Austin’s Aaron Franklin has been in the barbecue game for more than 20 years, helping shape Central Texas barbecue through his iconic restaurant, Franklin Barbecue, and in cookbooks where he divulges some of his smoking secrets. Since his start, though, the barbecue scene has undoubtedly evolved, ushering in different styles and twists on the Texas Trinity of brisket, ribs, and sausage.
Geared toward home cooks, Franklin’s newest cookbook, Franklin Smoke: Wood. Fire. Food, was published in May and marks his latest chronicling of grilling recipes, personal stories, and tricks of the barbecue trade. Eater Houston spoke to Franklin recently on where he believes Texas, and, more specifically, Houston barbecue, is headed — and what it takes to stay successful in the world of smoking meat.
With you being in barbecue for years, what, in your mind, has changed? What’s different to you and in terms of your approach?
Well, nothing’s changed for me in my approach to barbecue. I still like to keep it simple and do it well, and I don’t really go out of my way to get creative with barbecue, necessarily. Franklin Barbecue just does what it does, and we just tried to make it better. But I think barbecue as a whole has completely changed. I’ve been in barbecue for a little over 20 years now, with varying levels of success and quality food. When we opened up our trailer, the internet had been around for long enough that people were starting to do food blogs. As a result, Franklin Barbecue became pretty popular. People heard about it very easily. People started putting out videos and writing books, and people were able to have a forum to actually talk about barbecue and learn more about it, which I think is super cool. I think this current evolution of barbecue is because of the internet and people just being able to share information. It introduced a lot of people to this weird underdog-y kind of food that barbecue has always been.
It seems like a lot of places in Houston are incorporating the city’s diversity and its many cuisines to be more playful with their barbecue. The Pit Room has Candente, the Blood Bros. opened sandwich shop LuLoo’s Day N Night, and I could say the same for Franklin’s and Loro. Why do you think that is, and do you ever get bored of barbecue?
I don’t cook much barbecue anymore. I feel like I’m at the restaurant all the time. My schedule has changed. I don’t quite have the hours available to stand by a fire like I used to. But I think that being able to get creative is pretty cool. The way that the Houston barbecue scene has changed has made sense. The early ’80s kind of style of Houston barbecue was all like Luther’s, which the Pappas family absorbed later, but with the diversity of the city and it being the best food city of the state of Texas and one of the best in the country, it seems like a no-brainer that this would be where Houston barbecue has landed.
With so much competition, I’m curious about what a barbecue joint needs in order to stay successful. With you being an authoritative figure in barbecue and writing books about it, what are your thoughts on where Texas barbecue is headed or how it might change?
Barbecue will always be relevant. I do think what people want out of a barbecue restaurant is kind of generational. Everybody kind of wants what they grew up eating, or what they’re comfortable with, and some people just don’t care, I guess. But I think there’s always a place for the different styles of the barbecue. There’s always going to be a place for just a straight-up Central Texas barbecue. There’s always going to be a place for the chain barbecue restaurant, a cool creative place for the new-school kind of barbecue. The parameters are pretty wide, but the quality of the food has to be at a certain level, which I think everybody has kind of gotten pretty good at.
Running a restaurant is already so difficult, and barbecue places have a little extra challenge with high labor and high food costs, so it’s a little bit tricky, but it’s also pushing creativity in the barbecue world and people do need that kind of edge. Anybody can get on the internet, read a book, look at a YouTube video, and learn how to run a really good barbecue restaurant, but you can’t find magic. Every successful restaurant has something about it that makes people feel comfortable, makes people feel loved, makes people feel cared for, makes people get excited about the food or have a memory — whatever the experience is. Anybody can make food, but it’s the other stuff that really makes a truly great restaurant.
My husband and I are making our way through your MasterClass, and in comparison to some teachers, I think you really nerd out on there and give away quite a few secrets. Do you ever feel like you’ve given away too much?
