4/24/2013 09:47:00 AM

A Chat With Aaron Franklin of Franklin Barbecue

Despite 18-hour days and an amazing amount of success, including winning Bon Appetit’s approval for the best barbecue in America, Aaron Franklin is incredibly down-to-earth. The famous Franklin Barbecue on East 11th has only 11 employees and skillfully smokes 1,500 pounds of meat for about 900 people on its busiest days.

Yet even though Franklin and his brisket have been propelled to stardom on shows like Pit Master, the friendliest guy in Austin spends a lot of his time concerned with everyday nuisances, like building a storage shed to hold dry goods like “cups, napkins and toilet paper.” That’s no surprise, given that Franklin constructed first his trailer, then most of the brick-and-mortar and almost all the smokers himself. The day we sat down with him, he sipped on an Alteration beer from Hops and Grain Brewing, silenced his constantly blinking phone and waived off the term “chef” with a grin.

Everyone has a favorite meat on your menu, but what’s your go-to? 

God, I love our pickles. No, I’m kidding [laughs]. Fatty brisket is the thing. I like the end cut off the brisket on the lean side and just some black, crusty stuff off the fatty side. My sleeper favorite is the turkey. I love me a turkey sammich. There’s tons of butter involved. Six pounds of turkey to 12 pounds of butter.

Is that an actual ratio? 

No, it’s not [laughs].

So what was it like to leave here and work on Pit Masters?

Last year we did two seasons of six episodes each, which was super duper cool. They sent an email, like, “Hey this is blahblahblah from Pit Masters.” I was welding in the backyard when I got it. I ripped off my hood, dropped the welder, grabbed the phone, pushed up my glasses like the nerd I am and was like, “Oh my god, I love this show!”

I called them like 30 seconds after the email came in. I was like, “What time? When? Where do I show up?” It’s a cheesy show. It’s really stupid. But I really had a great time doing it.

The first season was a lot of competition stuff, so we judged according to KCBS [Kansas City Barbecue Society] rules. But the second season was even cooler because it was a lot of restaurant people, which was more like real barbecue. I don’t really compete. I mean, I have, but it’s not quite my thing.

This season I only did the Austin episode. It was a few too many episodes for this guy, who actually works at the restaurant all the time.

I saw you guys are hiring. On Eater Austin a commenter mentioned that you’re looking for someone with “knife skill,” singular, rather than “knife skills.” 

Yeah, we maybe had a little typo. It’s just one knife, really [laughs]. You’re not twirling anything. “Oh let me get my paring knife out, I need to—“ no, it’s one knife.

So what does it take to work for Franklin? 

It takes being really nice, being a good-hearted person. It takes an incredible work ethic. It takes incredible amounts of honesty, absolutely no bullshit. If you even give someone a dirty look, you’re out of here. You better really be nice.

There aren’t very many of us, and we work painfully long hours. It’s like 3 in the morning and you’ve already been here for 12 hours schlepping 80 pound boxes of brisket around and watching fires and shuffling stuff and splitting firewood and trimming 70 briskets for the next morning.

But there’s no room for complaining or whining. We’re open three hours, and we’ve got people waiting three or four hours for food. And we’re going to be nice, gosh darn it. If you can’t hang with it, this is not the place for you.

That sounds kind of hardass, I guess.

You’re a hardass about being nice. 

We’re not Subway. It’s not like, “Eh, what do you want.” We are glad you’re here. We’ll work our tails off to make sure everything in our power makes your visit as awesome as it should be.

I’ve heard rumors about a loophole where if you order the barbecue ahead of time you can come pick it up. Isn’t that cheating? 

Shhhh! No, seriously, it’s not cheating the system. We probably get about 30 e-mails per day about preorders. We can only cook so much extra. Obviously on a Tuesday or Wednesday we can cook more extra than on a Saturday. Some days are booked months in advance. But if you really want to, you can order five pounds or more and come pick it up between 10:15 and 10:45. And you should email us, not call, at least four weeks in advance.

What advice can you give amateur pitmasters? 

Well, watch "Barbecue With Franklin" on YouTube. That’s pretty much exactly how to do what we do.

Really it comes down to patience. If you’re trying to cook something that requires being on fire—you’ve got wood, you’ve got meat, you’ve got salt and pepper—don’t take the shortcut and go get a little propane this or don’t get an electronic gadget to control that.

If you’re going to make barbecue, then make barbecue. You can’t expect to get a pellet cooker and make something that tastes as good. You’ve gotta put in the time. If you’re like, “Oh, I’m going to sleep for four hours,” then just know it might not be as good.

That’s pretty serious. So the Austin Food & Wine Festival is coming up. What did you think about it last year, and what are you hoping for this year? 

I’m excited to cook for it, but It’s kind of a little corporate-y for my taste. That’s why I like the Live Fire event [on April 25], because the Austin Food and Wine Alliance are my homies. I’m not into big sponsorships. I think it’s really awesome that Austin has a nationally recognized food and wine festival, and I’m not dogging on that at all. But there are these huge events, and we’re just little old Franklin Barbecue. It’s hard to scale our stuff up for that many tasting portions. I kind of wonder what the heck we’re doing there sometimes.

That’s funny that you think of yourself as little old Franklin Barbecue. 

I do. Look at this place! It’s pretty much held together with duct tape.

What new projects are you working on? 

We have five smokers at the moment, and we’re going to build one more. A friend of a friend who is a welder has been helping me build the new cookers, which is new and exciting. He built the last cooker almost completely by himself. After he’s finished the last one that will put us at our 1,500 pound capacity.

And then after the addition that we’re working on is built, all those cookers are going to come out of the trailers and they’re going to go into a screened shelter. That’s all the addition is, just a screened-in patio for our cookers. No increased seating or bathrooms. And not really more food.

So what’s next for you?

Just maintaining. Trying to get the addition together. Trying to make a consistent quantity of food. I want to start making our sausage in house over the next year, and someday I want to open up the window in the back kitchen for a to-go line. Then we could shorten the extraordinarily long line up front and pull those to-go orders out. That will be great because we’ll be able to train people. Right now it’s so busy we just can’t slow down.


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