Interview: Lance Kirkpatrick of Stiles Switch BBQ
Pitmaster: Stiles Switch BBQ & Brew; Opened 2011
Smoker: Indirect Heat Wood-Fired Pit
Wood: Post Oak
Lance Kirkpatrick didn’t grow up cooking barbecue. He didn’t come from a long line of barbecue cooks, but at the age of thirty-one he answered the most important newspaper ad of his life. Louie Mueller Barbecue in Taylor, Texas was looking for someone to help at the restaurant. Lance got the job which set him on the path to learn barbecue from the best – Bobby Mueller.
Now he works in Austin at one of the new crop of barbecue joints in the city. In three short years, Stiles Switch has already made the Texas Monthly Top 50, and recently has been named the fourth and sixth best barbecue joint in Austin in two recent Top 10 lists. But Kirkpatrick doesn’t like words like better or best when talking about barbecue. He prefers the word favorite, and he’d like Stiles Switch to be your favorite.
Daniel Vaughn: One of the things that sets Stiles Switch apart from other Austin barbecue joints is that you don’t just close up when everything is sold out after lunch. You’ve got a loyal dinner crowd every day, right?
Lance Kirkpatrick: Right. Holding your product in this industry is as important as cooking it, so what we’ve learned over the last couple years is to start with the items like the chicken, sausage, and pork ribs. We take a count of what we’ve got at 1:30 or 2:00 and re-up what we need to do so we have enough for the dinner run too.
DV: How much are you normally cooking in a week?
LK: I order on almost a daily basis. We’re doing about 240-320 briskets per week. We’re doing some volume over here. We cook about thirty cases of spare ribs a week. Compared to a famous Memphis rib joint that’s not much. They might go through that at lunch time, but some of these single pit trailers, we’re doing more at lunch than they do in a couple of days. Our pit capacity got a lot better a few months ago when we got a new pit. We have two of the David Klose pits back here.
DV: Did you name the new one? Isn’t the first one Optimus Prime?
LK: The first one we named Megatron.
DV: Oh. I got the wrong Transformer.
LK: You know, I had to watch it on cable the other day to see if Megatron was one of the good guys or the bad guys. Turns out he’s a bad guy, but we haven’t named the other one.
DV: How did you come to work over at Stiles Switch?
LK: Shane [Stiles] called me up and had an idea for a barbecue restaurant. He was raised on Taylor, and his dad lived around the corner from me in Taylor. I had gotten away from barbecue for about eighteen months. I opened a restaurant called Mimosa in Taylor, but we had to close the doors. Shane called me the day after I closed. I didn’t know who it was, and I wasn’t in the mood. I was short with him and said “Yeah, whaddaya got?” The further we got into the conversation and I realized what he wanted to do, I was going more like “Yes sir.” We met over at Aaron Franklin’s place one afternoon and had lunch together. We met there because he wanted to show that there was a demand for this type of craft barbecue. That was April of 2011. That’s when it all started.
DV: Did you know Shane before then?
LK: As soon as I saw him in line at Franklin I knew who it was. His dad used to bring him by Louie Mueller all the time. He grew up in a barbecue household. His dad told him the day I closed the restaurant. The Stiles family are big barbecue guys.
DV: Is there an actual Stiles Switch on the railroad line out there?
LK: It doesn’t say it on the sign anymore. It was the original name of Thrall which is the next little town beyond Taylor. The cemetery there is still called the Stiles Cemetary.
DV: Do you still live out in Taylor?
DV: That’s quite a commute.
LK: It takes about forty minutes. It’s not too bad because I’m usually coming in at midnight there’s no traffic.
DV: What is your daily routine at Stiles Switch?
LK: It changes week to week now that I have my assistant pitmaster up to speed. His name is Andy Stapp. He cooked with me at Mimosa. We got separated when it closed and he went out to East Texas and worked in restaurant hell. I called him to offer him this position and he came down. My routine all starts with good prep the day before. If I come in at midnight all the brisket and ribs are seasoned up. I’ll light the pit and scrub the big chunks off the grill. I’ll have all the pits loaded by 1:30. By 3:00 they’re ready for my first rotation. On these Klose pits we’ve got to do some rotating. Then it’s time for pork ribs. Then I move to sausage. We hang it in the smoke box in the vertical part of the pit. We hang it for about two hours. By 6:00 I’ve moved the briskets again and made room for the sausage on the grill to get that nice snap on the casings. It’s all a logistical dance. Everything is dictated by opening time.
