Aaron Franklin talks perfectionism, Thin Lizzy, Hot Luck and more

On April 28, 2017, Aaron Franklin greeted customers at Franklin’s Barbecue, which he co-owns with his wife Stacy Franklin. The couple opened their restaurant in March 2011. Since then, it has grown to it’s maximum capacity. “We can’t physically cook anymore food than we already cook,” said Aaron Franklin. Still, Franklin said that he is not considering requests from investors offering to expand the restaurant into a chain. “This is our little bit of old school Austin,” Franklin said about his restaurant. “We’re not changing.” (Reshma Kirpalani AMERICAN-STATESMAN)

Aaron Franklin has made it to the top of the barbecue game thanks to his tireless pursuit of excellence, a staff that follows the lead of its obsessive and affable boss, a culture of service and good times, and a dedication to tinkering. We spent an afternoon with the Hot Luck co-founder to talk to him about his philosophy on cooking and running one of the best barbecue restaurants in the country. You can read our story about his interest in welding and creating 15 unique pieces of cookery for Hot Luck here. Below are some outtakes from our conversation.

On the title of chef, the James Beard award winner usually winces …

“I don’t necessarily feel like anyone should call me a chef or even think of me as a chef.”

On his obsessive pursuit of getting things right…

“I think it’s gotten worse in recent years … It’s not necessarily a good thing. It really annoys a lot of people who I rely heavily on … It could be almost anyone in the restaurant, really. So I just walk in the restaurant and go, ‘OK, guys, it’s me, not you.’”

On restaurants taking on the personality of their owners and chefs …

“It’s definitely happened that way at Franklin Barbecue.”

Aaron Franklin opened Franklin’s Barbecue in East Austin with his wife in March 2011. Since then, their restaurant has gained national acclaim, with customers lining up as early as 4am on weekends, waiting for doors to open at 11am. (RESHMA KIRPALANI / AMERICAN-STATESMAN)

On barbecue first, business second ….

“There is an angle on the counter in the original trailer that is measured from the tip of my foot to 36″ work table height, so I could get more room out of the walkway. It wasn’t built for business, it was built for me and Stacy. It was built for a passion and then we had to fill in the other gaps.”

On getting into cooking barbecue professionally ….

“That’s a pretty intimidating genre. Yea, it’s painfully simple — just meat and fire — but it’s really complex at the same time, once you really dig into the details and try and replicate it day in and day out.”

On finding the right kind of employees …

“If someone comes in and thinks they  have it all figured out, I don’t want that person. I want someone who comes and is honest and has a good heart and just a really good work ethic who really, really cares.”

On his employee litmus test …

“I used to ask people what their opinions were on Thin Lizzy, and that would determine whether they were hired or not.”

On April 27, 2017, Aaron Franklin, James Beard Award winner and owner of Franklin’s Barbecue, worked in his welding shop in Bastrop, Texas with Matt Johnson. Franklin opened the restaurant in March 2011 with his wife Stacy Franklin. After they signed the lease on the East Austin building, the couple spent three and a half months fixing it up. “No contractors,” said Franklin about the restaurant. “We built everything ourselves.” (RESHMA KIRPALANI / AMERICAN-STATESMAN)

On the Franklin Barbecue way …

“Our way is really, really specific. It’s our way. And it was designed that way intentionally and accidentally.”  

On whether barbecue gets the respect it deserves as a culinary art form?

“Absolutely. Most food probably has its time sometime, and it’s been barbecue’s time.”

On the greatness of barbecue’s simplicity …

“I think that’s kind of the thing that’s so cool about barbecue is that you don’t have to have crazy fancy equipment.You can dig a hole in the ground, find some rocks, and build a cooker. It’s like the most primitive way to cook but you can take it as far as you want it, or you can dumb it down as much as you want. I think that’s super cool. And that had a lot to do with me getting into barbecue, because we didn’t really have any money.”


Franklin Barbecue’s Aaron Franklin (left) and Mohawk co-owner James Moody are teaming up to bring Hot Luck to Austin.

On Hot Luck …

“It’s a festival for cooks. It’s not a big schmoozy, pinkies-out kind of thing. This is flip flops, shorts, Lone Star tall boys and hanging out grilling steaks with your buddies. You hang out, you make friends, it’s more like hanging out at grandma’s house. It’s way more about hanging out with friends than doing the most intellectual thing possible.”

On the chef friends he invited to participate in Hot Luck …

“I wanted to avoid cheffy people who are like on TV but don’t really have a craft that can back them up. I want people that are kind of a little under the normal radar of big time TV and magazine stuff. Some of the names are surprisingly pretty big,obviously. I’m not gonna not invite somebody just because they have a big name, but I’m not gonna invite somebody just because they have a big name.”

On expecting the unexpected at the inaugural fest …

“Something’s gonna go wrong and I don’t know what and I don’t know when and I don’t know what I’m gonna have to do to fix it, but something is gonna go wrong, somewhere.”


Author: Matthew Odam

Restaurant critic & features writer at Austin American @Statesman and @Austin360. Austin-born 6th generation Texan. Left-handed.

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