I doubt any other James Beard Award winner winces the way Aaron Franklin does when you call him “chef.”
The Bryan native eschews the fancy title not out of faux modesty — Franklin is as humble as the grandly celebrated come — and not solely because he holds brilliant chefs like Thomas Keller and René Redzepi in such high esteem. The moniker just doesn’t capture the spirit of his endeavor. Even the word “cook” misses the mark.
“I’m not so much a barbecue cook as I am a perfectionist, or at least I try to be,” Franklin said recently as he aimed his thundering Ford F-350 toward his welding shop in Bastrop.
The Franklin Barbecue namesake quickly amends the description in search of a more adequate term. The most celebrated barbecue man in America reaches into his bag of folksy grandpa words. “Tinkerer,” he pulls out.
“I like to tinker with cooking barbecue. I like to tinker with building walk-in coolers for the restaurant. I like to tinker with chilled-air systems for barbecue pits. I like to tinker with building cookers for Hot Luck,” Franklin said.
That last bit of tinkering has Franklin on the road to his welding shop on a beautiful spring afternoon. He’s headed out to check in with his employees, brothers Matt and Caleb Johnson, who are helping Franklin build more than a dozen pieces of cookery for the inaugural Hot Luck festival that runs May 18-21 in Austin. Franklin has tinkered with the idea of the food and music festival for several years with friends and partners James Moody (a festival, branding and nightlife veteran) and Mike Thelin (co-founder of the Feast food festival in Portland).
Franklin’s personal welding touch differentiates Hot Luck from most food-related festivals in the country. He’s generally avoided cooking at food festivals because there is rarely an adequate cooker for him, so for his own festival, he thought it would be cool to create a collection of equipment that would get the cooks excited and pieces in which they (more than 50 are coming) could all have confidence. The former rock ’n’ roll drummer (check out his work with the raucous Those Peabodys sometime) compared the idea to a music venue supplying a back line of equipment for visiting bands.
“Kind of like Maker Faire meets a DIY food festival,” Franklin said.
The MacGyver in Buddy Holly glasses collaborated with several of the Hot Luck chefs on the unique cookery. Pok Pok chef Andy Ricker from Portland sent Franklin a stick-figure sketch of a double-offset grill with a smokestack that he’d come across in Thailand. Franklin happily complied.
“That’s the fun thing about the festival — I would have never thought to have built something like that,” said Franklin, who described the grill as something that “looks like it was made with spare parts that were found in a jungle somewhere.”
There’s a rotisserie fire pit for Dallas chef John Tesar, along with a wood-fired cauldron, a 1,000-gallon offset cooker, an Argentinian grill, another rotisserie and other beauties and misfits. The workshopping excited Franklin, who has always appreciated the DIY and independent spirit of barbecue.
“I think that’s kind of the thing that’s so cool about barbecue is that you don’t have to have crazy fancy equipment. You can dig a hole in the ground, find some rocks and build a cooker. It’s like the most primitive way to cook, but you can take it as far as you want it, or you can dumb it down as much as you want. I think that’s super cool. And that had a lot to do with me getting into barbecue, because we didn’t really have any money,” Franklin said.
Preparing for Hot Luck has allowed Franklin the opportunity to explore the aspect of cooking that got him excited about making professional barbecue when he taught himself how to weld his first pit about eight years ago.
Franklin became “excessively nerdy” with the actual process of how you can take a big hunk of meat loaded with fat and create something as velvety and sublime as the brisket that has people lined up for hours five days a week at his East 11th Street restaurant.
How dry is the wood? What’s the humidity like? Is there too much convection? How are the embers moving? Is there enough pepper on this fatty patch of the brisket? Thinking about those questions and wrestling with those variables have always driven Franklin.
“I don’t think I really got into cooking barbecue because it was barbecue; I got into cooking barbecue because I enjoyed the process. And working with fire and learning how to get meats tender and learning how to get things to work the way I wanted them to work and just learning. It’s that process that probably gets me excited about a lot of different kinds of foods,” said Franklin, who admits his tastes as an eater lean toward the bright, citrusy and delicate types of cuisine executed by chefs like Uchi owner and Hot Luck participant Tyson Cole.
Despite its rugged and folksy appeal, I suggest that perfecting barbecue is more akin to classical music than country music.
“It’s one hell of an orchestration,” Franklin responds with one of his trademark dad jokes.
Cooking great barbecue means adjusting to weather, adhering to some rules and knowing when to break others. It is an ever-evolving process of fine-tuning that resonates with the perfectionist in Franklin. But the adherence to his systematic ways and limited space at the restaurant give Franklin little berth for creativity. It’s one reason he loves the creative freedom and freewheeling nature of welding.
You can’t uncook a brisket and just start over. There are stakes involved, especially when hungry people are lined up and expecting perfection. With the creativity of welding, there’s more leeway, more room for error and a much flatter learning curve.
“If it falls off, just weld it back. The learning curve really is just using common sense,” Franklin said. “If it looks like it might fall off and kill somebody, you probably shouldn’t do it.”
Spoken like a true tinkerer.
HOT LUCK MAIN EVENTS
The Hi Lo
When: 6 to 9 p.m. May 19
Where: Fair Market, 1100 E. Fifth St.
Cost: $145 at hotluckfest.com
Details: This event features chefs cooking the dishes that inspired them and their careers.
When: 6 to 9 p.m. May 20
Where: Wild Onion Ranch, 12112 Old San Antonio Road, Manchaca
Cost: $155 at hotluckfest.com
Details: This event features a roster of chefs cooking dishes over live fire and using a variety of unique cookery crafted by Aaron Franklin.
In addition to the main a la carte events and several music concerts where tickets are sold a la carte, there are a few remaining Whole Enchilada packages available for $550. That inclusive ticket grants access to an exclusive welcome party on May 18, a tiki after-party May 20, a brunch series May 21, access to all music events and early access to the Hi Lo and Al Fuego. More information at hotluckfest.com.