DV: How are brisket prices affecting you? Have you had to raise the price?
LK: We have raised prices. We’ve had to like everyone else. There’s a fine line. We don’t want the customer to have sticker shock. My chicken orders have really increased. As brisket prices go up, people are drawn to the more inexpensive items.
DV: You can only absorb so much of that additional cost.
LK: We’re able to absorb some because we’re not paying as much for our pork loin or sausage.
DV: Let’s talk about that sausage. You have three varieties on the menu. Who makes them for you?
LK: The Thorndale Meat Market makes an all beef sausage. You can go there and buy it from their counter. That’s what we use for our regular sausage. It’s all beef with a natural pork casing. Then we have the Stiles Switch spicy sausage which is a 90/10 beef-to-pork mix with a natural pork casing. Taylor Meat makes that for us. It’s a custom blend. They also make our jalapeño cheddar which is a 50/50 beef-to-pork mix.
DV: Last time I was in Shane told me to order the sausage dry.
LK: Shane really likes the dry Thorndale. Dry sausage has caught some more smoke and more heat. It’s a leaner product because a lot of the fat has melted out. The spices are also more concentrated. Truthfully, it’s usually yesterday’s sausage, but some people like it. It’s an availability thing though if you want to order it. Everybody likes their barbecue a little different. That’s why I like the counter-style service. If you get to the table and don’t have what you wanted, some of that is on you. You’re standing right there. Some people say “I’m sorry I’m being picky,” and I say “I like picky.” That way I can do it exactly how they want it.
DV: You do beef ribs there, but you’re using chuck ribs rather than the larger plate ribs, right?
LK: We do chuck short ribs. The plate ribs are just too big. We don’t want to hit somebody with a pound and a half of meat. As big a novelty thing as it is, they’re too inconsistent. Some of them shrink up so much that the bone can be 2/3 of the weight. I don’t think it’s fair to the customers. The beef chuck short ribs we’re getting will only cook up a couple inches off the bone. That’s what I learned to cook, and that’s what we’ve stayed with.
DV: We’ll get to where you learned to cook barbecue in a minute, but first, where did you grow up?
LK: Out in West Texas in Odessa. I came to Austin in 1989, then I moved to Taylor in 2000.
DV: What did you move to Austin for?
LK: I followed a girl. My first wife went to Southwest Texas. I didn’t go to school so I started working in the food and beverage industry. I was a cook, a bartender, I waited tables, and I got into some management too. I worked at Holiday Inn Northwest. I got to work in all different positions, and I really liked the hospitality part of it. That’s what I really liked about barbecue when I started. There’s such an instant gratification from your customers.
DV: Did you cook barbecue back in Odessa?
LK: No. Until I went to work with Bobby and Trish at Louie Mueller, barbecue to me was burgers and fajitas on the grill. I didn’t really know anything about the Texas barbecue thing. It was new to me.
DV: Did you move to Taylor for the job at Louie Mueller?
LK: No. A house took us there. My current wife and I were living in Pflugerville. I was working at Hanover’s Draft House when they first opened fifteen years ago. One New Years Eve was not a good experience, so I had to get out from behind the bar. I answered an ad in the newspaper. When John Mueller left to open his place on Manor Road [in Austin], Bobby and Trish were running the place on their own. I grabbed a newspaper in January and saw they were looking for help. They offered me a position and I started working there in February of ’01.
DV: Bobby didn’t seem like a guy who would let you start cooking barbecue right away, so what did you start out doing there?
LK: I started out as his side prep person. I’d come in at 8:00 in the morning. By that time he’d have been cooking for six or eight hours. I would slice onions, make potato salad and cole slaw. He didn’t even let me near the beans for about three years. I would help at the counter too. At the end of lunch Bobby and I would each grab a broom and we’d sweep the floors. We’d wipe the tables and restock the beer and sodas. By ’04 and ’05 he let me cook some. He asked me one day if I’d be interested in learning the pits. He let me know it wasn’t something to be taken lightly. If I was gonna do it I had to be all in, or I was gonna keep slicing onions and peeling potatoes.
DV: Do you still peel potatoes?
LK: I do not, but when we first opened I did. I went through a couple of cooks before I found Andy. Bobby got me started just like I did with these guys. That’s where I learned to train other people. He taught me how to tell when the meat was ready to come off. He taught me the meat prep and what things should look like when they’re cooking. You know, how to tell how the heat is moving through the pits and how to run the fire. I would just shadow him. Bobby taught me everything, especially what the fire should look like to get the heat you want, and how to adjust the chimney for that.
