Aaron Franklin wins James Beard Award for Best Chef: Southwest

Aaron Franklin accepting his award for Best Chef: Southwest at the James Beard Awards in Chicago.
Aaron Franklin accepting his award for Best Chef: Southwest at the James Beard Awards in Chicago. (Credit: Sarah Abell BALTZ CO.)

Franklin Barbecue owner Aaron Franklin won Best Chef: Southwest honors at the 25th annual James Beard Awards Monday night in Chicago. This was the first time Franklin had been nominated for the Beard Award, culinary-world equivalent of an Oscar. Franklin beat out a group that included Barley Swine’s Bryce Gilmore (who was nominated for the third time), Hugo Ortega (Hugo’s, Caracol) and Justin Yu (Oxheart) of Houston, and two out-of-state chefs.

Franklin is the third Austin chef to ever win the award, following in the footsteps of Uchi’s Tyson Cole in 2011 and Paul Qui, then of Uchiko, in 2012.

While he has dealt with accolades and awards, Franklin never considered a call could ever come from the James Beard Foundation.

“I was totally surprised. It’s shocking enough to even get nominated for that, and to actually win, it’s like, ‘What? Really? Did someone make a mistake?’”

Franklin took the stage looking quite dapper (and almost unrecognizable) in a tuxedo. After extending a “big fat thank you” to his wife, Stacy, the humble pit master declared that the win was “so much bigger than me and so much bigger than my restaurant in Austin, Texas.” Franklin then thanked the barbecue cooks who came before him and the ones to come and wrapped his brief and classy speech.

The affable and unassuming pit master had a speech loosely prepared last night, and said the only thing that made him nervous heading into the event was the possibility that he’d actually have to speak in front of a large group of people. He jokes he almost didn’t want to win, just to spare him the awkwardness.

“I’m ok talking to people around the barbecue pits, in my element, but that’s a different world,” Franklin said. “A little intimidating for sure.”

Franklin said he got his point across, though he only remembered about 30 percent of what he prepared to say.

“I was going to elaborate on some other stuff and thank people at the restaurant and thank Austin, Texas. I was gonna get a little bit more mushy than I did,” Franklin said. “The only point that I really wanted to make was that winning that award totally isn’t about me. It’s about barbecue as a whole.”

What does Franklin think the win means for the world of barbecue?

“I think it’s huge. It kind of justifies what we do on a lot of levels,” Franklin said. “To actually be recognized in the culinary world is pretty big. It’s always just been poor-man’s food and never really been recognized on that level, at least publically. I think it opens up a lot of doors for a lot of people, hopefully.”

No strangers to early nights and earlier mornings, Franklin and his wife didn’t celebrate the victory late into the evening.

“We had some dinner, went back to the hotel, and went to bed,” Franklin said. “I turn into a pumpkin at 9:15.”

For those not well-versed in the lore of the man whom Bon Appetit not long ago named the smoker of the best barbecue in the country, Franklin opened his business as a trailer in the parking lot of Owl Tree Roasting in 2009. Lines soon followed, and eventually so did a brick-and-mortar restaurant on East 11th St. He got his start at a very young age, helping out around the barbecue restaurant his parents owned for a few years in Bryan, before heading to Austin, where he worked briefly for John Mueller at the Taylor native’s former place on Manor Road.

After many hours tinkering with a small home smoker, Franklin converted a funky old camper into the trailer from which he served on the I-35 feeder road. He opened his restaurant, famed for its brisket and its lines, in 2011, and the rest is history, as people from around the world, including president Obama, have made the pilgrimage for Franklin’s barbecue.

In addition to his Beard win, Franklin also recently released a book that landed on the New York Times bestseller list and will soon appear on his own TV show, “BBQ with Franklin,” on PBS affiliates starting May 21.

With all of the national attention and the famously long lines, people always wonder if Franklin will ever expand his operation or open a second location.

“Unless something happens to our building, I don’t think we’ll ever move,” Franklin said. “We’ll just keep it the way it is.”

The reason he’s keeping things the way they are?

Quality control.

“I’d rather keep it small, keep it as manageable as we can, and just keep it good,” Franklin said, adding that the restaurant cooks 2,000 pounds of meat a day. “I don’t think we could comfortably make any more. We cook 24 hours a day. We just can’t squeeze any more out of it, and I don’t really want to.”

The only change coming is a to-go window. Franklin is rebuilding his original trailer to serve as a to-go operation at the restaurant, which could mean shorter lines for hungry barbecue lovers. He’s about 75 percent finished with that project and hopes to have it implemented “hopefully sometime this summer.”

A look at the cult of Franklin’s line …

And a look back at the 2011 “Downfall” parody …

Author: Matthew Odam

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

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