Feast Portland Interviews

Q&A: Aaron Franklin

The owner of Austin’s Franklin Barbecue, the “best barbecue in America” according to Bon Appétit, lets us in on the perfect brisket and gives us a sneak peek at his offerings for Thursday’s Sandwich Invitational.

By Benjamin Tepler September 17, 2012

Feast Portland, one of the country's most original food festivals, lands in the Rose City September 20–23. To count down to the event, read Eat Beat's daily interviews with seven of the great food thinkers coming to participate in this illustrious culinary throw-down—and where to catch them.

 Q: In less than two years, Franklin Barbecue went from a tiny brisket stand in East Austin to the most notable barbecue joint in Texas. Who are your barbecue heroes and culinary inspirations?

A: Good question. I’d say I don’t have many barbecue heroes, but I like people who follow their dreams and are passionate enough about food to make it happen. I’m not talking about people who can just cook really well, but people who can cook really well and care about what they’re cooking. Do-it-yourselfers. Someone like a carpenter creating a nice piece of furniture, a brewer making a batch of beer, or a coffee roaster roasting coffee. Somebody that spends that much time and effort in what they’re doing.

As someone who spends 18 hours tending a single brisket, what does a typical day look like for you?

Each day changes. It could be anything from my alarm going off at 1:45 a.m. and doing barbecue stuff by 2 a.m. until 3 p.m., then running errands until it gets dark and loading up the smokers. Or, it could be getting on a plane and going somewhere. Usually, it’s getting up super-duper early, cooking ribs, cutting meat, running errands, and trying to get things together for the next day.

You’re a born and bred Texan—which side dishes earn the seal of approval with a barbecue brisket?

Side dishes? We don’t need no stinkin’ side dishes! If there have to be some, I guess pickled onions and bread—white bread—are the standard.

There are so many versions of “perfect barbecue” in Texas alone. Do you catch a lot of flack from other chefs/pit masters/ Texas locals for your brand of barbecue?

No, I think the only real disconnect is between styles like competition barbecue and the regional/backyard/restaurant styles, and as far as that goes, there’s central Texas, and it’s obvious we’re the best, of course. There’s respect for other regional styles too, but it originates with different groups of people. When I cook, it’s more of a German/Czech style. With central Texas, that’s super-duper basic: cook it really, really well with only salt and pepper—those are the only two things I put on it. I think the meat must not be very good if you have to put a lot of sauce on it. But you go up north outside of Texas, and no one would ever consider making it without sauce. There’s a mutual respect for each style overall.

Would you ever date a vegetarian?

Aside from being married and not dating anyone anyway, one of the first things I tried to get out of my wife is if she was vegan or vegetarian. So, the answer is no. A big fat no. Absolutely not. I would never be able to do it. After I took my wife to a steak house for our first date, I knew she’d be a winner.

Are there any barbecue pit stops you plan to make while you’re in Portland?

Not necessarily. The only barbecue place I’ll be hanging out is Podnah’s Pit. Luckily, Rodney is great, and we’re cooking there for the Sandwich Invitational. I’ll definitely eat a big meal there.

As you vie for the “best sandwich” trophy at Feast Portland, what’s your meaty secret for crushing the competition? Is it safe to assume that barbecue brisket will be in the mix?

I don’t think we’re going to do brisket. It depends on what kind of meat we’re going to get. We requested the best meat possible, but we need so much of it, and it is expensive. Brisket is on the list, but if we get something like prime rib, we’ll work with it. Or if we’re unfortunate enough, it might be turkey or something. I’m not sure about the competition, though knowing that [Feast cofounder Mike] Thelin put the thing together, it’s going to be tough competition.

Catch Aaron Franklin at the Portland Monthly Sandwich Invitational. From po’ boys to banh mis, local and national chefs will bring their sandwich A-game for Feast Portland’s kickoff tasting event. Thursday, Sept 20, 5:30 pm in downtown Portland’s Director Park.

Bon Appétit Presents Feast Portland (feastportland.com) is a region-defining celebration of everything that makes Portland awesome, Sept 20–23. All proceeds benefit hunger relief organizations Share Our Strength and Partners for a Hunger-Free Oregon.

Buy tickets at www.feastportland.com. Find updates on Facebook and Twitter (@FeastPDX).

Tomorrow: New York’s gastropub pioneer, April Bloomfield, talks snout-to-tail cooking and the ethics of celebrity chef status.

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