I constantly feel like I share too much. But at the same time, I’ve got no filter. And if it’s something that I’m excited about or it’s something I’m being asked about, I’ll just totally roll “that beautiful bean footage.” At the same time, I do think it’s really important for restaurants to hold proprietary things close. There’s got to be some way for people to have an edge out there, and it doesn’t necessarily have to be me or anyone in particular, but you’ve gotta have an edge — something that makes one restaurant better than another, and if everybody’s got the same bag of tricks, then we’re all the same, and that’s not cool.
I have a weird thing where I don’t like to look at instructions, and I don’t like anybody to tell me how to do something. I like to figure it out the hard way, which is kind of how I ended up figuring all this stuff out, and it’s how I keep interested, keep learning, keep taking on new projects, and stay creative. It’s important for people to also understand that there is a line to be drawn somewhere. It’s cool when people give you information, and they kind of take you under their wing or you get help if you’re having a problem. That’s the cool community part of it, and that’s the part that I love. But at the same time, when people start to feel entitled, it can get weird.
At the same time, I feel so lucky that Franklin Barbecue has been so largely successful that I’ve felt like I owed it to the world to share. I love teaching things to people.
So, it’s important to keep some things secret.
I really don’t have secrets. We’re always evolving, and we’re changing even though our food stays about the same. At the restaurant, we’re always bringing in new techniques or we learn things. I realized recently that when I did the first book, it was almost 10 years ago and I had a lot of information in there that’s changed. While working on the third book, I started going back through and I realized that each time I did a brisket episode for BBQ With Franklin, it was a snapshot in time of what I was doing then. People have said, “Oh, well, he was hiding stuff.” And I’m like, “Well, that’s exactly what we were doing then.” But who’s to say you’re not allowed to change, or you’re not allowed to throw a little extra this in there one day or approach something a little differently?
Speaking of your third book, for people who have not yet read it, what are you most excited about? What can we expect?
While the first book was kind of how we made Franklin Barbecue and the second one was getting really nerdy about things, the third book is more geared toward home cooks. There’s a super-duper extended brisket recipe that’s more of a stream of consciousness about things I’ve learned and things that maybe we do now that we weren’t doing in the first book. It’s got more recipes than any of the other books, including seafood recipes, a lot more sides, some sauces, and just the stuff we like to eat, really.
It reflects how Jordan, the co-author, and I were cooking during the pandemic when everything shut down, and we were stuck at home. I couldn’t go anywhere. I was bored all the time. I hadn’t had a chance to cook at home in about 11 or 12 years, so it was kind of fun for me to build a fire on a pit in the backyard. I was just like, “The world’s crashing down. I’m gonna go build a campfire in the backyard by myself.” I don’t get to do what I truly love to do much anymore with my businesses, so it was really fun to get back to that and cook things on fire again. I loved going out firing at a state park somewhere and just cooking some crazy meals on a Franklin barbecue pit or PK Grill, and just having fun with it. That became the catalyst for a third book.
What is a tool that you swear by that you believe is a grilling, smoking, or cooking essential that you have to have?
It sounds dumb but I would say a good towel. Because you always pick up something — picking up hot meat, picking up a charcoal chimney. It’s always nice to have a towel handy. That’s kind of something that I think a lot of people forget.
Yes, that might be what I buy my husband because he uses my kitchen towels for barbecuing and dirties them up.
I know. That’s why I have to bring back towels from the restaurant.
Yeah, you don’t want to use your nice kitchen towels.
You can get some pretty good ones for super cheap on Amazon, by the way.
So back to where barbecue in Texas is headed—
I don’t like to try to pretend that I think I know where anything’s headed. But it’s cool to watch. I kind of go out of my way to not pay attention. I keep the barbecue blinders on. Whatever I do, I want it to come from the heart and not feel influenced. If we do something, I want to know that deep down inside, that’s something I created and that it wasn’t a cover song of somebody else’s hit.
What’s next for you, specifically?
I’m hoping to travel a lot less, and we recently opened our bar and restaurant Uptown Sports Club in Austin. We’re always maintaining Franklin Barbecue, which is a beast and takes a lot of energy to keep up with. We’re pushing more on Franklin barbecue pits, and one of these days when I get comfortable with all that stuff, maybe I’ll get excited and inspired by something and do something else. But nothing on the chalkboard for now.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.