The quintessentially Texas aroma of smoked beef permeated the air at Live Fire! on Thursday evening at the Salt Lick Pavilion in Driftwood, outside Austin.
Billed as the kick-off event for the three-day Austin Wine & Food Festival coming up this weekend, Live Fire! was sponsored by the Austin Food & Wine Alliance. More than two dozen Central Texas chefs, with an outlier from Portland, Oregon, set up smokers and grills under towering pecan trees on the banks of Onion Creek while 650 attendees paid $75 each to stuff themselves silly, listen to music, swill adult beverages, and watch the amazing performers of Fire Knights, who twirled scary-looking flaming staffs with the ease of high school drum majors.
Meanwhile, the chefs cooked Texas beef up, down, and sideways.
There was smoked brisket from local barbecue hero Aaron Franklin of Franklin Barbecue and tongue pastrami sandwiches from Ned Elliott of Foreign & Domestic. Andrew Wiseheart of Contigo changed his last name to “Beefheart” for the night; his booth served up, yes, cured beef heart with a chicory-and-strawberry salad.
Naomi Pomeroy of the appropriately named Beast, in Portland, went native with Texas wagyu medallions topped with wild-ramp butter.
Jason Dady of San Antonio, owner of Tre Trattoria and Bin 555, did slow-cooked charred beef brisket with blue-cheese spoonbread and a caramelized onion purée. He encountered a problem that plagued many booths: “I’ve been fighting flies all night,” he said, sounding exasperated. ”Maybe our food smelled better.”
Josh Watkins of the Carillon could not stop at just one. He did two dishes: beef ribs with corn pudding and also fried beef cheeks with Brussels sprouts brushed with smoked maple syrup. And just exactly how to you smoke a liquid? Turns out there are at least two ways, but the one that worked best was a no-brainer: put a pan of syrup in a smoker. Watkins also proved himself adept at juggling Myer lemons, to the amusement of onlookers.
The most dramatic entry of the evening was Alamo Drafthouse Cinema chef John Bullington’s whole steer, cooked over coals on a specially constructed Argentine-style grill. “We wired very large pieces of meat to the platform, and cooked them for about sixteen hours,” he said. “We turned it once. The beef alone weighed 407 ½ pounds and the metal rack was another 100. It took six guys to flip that sucker.”
After so much bovine protein, it was a relief to find a dessert. Erin Echternach, pastry chef at Fino, skewered fresh strawberries and squares of cake to make grilled strawberry shortcake. Her assistant Christiana Rachut volunteered that “Strawberries are the beef of the vegetable world.” Kyle McKinney of Barley Swine made sweet zucchini bread, grilled and served with dabs of goat cheese mousse and candied walnuts. (Thankfully, neither barley nor swine was involved.)
(A version of this post will appear on TMDailyPost.com.) Photos by Courtney Bond.