A video from Diners Drive-Ins and Dives in 2007 when Bobby and Lance were working together
DV: How long did it take you observing and cooking before you felt comfortable cooking on your own?
LK: I guess it was six months or even a year in training. My next big step was when he let me cook Mondays. It was every other Monday to begin with. I don’t know if I was ever really comfortable. To get to the standard of Mr. Mueller…he had such high standards for himself. I’m still trying to cook to meet those standards every day.
DV: You worked there for eight years before Bobby passed away suddenly. That had to have been a terrible shock to the whole staff there.
LK: It was. The morning that it happened was surreal. Fortunately for Louie Mueller Barbecue, Wayne [Mueller] had already stepped in and had been involved in the operation prior to Bobby’s passing. He had a good grasp on the operation. My personal experience that morning was that I didn’t stop cooking. Every other Saturday one of us would come in at midnight and start cooking, and the other one would drag in around 6:00 to start helping. That was his week to be the midnight guy. I got there around 5:30 and nothing was done. I didn’t see his pickup, and I kept thinking maybe I screwed up my day and this was my week to come in early. I just started cooking my butt off. I lit all three fires and just started throwing briskets on trying to meet the opening time with whatever I could. By 7:00 I called my wife to go check on him. That’s when Mrs. Mueller discovered that he had passed away over night. We got the news. Sandy Llamas, who is still a manager out there with Wayne, we stood there and cried together for a minute. He taught me barbecue, but he taught me so much more. When I think about Bobby, it’s about the positive things, so I haven’t thought about that day for a long time. Sandy was standing there mixing up cole slaw, and she said “what do we do?” I said “There’s only one thing Bobby would do. We have $4000 worth of meat on that pit, so we’re going to serve it.”
DV: What else could you do?
LK: Exactly, and we did. My wife came up there and worked the registers while Sandy and I cut meat. It’s like when you’re in battle and the General goes down, the Lieutenant has to step up. That’s what I did that day, and that’s what Wayne had to do, and he continues to do that. We just kept cooking. A couple of days after we had his wake and I cooked for that too. Everybody came down and we had Budweisers and barbecue. While we’re on the point, when we first started Stiles Switch and it got out that I was coming and I was from Louie Mueller, Wayne tried to ruffle some feathers thinking that I was trying to use the name to further my career. Nothing could be further from the truth. I felt like I was being made to feel like I shouldn’t say [Bobby’s] name, but that would disrespect what he taught me. When the recent barbecue family tree came out – there’s a lot of us who owe our career to Bobby Mueller.
DV: I don’t think there’s anyone else out there right now that more people owe their skills to than Bobby Mueller.
LK: Yes, but he would kinda “Aw shucks” the whole thing. He was such a humble person.
DV: You were there when he received the James Beard award, right? How did he react to that award?
LK: He was flabbergasted. They had Bobby up [to New York], he and his wife both. It was a black tie thing where he was asked to attend. It was a big deal.
DV: It’s no secret that you and Wayne bumped heads when he took over. How did that relationship play out?
LK: I worked with Wayne for a year, a month, three days, and a couple hours one night. Wayne Mueller has a business to run, and he’s going to run it as he sees fit. By all accounts, he’s doing a damn fine job of it. He’s keeping that Louie Mueller name right on top where it needs to be.
DV: You left Louie Mueller, then you decided to get out of barbecue for a while. Were you just sick of barbecue, or did you just want to try your hand at something else?
LK: I didn’t want to do something in Taylor with barbecue. It’s kind of a saturated market. I had looked at the building a while before, but that was right when Bobby asked me start helping more. I put those plans on the back burner, but that’s right where I went back to when I quit working for Wayne.
DV: When you closed that down and you got that call from Shane, were you reluctant to get back into barbecue, or were you excited?
LK: I was raring to get back at it. Everybody in Taylor either wants barbecue or Mexican food, so at Mimosa, almost as a joke, I started cooking briskets out back and put a brisket quesadilla on the menu. I took care of both in one line on the menu. I also did a Sunday brunch there and every once in a while I’d do brisket. When Shane offered that job to me it was like the universe re-opening its arms to me again and saying “Here you go, you dumb son-of-a-bitch. This is what you should have done all along.”