Aaron Franklin has had a very busy spring. Even by his standards. He released a new cookbook (“Franklin Steak”); stars in a new series of instructional MasterClass videos online; has his sights set on a new breakfast taco truck that will sit outside of his perpetually packed, world-famous barbecue restaurant; and this weekend he’ll welcome hundreds of guests to the third annual Hot Luck, a festival he co-founded with entrepreneur/club owner James Moody and Mike Thelin of food festival Feast in Portland, Ore.
But Franklin still has time to sit down for a cold beer or two at Crown & Anchor Pub and talk about hamburgers, steaks, his love of Cajun food and the forthcoming Hot Luck. The festival runs Thursday through Sunday, with the centerpiece events taking place at Franklin Barbecue and Wild Onion Ranch on Friday and Saturday nights, and a Sunday brunch at Austin Speed Shop.
The festival, which will feature food from 50 chefs from Austin and across North America, along with live music performances nightly, takes on the feel of a backyard barbecue. The participating chefs, a group that includes Alon Shaya from New Orleans, Milk Bar’s Christina Tosi, and Chris Shepherd and Justin Yu of Houston, seem to have as much fun as the attendees, popping up at events where they aren’t even scheduled to cook, interacting with fans and possibly collaborating on future projects.
Listen to more with Franklin on the latest episode of Austin360’s "I Love You So Much" podcast:
Austin American-Statesman: I released a list of my favorite burgers in Austin, and (Crown & Anchor’s) was one of them. I wrote that it tasted like the griddle hadn’t been changed or cleaned in 30 years.
Aaron Franklin: This is probably like the only kind of restaurant where that’s actually an asset. But, yeah, I’ve been eating burgers here for a real long time.
We’ll get to your new steak cookbook in a minute, but what do you like in a burger?
Well, it depends. People actually ask me a lot, "What’s your favorite burger in town?" "Hey, we’re in town, where should we get a burger?" A) I think Austin doesn’t have a great burger scene; we could do better. But it’s also a question of what kind of burger do you want? Do you want a diner burger, like a Dirty’s or a Crown & Anchor kind of burger? Something like Billy’s on Burnet is always a favorite. Or do you want like a fancy burger, like something from Justine’s? So, it depends on what you want. Or, do you have time to go to Dai Due for a nice burger?
That burger’s pretty great. I had it the other day for the first time.
That burger’s super good.
You’ve recently come out with a steak cookbook. You’re famously a bit of a perfectionist, and you’ve obviously fine-tuned the craft of barbecue over a decade. I would think it’s pretty rare that somebody would release a book for a cuisine that they’re not known for, not that it’s a huge leap from brisket to steak. What made you think you were ready to talk about it out in the open, in terms of how people should cook steaks?
This might really bum you out, but I’ve actually been running an underground steakhouse for 10 years. (Laughs.)
What’s it called?
It’s called Franklin Steak, and I thought it was about time we did a steak book. (Note: Franklin is laughing. And obviously kidding.) It really kinda started when Jordan (co-author Jordan Mackay) and I were writing the barbecue book. We’d finish up work at Franklin Barbecue and end up back at my house and go over notes, and we felt like almost every night we’d pick up some steaks at Salt & Time or go by Central Market. We’d go grab a beer and grab some steaks and think about it. Because I really like to eat steak a lot more than brisket because it’s not as rich. We found ourselves getting really nerdy into (cooking steaks), and the way that I talked about brisket, as Jordan noted, was the same way I talked about steak, and he had always kinda wanted to work on a steak book. We had a blast doing it, too, I learned a ton.
Did you learn by cooking or researching or what?
I’m not much of a researcher. Jordan’s really good at that stuff. I’m more kind of hands-on, figure it out and come up with my own way to do it. I think we probably cooked 100 to 150 steaks for this book. And really did some dialed-in experiments. I had this 36-inch plancha on my back porch and had a series of lasers to figure out Maillard reaction and took actual moisture measurements of crusts on steaks and put them into spreadsheets. It got pretty nerdy. Needless to say, I was pretty into it.
