A BBQ Pitmaster Is Now the Southwest's Best Chef
On Monday night, Aaron Franklin of Franklin Barbecue in Austin, Texas, took home the James Beard Foundation Award for Best Chef Southwest. My first reaction upon hearing the news was to think back to another unlikely winner from the South. In 2008, Robert Stehling, the chef/owner of Charleston's Hominy Grill, won the Best Chef Southeast award, and it was a rather controversial pick at the time.
Stehling, after all, wasn't running some high-end white tablecloth place with a lot of foie gras and truffles and all the other trappings then considered essential for fine dining. It was (and still is) a neighborhood restaurant in an old converted barbershop. You pick your veggies meat-n-three style from a big chalkboard on the wall. It's open for breakfast, serving sausage and pancakes and a concoction called The Charleston Nasty—a fried chicken breast on a biscuit doused in sawmill gravy.
Stehling's award was a shot across the bow that down-home Southern-style cooking—the kind not unlike what one's grandmother might have served—could be and should be taken as seriously as things with high falutin' French names. It paved the way for the national vogue of Southern cuisine and the success of other Southern-centric chefs like Sean Brock and Ashley Christensen, and it helped usher in a much more casual mode in our fine dining restaurants.
Two months ago, when Aaron Franklin's nomination for Best Chef Southwest was announced, I admitted to having mixed feelings about it. After all, slow smoking brisket and ribs on a wood-fired pit isn't exactly the same as leading a large brigade-style kitchen and meticulously plating elegant courses.
But then, a few weeks ago, I ate at Franklin Barbecue for the first time, getting there at 7:40 a.m. to get a good spot in line (just 20 back from the front) Before I even had my first bite my reservations about the Beard nomination had already started to fade.
Not because I like standing in line for barbecue (I certainly don't!). But I could see right off that Franklin is not just serving food but orchestrating an overall dining experience, one that starts with the hours-long wait just to get in the door and ends with the big roll of brown butcher paper with which you can wrap up your leftovers to take home.
All the elements combine for that overall experience: the community "take-a-chair, leave-a-chair" bin (for those who neglect to bring their own folding chairs for the line), the periodic staff announcements building that sense of anticipation, the whiff of post oak smoke occasionally wafting over the line and making our stomachs growl.
The barbecue, as I expected, was remarkable. The brisket was flawless, especially the lean version, whose thin fat cap had a captivatingly tangy edge to it. The sausage had the ideal crisp snap to each bite and wonderfully rich flavor inside, and even the spicy, beef-studded beans in their savory broth were beyond reproach.
The real key was this: Aaron Franklin wasn't there that day. He was off in San Francisco, cooking at an event to promote his recent best-selling cookbook (sounds a lot like a celebrity chef, doesn't it?). But except for the fact that he didn't come out and work the dining room as he normally does, you wouldn't have known it. (Benji Jacob, Franklin's general manager covered the guest-welcoming duties quite capably). It's a testament that Aaron Franklin not only knows how to manage a pit but also how to lead a crew—to ensure the same consistent level of quality even when he's not there. That sounds an awful lot like the definition of a chef to me.
I think Franklin's winning the Beard Award is a big thing for barbecue—another step in its progression from being an unheralded everyday kind of food to being recognized as one of America's great culinary traditions. I also think that, like Robert Stehling's award back in 2008, it's part of a larger trend that is breaking down the once-rigid boundaries with popular cooking and high-end cuisine.
And that line at Franklin's isn't likely to get any shorter any time soon.