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Texas Faces

The Brisket Whisperer

Celebrated pitmaster Aaron Franklin shares secrets that explain how he put the ‘queue’ in barbecue

Even if you’ve never been to Franklin Barbecue, the brisket mecca on East 11th Street in Austin, you might have heard about the infamous line. Hungry customers queue up as early as 6 a.m. (the doors open at 11) for fabulous smoked meats that sell out every day. Or you might have seen endorsements on television from the celebrities who have made a pilgrimage, including President Barack Obama, Anthony Bourdain, Jimmy Kimmel and Andrew Zimmern. If you’re a passionate backyard pitmaster whose heart races at the thought of a slab of ribs and stack of wood, you’ve definitely heard of Aaron Franklin.

I first met Aaron and Stacy Franklin in 2009, right after they opened Franklin Barbecue in a trailer just off Interstate 35. They’re an easy pair to like—both have the uncanny ability to be warm, friendly and funny even when they’re slammed with orders, which is most of the time. Because my husband is a bread baker and his kitchen clogs are forever flour-dusted, I noticed Aaron Franklin’s: His were splattered with fatty beef drippings from the smoker. “My dog really loves them,” he told me, laughing. During that first meal, a friend dipped a juicy slice of brisket in their espresso barbecue sauce, took a bite, and boldly mused, “Best barbecue in Texas?”

Since then, Franklin Barbecue has gone on to win awards including “Best Barbecue in Texas” from Texas Monthly and “Best Barbecue in America” from Bon Appétit. Last year, Franklin’s first cookbook, Franklin Barbecue: A Meat-Smoking Manifesto (Ten Speed Press, 2015) became a New York Times best seller. With chapters on building or customizing your own smoker, curing wood, building perfect fires and, of course, cooking great barbecue, it’s an essential resource for backyard pitmasters. The book also reveals that Franklin’s efforts come from a specific place, with plenty of soul. “I didn’t learn how to cook barbecue to just master a craft,” he writes. “Its evolution in me is a true expression of who I am and where I come from.” A few months after publication, Franklin won a prestigious James Beard Award for “Best Chef: Southwest,” the first pitmaster to be recognized in the category.

Over the years, the Franklins and I have become friends, and we get together to eat gumbo, carve pumpkins and celebrate birthdays. As I’ve discovered, when you invite them to a potluck, it seriously ups the ante on the invitation. When Franklin arrived at a recent party and started slicing brisket in our kitchen, iPhones emerged, shameless meat selfies were snapped, and several women sent urgent texts to their husbands (who showed up minutes later). The perfectly charred bark and salty, fatty goodness of Franklin’s barbecue stirs that kind of reaction. As for his rapid rise to fame, no one is more surprised—or humbled by the customers who wait in line for hours to eat his food—than Franklin himself.

Initially it was music, not meat, that drew Franklin to Austin. He moved from Bryan-College Station in 1996, mostly to play rock ’n’ roll while working construction. Although his parents briefly owned a barbecue joint when he was a kid, his own interest didn’t take hold until much later, after he met Stacy, purchased his first smoker and started throwing backyard parties. Exploring the variables of making good barbecue appealed to his love of tinkering. His ability to build almost anything, to take things apart and put them back together, gave Franklin an intuitive understanding of how to get the right results from smokers. As his interest in perfecting briskets grew, so did their backyard barbecues, until they were ready to take the plunge and open a restaurant.

Franklin’s personality, lack of pretension and willingness to share his hard-earned knowledge translated to the camera, and he became the host of the PBS television series BBQ with Franklin. As he reveals in his book and instructional videos (on everything from pulled pork to brining and smoking turkey), there are no secrets to his barbecue, but there are a few key details. He uses a more expensive, higher-grade beef. He smokes brisket for about 18 hours (many operations smoke at higher temperatures for less time). But the real game-changer is his hard work and commitment to the grueling schedule required to get it consistently right.

Franklin’s typical day begins in the middle of the night. Depending on the shift he’s working, he might arrive at the restaurant at 2 in the morning and immediately pull an espresso from a high-end Italian machine reserved for the pitmasters—a perk of working around the clock. Over the next several hours, he’ll tend fires; trim and season racks of ribs and turkey breasts; and flavor a cauldron of beans with smoky brisket trimmings. At about 6:30 a.m., he’ll accept a delivery of thousands of pounds of meat (a day’s supply), and load it into the cooler—all while keeping his cookers at a steady 275 degrees.

I’m convinced that the ultimate goodness that comes from gathering around a table with friends and family for a feast of smoked meat is at the heart of Franklin’s vast appeal and the restaurant’s cult following. A meal at Franklin’s serves up a connection to the great, time-honored tradition of Central Texas barbecue and the people who practice it every single day.

Paula Disbrowe is Texas Co-op Power’s food editor.