The nerdiness of it and the fine-tuning of the steaks sounds pretty similar to your experimenting with barbecue and wood and smoke?
Very much so. And, oddly enough, working on the steak book, I kinda also learned the same thing I learned from barbecue: No matter how technical you get on this stuff, it sort of all comes down to feel; it all comes down to intuition; it all comes down to using your hands. It’s the same way with any cooking.
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I assume you’re charcoal only?
I actually prefer burning post oak down to coals and then just using those. The flavor is so much more clean. But nobody is really going to burn a third of a cord of wood for two steaks. That’s dumb.
You probably didn’t end up seeing yourself becoming a chef, much less a James Beard-winning chef. ...
Chef is still a strong word. And I know we’ve had a lot of conversations about this over the years. …
I know it makes you uncomfortable, but you are. And now you’re talking about steaks, and I see you’ve been spending some time in Louisiana and have been fiddling around with gumbo and po’boys.
Oh, I love gumbo. It’s like my liquid brisket.
When did your interest in Cajun cuisine start?
Probably when I was about 16. One of my best friends in high school, when I met him, he had just moved from New Orleans. So hanging out at his parents’ house, and his grandmother would make gumbo and send back etouffee. And I’d be like, "What is this?!" And I started going to New Orleans with him when I was about 18. I’ve been sold on it for years. And my grandfather is from Louisiana also. When I was a kid, they would cook pot roasts and gravies and beef tips and rice. And I didn’t really realize it until a number of years later, but that was some pretty Cajun-y food he was cooking.
The thing I always say about Franklin Barbecue is that the experience is as good as any restaurant or hospitality experience in the city. It seems like Hot Luck, as much as it is based on your idea of cooking food, it’s based on your idea of hospitality.
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How did you dial up the hospitality experience at the restaurant, and how did that translate to the festival?
We didn’t have to really try very hard. All of these things seem to just naturally fall into place. We started the trailer with just (Franklin's wife) Stacy and me, and we never had to think about how hospitality was going to go. It’s kind of a silly word anyway; it should just exist. It’s called being nice to people. It’s no big deal. So that part comes super natural. As Franklin Barbecue got busier and we hired more people, it kind of … good vibes are infectious, for sure. And we’ve got some of the sweetest people that work at our place that are so kind and giving and do such good work. But nobody’s really faking it. And it’s kind of the same thing with Hot Luck. It’s such an Austin-y thing. It’s definitely a spinoff of Franklin Barbecue in a lot of ways. It’s definitely a spinoff of Fun Fun Fun Fest. It’s a lot of cool Austin stuff coming together for one festival. But, again, we’re just nice to each other, and everybody’s really excited about what they’re doing. And I don’t think a hospitality aspect is something that any of us have ever even thought about. That’s just the way it is.
What’s the coolest moment, or one of the coolest moments, you’ve experienced at Hot Luck, whether that be two chefs who’d never met hanging out, whether it be you getting to do something with somebody, or a musical experience?
There are a lot of those little moments. Maybe the first year when we were at Wild Onion Ranch at the Al Fuego event. I was kind of sitting there, watching complete strangers, people who had bought tickets and were excited to be there, and I was like, "Oh, my God, people came to this thing that we built." Seeing people at stations and chefs handing them their food. Maybe somebody’s showing a guest how to grill something, and it’s super interactive. Or people just standing in the corner having a beer with friends or getting introduced to new people. Just scanning the scene and being like, "Man, every single person here has a smile on their face." That was the most heartwarming thing. And still is. Just seeing how happy people were. Just to create something for other people to have fun and actually create a memory is really the most special thing for me. To create happiness is pretty magical. There’s a lot of terrible stuff going on in this world, and to create an escape from that for four hours and people just go have fun, that’s really cool.