“You’ll be surprised that when we started we had absolutely nothing — no resources, no knowledge, no image of what we wanted to become. All I had were my own two hands, a work ethic, a positive attitude, a sense of humor, and a fine lady to help it all come together.” – Aaron Franklin.
So how did he come from nothing to the most famous BBQ chef in the country in just a few years?
(photo credit, Franklin Barbecue)
You can find the answers in his new book, Franklin Barbecue: A Meat-Smoking Manifesto. His story starts at the beginning, with his first smoker, a cheap $99 smoker, and the very first brisket he cooked back in 2002.
The telling of his story reminds me of when my husband came home with our first smoker.
Back when my husband and I first got into barbecue we didn’t have kids yet. So when Sean would wake up at 2am to start the smoker so the 10 pound pork butt would be ready by mid-afternoon for guests I thought it was just a fun hobby. Something he would do from time to time. Something he actually had time to do. The excitement of learning something new trumped his need for sleep. Or so I thought.
Years later, once we had two young kids to take care of, not to mention a full-time job, his passion grew deeper. Despite having a lot on his plate, he continued to wake up in the middle of the night experimenting with new recipes and techniques. In fact, he started doing it more often. Maybe he is a glutton for punishment? Maybe he figured since he was up with the infants anyway, he’d kill two birds with one stone and tend to the smoker after taking care of the midnight baby shift? A way to make the best of a sleepless night. Or just a master multi-tasker? Or maybe he was like that girl from the movie Real Genius who didn’t need sleep at all.
It wasn’t until he proposed buying a new smoker – The Beast – that I realized he was really serious about this whole BBQ thing. That this was becoming more than just a weekend hobby. It was that or he was having a midlife crisis. Perhaps a bit of both?
And it wasn’t until reading Franklin Barbecue: A Meat-Smoking Manifesto that I realized there’s just something about BBQ that drives some people to purposefully endure insane amounts of sleep deprivation, and spending obscene amounts of money on brisket just to test out a new technique.
So what is the secret to Aaron Franklin’s success?
- Is it his top-secret recipes?
- Is it his ninja skills with a shovel and a smoker?
- Is it a mystery butcher he sources his meat from?
- Or a mystical forest where he sources the oak he uses for his fires?
After reading his book I discovered what it really boils down to is passion. Raw honest passion. And hard effing work.
And this book explains it all.
Franklin Barbecue: A Meat-Smoking Manifesto, by Aaron Franklin, Jordan Mackay, is seriously one of the best books I’ve read on food in years. Maybe ever (sorry Ina Garten!!).
It’s been a long time since I connected on such a personal level to a book the way I did to Franklin’s book, starting with the introductions, before the actual book even begins. And I read it from cover to cover, like a good novel you just can’t put down, in less than 24 hours. Yes, it’s that good.
The book, co-written by the James Beard Award Winning Chef, Aaron Franklin of Franklin Barbecue, and author/journalist Jordan Mackay, isn’t a cookbook in the traditional sense, and it isn’t an autobiography (though there is an opening chapter detailing his early days of BBQ and how he got started). It’s really a barbecue bible. Or, perhaps to be less dramatic, it’s a detailed technical manual of everything Aaron Franklin knows about barbecue.
The book is 224 pages long and there are only 11 actual recipes in it. The recipes that are in it are very detailed. His recipe for Brisket, for example, takes up 13 pages, including photos, plus another 6 pages on how to properly slice brisket.
(photo credit, Franklin Barbecue)
But this isn’t meant to be a cookbook full of recipes and lists of how-to. In fact Franklin states that in barbecue there is “no ‘magic’ recipe. [BBQ] doesn’t operate with absolutes of temperature, time, and measurement.”
He makes it clear that there is no right or wrong way to do BBQ. Instead, this book details everything he has learned to get him where he is today – a James Beard Award Winning Chef and owner of the most successful BBQ restaurant in Austin (and arguably the entire country).
He dedicates the book to explaining the fundamentals of good BBQ – starting with the smoker (or cooker), the importance of wood (the fuel and seasoning), how to make and manage a fire (can you be a fire whisperer?), meat and the importance of quality, the actual cook, and finally he shares a few recipes. He even adds a chapter on beer (an important accompaniment to a long day of smoking!). And while the recipes may seem simple when reading the list of ingredients, you discover that the ingredients are just one of many factors leading to truly great BBQ.
