Austin barbecue sensation Aaron Franklin is certainly staying busy these days. Just last month he published a cookbook (which includes a seven-and-a-half page recipe for his hallowed brisket), and weeks later became the first pitmaster to win an illustrious James Beard Award for the Best Chef: Southwest category. Last week saw the debut of his very own national television series on PBS: BBQ With Franklin, an expansion of the popular web series which launched in 2012.
Eater caught up with the show's executive producer, Sara Robertson of Austin's local PBS affiliate KLRU, via phone to chat about what folks can expect from Franklin's new TV venture.
How is the new TV series different from the web series of the same name?
Well, the web series is pretty straightforward instruction. The TV show builds on that — it's not just half an hour of instruction, it also includes some travel, some history, some behind-the-scenes, some experimentation. Aaron's vision was that it would be a barbecue variety show, and I think we really pulled that off.
What was it like to work with Aaron?
What you see is what you get, and I think that's what was so fun about the show and the web series. There's no acting with Aaron. He is who he is. He's a nice person, and smart and funny, and I think that's the kind of person people relate to because he's just a normal person and it really comes across on the screen.
Barbecue is obviously a pretty time-consuming venture, compared to other sorts of cooking. Are there any special challenges that come along with doing a barbecue show?
I think any television production show is time- and labor-intensive and of course, adding in a cooking element just increases that. We worked with a small crew and a small budget, and we didn't have any stunt briskets or backup meats.
So it's not like most cooking shows where you magically pull out a piece of meat that you cooked two days ago.
Exactly. It was just, we made it and we showed it, so there wasn't a whole lot of plan B. But that's the thing, Aaron's so great [at what he does] that we didn't need a plan B. There is one episode where he actually welds a smoker, we filmed the real-time process — and it's not a quick thing to do.
So beyond the first episode that aired last week, what else can we expect to see from this series?
We really tried to not duplicate what we already did with the web series. So in the second episode, we make sausage and visit some other artisanal sausage makers who are doing really neat things. We have an episode where we talk about beef ribs. We go to a butcher, talk about the different types of meat, get a lot of education on what to look for and how to buy meat yourself. We do a whole hog cook, from beginning to end — building the pit, how to cook, and how to serve. We talk about sauce, we cover direct heat. So a lot of things that people have been asking us to do on the web series, we really expand on in the TV series. We also go to a barbecue competition, which is outside of Aaron's normal day-to-day operations so he's getting out of his comfort zone. Competition barbecue is very different from restaurant or even backyard barbecue, so it's interesting to see how the different worlds come together.
So with the series being aired on PBS, you're going to be reaching a national audience who maybe isn't necessarily familiar with the cult of Texas barbecue. How are you capturing that world to explain it to the rest of the country?
Our web series has shown in the past couple years that this has a worldwide appeal and that's one thing that surprised us at first. We have lots of viewers in Germany, Japan, all over the place, and that gave us a clue that people were kind of starting to get to know Texas barbecue — so a lot of the work has already been done for us, we're not starting from scratch as far as education goes. I think the food and the culture speak for itself. Aven if you maybe weren't too familiar with it in the beginning, once you watch the show you just get sucked in because it's so interesting and so colorful. With a lot of cooking shows you wouldn't necessarily make the food, but I think with Texas barbecue, it's actually something you'd do in your own backyard. These are folks you would hang out with at your own house. So I think that's the appeal, it's just very approachable.
So there's going to be quite a few guest stars throughout the series — how were they selected? Are they just friends of Aaron, or notable industry people?
Probably 99 percent of them are friends of Aaron's, and if he didn't already know them it's somebody who's respected in the field. For a lot of the episodes we stayed in Central Texas; the barbecue community is a pretty close-knit and friendly community and folks were really open to talking to us. Even the national guests were willing to fly and meet us different places because they just love Aaron so much, so that really helped open doors for us.
Here's an exclusive clip from the new PBS series in which Franklin tests the merits of smoking briskets wrapped in foil, paper, or nothing at all. As producer John Markus says, "Watching you slice brisket is like going to a baseball game and watching a pitcher throw a no-hitter":