Interview: Will Fleischman of Lockhart Smokehouse
Smoker: Indirect Heat Wood-Fired Pit
Will Fleischman has tattoos and steel hoops in his ears, but his most distinguishing feature is the beard. He’s hard to miss when behind the counter slicing, but it might be a while before he can get back at it. When I went in for our interview he greeted me with one arm in a sling. He broke a few bones trying to fix his car when a jack partially collapsed while he was under it. He figures if the jack had tipped the other direction, he might not be here any longer.
Fleischman also didn’t figure to last long in barbecue. Always looking for new challenges, he was hoping for a job in fine dining when his stint at Lockhart Smokehouse was through. Over three and half years later, he’s still cooking barbecue, but now he’s doing it at Lockhart Smokehouse’s new location in Plano that opened earlier this year. The smoked meat is great there, and the customers keep coming, so we’re all stuck with him for now.
Daniel Vaughn: Lockhart Smokehouse in Plano is all yours. How does it feel to have this place built for you to work in?
Will Fleischman: I started dedicating myself to this place full time before the Texas Monthly BBQ Festival last year. There were no floors. It was a shell. The pits weren’t even here. To be able to talk to Larry [Lewis, owner of Bewley Pits] about some tweaks I wanted to make to the pits was cool. He was responsive. We have four racks here instead of three like in Oak Cliff. The bottom rack is a holding rack so you’re holding in smoke at a lower temp. I also have flexibility in rack configuration so I can do bigger proteins like whole hog or a buffalo steamship. Being able to tinker and fine-tune was cool. As far as the layout in the restaurant, that was like five guys trying to buy a prom dress for their niece. No one could agree. At the end of the day I just feel lucky with being able to do what I’m doing.
DV: It took a long time to get this place open. Was it frustrating?
WF: I just had to be patient, but I was feeling that every day or week that I wasn’t practicing my craft, I felt rust starting to grow so I was anxious. When you do something seven days a week for three and a half years, that’s your groove, and the ultimate challenge is consistency. Every pit has it’s own personality too.
DV: You did know you were getting two pits here instead of the one that you worked with in Oak Cliff. Did that make things easier?
WF: I don’t know about that. The expectation would be two pits, double the volume. But there weren’t any more staff members, and the staff wasn’t experienced. It’s like you have a thousand cowboys in time for the round up, but none of them know how to ride a horse. It was challenging, but I think my background running businesses and thinking big picture helped. Everyone has a different learning style. It’s a great exercise in patience. We also didn’t know if the customer here in Plano would be a mirror of what we saw in Oak Cliff. How much clod? How much turkey or chicken? You also have to work with the different temperaments of the pits. The B—- cooks chicken and turkey better than Big Black. We’re only a hundred nine days into it here too. We’re getting there, but I wouldn’t say I’m comfortable with it yet.
DV: Do you find yourself more in a management role than a cooking role here?
WF: Yeah. This is my baby so from the front step to the curb out back and everything in between, that’s my responsibility. It’s also a restaurant, so the food has to be first and foremost. I’m comfortable cooking, and I like the blue-collar nature of producing something, but the nature of dynamic leadership is that you deal with whatever needs to be dealt with. Whether it’s a pit issue, a food issue, a staff issue, or a customer issue. Sometimes it’s the people that make the days drudgery. The meat just sits in mute defiance. It doesn’t tell you what it wants. You’ve got to figure it out.
DV: You talked about your business background. You haven’t always been a barbecue cook, so when did that start?
WF: I’ve cooked barbecue for about as long as Lockhart Smokehouse has been in operation, Maybe a month longer. That’s three years and seven months. I’ve run small businesses, regional non-profits, I was a college professor, I was special assistant to the justices of the Wisconsin Supreme Court…I’ve done a million different things, but when we opened Lockhart Smokehouse in Oak Cliff, we had no idea. When the first customer walked in, Tim [McLaughlin] and I looked at each other. We had never wrapped an order. I hadn’t been to any other barbecue joint in my life.
DV: So you never made the pilgrimage down to Kreuz Market?
WF: I’ve been to Lockhart exactly once, and I’ve eaten at Kreuz exactly once. I’ve eaten at Riscky’s in the Stockyards [in Fort Worth] once about a decade ago, and I’ve had takeout from Hard Eight. [Outside of Lockhart Smokehouse,] that’s all the barbecue I’ve eaten in my life. I had made some racks of ribs on my Smokey Joe in the backyard. Back in Wisconsin, my mother’s ribs were parboiled, then baked or grilled. I never had a rib that I liked growing up.
DV: When did you move to Texas?
WF: Eight and half years ago.
DV: If you eaten hardly any barbecue, what made you want to become a barbecue cook?
WF: I’ve always made it a priority in my life to find the strangest opportunity in my life, and make it mine. I heard about them before they opened. I thought “why not give it a shot?” I started as a cook five weeks before they opened. I’d seen my buddies cook some stuff on their trailered barbecue pits, so I felt comfortable enough to buy a backyard pit. Talking with Tim and Jeff [Bergus] I thought this would be fun.
DV: So you knew what a brisket looked like when you started, but you didn’t know how to cook it?
WF: I’d seen a brisket being cooked, but could I distinguish a brisket in the raw from a shoulder clod in the raw? No.
DV: Did you get the beef tattoo so you’d remember where the brisket came from?
