Catching Up With Aaron Franklin

Pitmaster is man of the hour

Photo by John Anderson

Aaron Franklin has had a very good month. On the heels of his first book (Franklin Barbecue) and the announcement of a new PBS series (BBQ With Franklin), Franklin was awarded one of the greatest accolades in all of food: the James Beard Foundation Award for Best Chef: Southwest.

The award was the culmination of a journey that began in one of the most auspicious hometowns for an Austin icon, Bryan/College Station. Franklin grew up working in his grandparents' record store and his parents' restaurants, including a barbecue joint. Living in a conservative small town wasn't all that easy. "It was kind of terrible," Franklin admits. "There's nothing to do. That's why I worked on cars all the time. I built stuff."

By the time he hit high school, music had become a prominent part of Franklin's life. "My half-sister gave me a skate video," he says. "It had this super rad music on it. I made a cassette tape of it. It was all old SST stuff. It was Dinosaur Jr., tons of fIREHOSE, tons of Minutemen all over it." It was only a matter of time until Franklin ended up in a place like Austin. While visiting friends here in 1996, he attended a Hum show at Liberty Lunch. "People were so nice and friendly," Franklin says. "I thought, 'This place is cool. You know, I'm totally going to move here.'"

As the years passed, Franklin was bit by the meat-smoking bug but didn't see himself as a part of any larger culture. "I had already been cooking brisket," he says, "but I had never really gone to any barbecue places. I didn't even know they existed." A musician buddy took him around to Lockhart, Taylor, and Llano and he continued to cook. His cookouts hosted with now-wife Stacy became legendary.

"It became so exciting to cook a backyard barbecue and see all these people start showing up," says Franklin, "and then I'll be gosh-darned if they started turning out pretty good. Each one was exponentially better than the previous. To see how excited people were, I was like 'Wow!'"

Still, once he decided to go into the barbecue business, he was surprised at how quickly word spread.

"It really kind of snuck up on us," says Franklin, "It was a long-term goal. [We thought,] 'Someday I want to open up a place. How do we get there?' We didn't push. We didn't try to find investors." What they did find was a trailer, but that soon ran its course. "We took the trailer as far as we could," he says. "Toward the end we were essentially running a restaurant in a parking lot. It was really, really hard."

After eyeing a building on 11th Street for a while, he finally made the move. "The first day the lines were just out of control," says Franklin, "and it's pretty much been going since then. That summer Bon Appétit came out [naming Franklin BBQ the best in the country] and then it got a little busier. It's been real gradual. We've gone more holding it back than trying to build it. We're just trying to keep it manageable."

Part of keeping it manageable means sticking to just one location, something Franklin is adamant about. "We've got enough," he says. "We work hard enough, and we've got plenty." Ever humble, Franklin credits the city and its people for his success and notoriously long lines. "I think it's pretty special to Austin," he says. "It says a lot about Austin as a city. It says a lot about Old Austin and the way things have always been. Hopefully the way they'll be for a long time."

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Franklin Barbecue, James Beard Foundation Award, BBQ with Franklin

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