(photo credit, Franklin Barbecue)
But as he mentioned, it’s not a recipe that makes for good BBQ. And Aaron Franklin shares my husband’s sentiment about recipe hoarders. You know, the people who keep their dry rubs and other recipes “top secret” and guard them with their lives. The, “I’d share my secret, but then I’d have to kill you,” kind of people. Though Franklin is way too polite to ever say it, that philosophy is really B.S. BBQ is not about a secret recipe or a cookie cutter process. Nor can you measure BBQ by an exact cooking time, which is something we often stress in our own recipes. It’s done when it’s done.
Good BBQ is about the fundamentals and techniques that Franklin explains so thoughtfully and engagingly in his book. It’s about quality meat. It’s about understanding fire. It’s also about attention to detail. And most of all, it’s about hard work and passion. And it also helps to have a supportive spouse who believes in you.
Connecting BBQ with Wine
Something I connected with on a personal level is how closely these BBQ fundamentals relate to wine. I’m often asked why I have such a connection to both wine and BBQ. You’ll typically see BBQ associated with beer more than wine. For me, it’s not just because I work in wine and my husband happens to have his interest in BBQ. It’s because since the early days of our own BBQ venture, and evident in everything we cook as a team, I’ve seen connections to good BBQ and good wine.
Just as good BBQ starts with quality meat from a trusted source, all good wine starts with quality fruit from a quality vineyard. Then, the job of a winemaker (or pitmaster in this case) is to get those grapes to express themselves as the best wine you can make with as little intervention possible. You make important decisions as a winemaker (what kind of yeast to use, what barrels to use, if any, and how long to age the wine) just as a pitmaster decides what kind of wood to smoke his meat with (mesquite, which will give a heavy smoker character, or oak, which will provide a rich savoriness, or perhaps a fruit wood to give the meat sweeter and more mild smoke influence).
There are things beyond your control in both winemaking and BBQ, like weather for example, but you do your best, with the skills and resources you have, to make the best product you can. You know when to intervene without sacrificing quality.
(photo credit, Franklin Barbecue)
To dry rub or not to dry rub?
Franklin seasons his world famous brisket with two things, salt and pepper. For him, it’s not about some secret rub. It’s about quality meat, managing the fire, knowing how long to cook it, and how to prepare/cut/serve. He keeps his seasonings simple.
Like a great winemaker, Franklin tries not to interfere with the meat much. Instead he acts as more of a shepherd, helping it get to peak performance without manipulating it much (in his case by using dry rubs or heavy sweet sauces).
What comes across more than just an understanding of these fundamentals is Franklin’s genuine passion for the craft. Through his writing (with the help of Mackay as his co-writer no doubt), you really get a glimpse into his personality and humbleness as a human being. A man with as much success as Franklin has achieved could easily turn the torch (or shovel to be more specific) to someone else to get up at 2am to work long, exhausting shifts. But instead Franklin shows up nearly every single day, managing the fires, talking to customers, and running his restaurant. No doubt he gets just as little sleep as he did in the early days when all he had was a small trailer, but he lets us know he’s heavily fueled by good espresso to keep him going. That’s just who he is. His work ethic is beyond compare. Perhaps that’s one of the real secrets to his success?
What you’ll find in this book:
- A wealth of knowledge and an honest glimpse into what really makes for great BBQ.
- Detailed instructions on how to buy a good smoker, or build one from scratch. As someone who has zero intentions on ever building my own smoker I had no idea this subject could be so stinkin’ fascinating.
- Learning the importance of building and maintaining a good fire. Or how to become a fire whisperer.
- A lesson on understanding smoke.
- What to look for in buying meat. Spoiler alert: Quality!
- 11 of Franklin Barbecue’s recipes.
- Why espresso and beer are so important to good BBQ, including a short chapter on Aaron Franklin’s favorite beers for BBQ (this is important stuff, people).
What you won’t find:
- Hundreds of top-secret recipes or a series of easy shortcuts to making BBQ.
I can’t recommend this book enough. Whether you own a smoker or not, this book is a fantastic and inspiring read. And I’m putting bets that this book too will gain Franklin and Mackay a James Beard nomination for food books.
You can read an excerpt from the book here.
And you can find the book here.
I purchased this book on Amazon.com for $18. Killer deal for such a great book! This post contains affiliate links to Amazon.