WF: Correct. Gotta have that memory device
DV: How long did it take you to feel comfortable cooking there?
WF: I don’t think I ever really felt comfortable. I don’t think I ever want to feel comfortable. Knowing what I know now, I think the product we turned out down there in the first three months was embarrassing.
DV: I was there that first day and when the first brisket was sliced, it ran red out onto the board. I think it was just cooked to medium.
WF: That’s the education that I got. We didn’t have a soft opening. We didn’t know, but we figured it out. I can say with confidence that every single recipe coming out of this kitchen today has my stamp on it. I know what it should look and taste like now, but I got there through Tim’s and Jeff’s support, patience, and checkbook. I had no expectation three and half years ago that I’d be cooking barbecue for any longer than a few months. I wanted to go back to fine dining, but then I wouldn’t have this glorious beard.
DV: That beard helped create the identity of Lockhart Smokehouse. I think it also helped get you on BBQ Pitmasters. How long had you been cooking barbecue before getting on the show?
WF: Two years.
DV: I’m guessing you didn’t come in with any barbecue competition experience.
WF: Never. I didn’t have any interest now, didn’t have any interest then, and probably won’t have any interest in the future. My preparation for the episode was to ask them where I needed to be and when to be there. The last thing I grabbed on my way out the restaurant was a bottle of blueberry moonshine.
DV: To cook with, or to drink?
WF: I didn’t know, but it seemed important at the time.
DV: What did you cook?
WF: Snake River Farms brisket and cowboy ribeye. The judges said our meat was overcooked. Depending on Tim’s mood, he might admit that he convinced me to leave the meat on a little longer when I wanted to pull it.
DV: You also didn’t get a great review from the Dallas Morning News at the Oak Cliff location.
WF: Oh, the barbecue clowns from the Dallas Morning News? I’m not a big media consumer. I read books.
DV: I meant Leslie Brenner’s one star review.
WF: Awesome. I think the words out of my mouth were “F— you if you think you need a fork.” That morphed into “fork you.” So we had “Fork You” day. Whether it’s a one star review, the opportunity to appear on that show, or Chuck Eats the Street, or Andrew Zimmern…that’s all great. I don’t look to do any of that. The “brand” of Will Fleischman is annoying enough to me as it is. When I go to Kroger, Tom Thumb, Whole Foods, or the Sprouts near my house, everyone behind the meat counter knows who I am and I’ve never met them.
DV: The beard I famous. Didn’t it have its own Twitter account for a while?
WF: I don’t know. I actually had a Twitter account once, but I was annoyed with it. We’re all just a bunch of simple Neanderthal knuckle draggers making caveman food over a fire. What the f— am I doing playing Twitbox? I mean, who gives a s—? It has devolved into narcissism. Even if I’m only a third of the badass that I consider myself to be, individually, professionally, or otherwise, a Twitter account has no place in my life.
DV: How long has this current beard been going?
WF: About two years.
DV: Are you shaving it anytime soon?
WF: if I shave mine, then Eric [Perry, pitmaster at the Oak Cliff location] will take the crown. That’s not going to happen.
DV: Is there now a healthy rivalry between the two locations?
WF: No. I hired Eric and Damien, and I trained them. Both of them got a chance to cook barbecue because they came to me.
DV: So you feel like you’re still in Oak Cliff in spirit?
WF: Absolutely. It was hard for me to pull myself out of that location. I felt so connected to every mark on the floor or stain on the wall. I put marks on the door for the height of everyone who worked there. I did that for the staff members, the health inspector, fire marshal, and everyone else. I felt the soul of that place.
DV: You also created a whole series of unique daily specials that have helped to keep y’all popular. How many of those were your idea?
WF: It was always me. It’s a thirteen item menu. The willingness to go off the menu, that’s what keeps me interested. I sometimes wake up at 2:30 and I have to go, go, go. I’ll get here at 3:00 to try something. I still get excited about those thirteen items on the menu, but having the opportunity to try new things…I have some testicles in the freezer. Who else does that? Who smokes them? I’ve done it, and they were outstanding. To have that latitude is great. We cure our own bacon, we’ve done a lot of different stuff.
DV: Is that still well received here in Plano?
WF: Oh yeah. I haven’t gotten any complaints yet.
DV: Didn’t you want to come to Plano to be closer to your house?
WF: Absolutely not. I didn’t want anything to do with it. As a matter of fact, I told them everything negative I could about coming here. I was laying tracks for Damien to come up here. There’s something so honest about cooking barbecue and being an hourly employee. You know where your day starts and ends. I wouldn’t argue with Damien or Eric if they teased me about being the salary man sell out.
DV: You’re now the salary man in the affluent suburb.
WF: Yeah. That sits with me like a wedged chicken bone.
DV: Were you worried about how your look and the vibe that you brought to the original location would be received in more conservative Plano?
WF: I live up here, and I can say with confidence that my neighbors don’t seek me out to talk to me. I was worried that I might have to soften my approach, but I didn’t have to. Then I realized that all my material was brand new to everyone here. Then again, it does make me happy to see so many familiar faces coming in up here.
DV: You’ve done barbecue for three years and seven months. You were originally just doing it for a few months until you found something better, but at this point do you now how long you’ll let it ride?
WF: If I did I wouldn’t tell you.