense up. And then look at the fat content in certain muscles and what temperature and time it's going to take to cook. That's the technical side, which is what I first started learning doing barbecue for friends.

And then there's the old school side, where you poke at it, pick it up, and know it's done. Or even pick it up and listen to the meat. That's the art form of it. I'll be walking by a pit, and just by the smell, know if a fire is too hot. I'll look at the gauge, and sure as shit, it's too hot. After a while, it's kind of like a sixth sense. It's strange, backwoodsy, but totally true.

I'm a barbecue ignoramus, but one of the things that strikes me is how variable and imperfect what you do is.
There is no constancy at all. The only constant is that you have a fire somewhere and a certain size piece of meat somewhere. That's why it's so hard. Even like barometric pressure affects how something cooks. It could be from the inside of the log or the outside of the log that's affecting the way something burns. The meat we cook really varies in size, shape, and fat content, since they don't use growth hormones. So it takes a gut feeling, and practice.

But you say your barbecue is consistent.
Oh yeah. That's what we do well. You always know exactly what you are going to get.

Everything you've described suggests that it's pretty much impossible for you to open up another place.
It would never happen. Keep it small, keep it good. If we can't open for dinner because it might affect quality, then it's just not in the cards.

· All Aaron Franklin Coverage on Eater [-E-]
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Franklin Barbecue

900 East 11th Street, Austin, TX