When Franklin Barbecue opened eight years ago, Austin welcomed it with open arms. And then the rest of the foodies—plus President Obama—came to town, lured by the legend of smoked brisket and peak backyard barbecue vibes and the chance to stand in a really long line in the scorching Texas heat. But in the summer of 2017, one of Franklin’s smokers caught fire, and the wails of barbecue lovers could be heard nationwide when the restaurant announced it would close for several months for repairs. But to everyone’s joy, the Texas treasure reopened its doors to a carnivorous public in November, and no one seems to be more relieved than owner and chef Aaron Franklin. With the fire mostly behind him—“We move on pretty quickly around here. Fire? What fire?”—plus a new partnership with the guys behind another Austin favorite, Uchi, you’d think Franklin had enough on his plate. But no, that’s not enough for this James Beard Award-winning pit master. Franklin is also the co-founder of Austin’s Hot Luck Fest—a celebration of Texas culture, family traditions and rock ‘n’ roll. He’s been busy planning four days of food events that put nostalgia and youthful revelry on the table—from a pop-up mall food court to an 80’s-style roller skating party. MUNCHIES chatted with him about the projects he’s currently working on, his intentional approach to new partnerships, and building a food festival that industry people actually want to go to.
MUNCHIES: How are things going at Franklin Barbecue post-fire? Is everything back to 100 percent?
Aaron Franklin: We’re still working on the smokehouse, but we’re hoping to be back to normal by the beginning of March. Trying to get ready for SXSW. We’re currently cooking out of trailers in the backyard. Our capacity right now is 72 briskets max, which, usually, it’s 120. The first day we were back, it was pretty touching to hear people’s stories about why they keep coming to visit us. I guess you kinda don’t realize how much you’re appreciated until something like that happens.
It’s an idea that popped into the Uchi guys’ heads probably about eight years ago. Then about a year ago, we did a pop-up dinner together and that got the conversation rolling. I thought, “You know what? That sounds like a whole lot of fun. I’m in!” It came out of such a genuine mutual respect for what each other does. Uchi and Uchiko are probably my favorite restaurants ever. I can’t ever imagine opening up a restaurant with anyone but them. It seemed like a real natural fit.
And what’s this I see about you selling Franklin Barbecue-branded backyard smokers now…?
Yeah! We also run a welding shop, because we don’t already have enough stuff to do. Once we finished building all the barbecue pits for the restaurant and stuff, we started working on smaller ones. We’re waiting on the last round of prototypes, and we’ll start taking orders this Christmas. We’re making everything here in Austin, and then we’ll be able to ship ‘em.
When you joke about not having enough pans in the fire and getting involved in all these new projects, what’s the weight of carrying the reputation for excellence that comes with Franklin Barbecue like?
Not very weighty, because I expect the same from myself at this stage in my life. You know, it’s not like [the Uchi guys] were just like, “Hey, let’s open a new restaurant!” It had been years and years of thinking about it, and working on recipes. And that was the same way that Franklin Barbecue started—we’d been working on that for 10 years before we even opened. Even when it was just a trailer, all of the details were in place and it was very intentional. There’s nothing haphazard about anything that we do. We like to try our best.
So what has it been like to put your name on this festival that involves stuff beyond barbecue and backyard smokers, stuff outside of your wheelhouse?
The festival’s a little bit different because we’ve been talking about it for probably about six years. I’ve been friends with [co-founders James Moody and Mike Thelin] for years, and I think we all fit into a real specific spot. Everyone involved in Hot Luck really does compliment each other’s skills. I’m not going it alone.
To me, Austin is like the city for festivals. What did you want to do with Hot Luck that was different than other events the city’s been hosting for years?
You know, I don’t cook festivals. People ask all the time. But it’s just too hard, too expensive, logistically it’s not really feasible. You know, “Come feed four thousand people in two ounce portions!” I cook brisket. That’s not an easy thing to pull off. And that’s a thing for a lot of chefs—it’s a huge burden. You’re always set up for failure when you cook a festival. Then the organizers say, “Here’s a 200 dollar stipend for your food, thanks for making us a lot of money!” So it’s kind of the anti-festival festival. That’s definitely how we roll. We treat people right.
I want chefs to come in and feel comfortable like they’re cooking for their friends. If [Momofuku chef] David Chang wants to come in and grill hot dogs? Awesome. Come grill some hot dogs, drink your beer, have some fun. If you want a crazy cooker or smoker, we’ll totally build it. There’s no logistics that are out of reach. And that allows me to create an environment where everybody can be creative, there’s no pressure, you’re cooking to have fun, not to impress people. It definitely reflects on the chef lineup we have. All those people were personally invited. There’s specific reasons why certain people get asked to come to keep it fresh every year, and not just the same 20 chefs we love. And even the chefs from last year that aren’t in the lineup this year are still invited, we want them to just come hang out.
What’s unique to you about the community in Austin that has made Franklin Barbecue and Hot Luck so successful?
Austin—granted it is changing quickly—has always been supportive of the arts, supportive of music, food, whatever—it’s always been a great place to try to pull it off. When we first started Franklin Barbecue, we were just sort of having backyard barbecues before we had a legitimate restaurant space. But I think that mentality carries across, for Hot Luck, certainly—you don’t start a project with “we’re gonna make a bunch of money.” None of these things are money-driven. It’s more because we think our city deserves to have these things. I don’t want to go to a weird, corporate-y festival. I want to go hang out with friends, sit in a backyard, have some beers. Our community is so supportive of that kind of thing. There’s so many people who are like, “Man, this feels like old-school Austin!” We couldn’t have started Hot Luck anywhere else. It comes out of so much of our culture here.
Does Hot Luck attract your average food-and-music festival-goer?
It’s definitely more of the food industry folks. We do have some name-recognizable chefs, but to really appreciate the full lineup, you have to sort of really be up on all of this. It’s kind of like the indie rock version of a food festival.
What’s something people aren’t paying attention to about Hot Luck that you think makes it cool?
The way it's designed is that everyone can have an individual experience. There’s all the themed events, but then there’s all the after-parties, the unofficial after-after-parties, then just a ton of music. So if you want to do the Sunday brunch event, then go see a Hot Luck featured movie at a local theater, then go see a band after that—it’s kind of a choose-your-own-adventure. You can buy tickets for everything a la carte, too, so you don’t have to buy a crazy expensive package—even though that is the best deal. So if you’re some line cook in a kitchen that wants to go see this one chef do this one thing at this one event, you can just get a ticket for that. This is a food festival by industry people, we want everybody to be able to take part however they can.
Sounds like fun! Thanks for talking with us, Chef.