TMBBQFest, "23 Pitmasters in 23 Days:" Lamberts Downtown Barbecue
Tue October 25, 2011 9:32 am

Editor's Note: The Texas Monthly BBQ Festival is almost here! Each day until then, we'll be talking to one of the featured pitmasters, with questions from TM staffers, esteemed BBQ experts, Twitter followers and you, the readers of this blog.

Today we're featuring Lou Lambert of Lamberts Downtown Barbecue in Austin. For more info, visit their page on TMBBQ.com.

Photo by Ralph Lauer

What is the heat source you use at Lamberts?

Wood. Oak Wood.

Where did you learn your barbecue craft from?

Number one, just growing up in a barbecue culture in West Texas. Number two, just trial and error and doing a lot of cooking. I learned the basics of barbecuing just growing up around it and learning it from family and friends and then refined it by doing it as a chef. It’s something that I love to do.

You grew up on a ranch. Was barbecue something you guys ate pretty much everyday?

I wouldn’t say everyday, but it was a major factor in how we ate. A lot of grilling, a lot of smoking.

Did you have any idea how influential it would become in your life?

Not at the time. But looking back now as a chef and restaurateur, you just see how that influenced the foods that I love to cook and the way I cook because we do a lot of grilling, a lot of smoking, and a lot of wood roasting. I think it was the influence of growing up around those big, bold foods of West Texas.

Have you ever worked for another barbecue joint other than your own?

Well, not a barbecue joint itself. When I was in San Francisco, I worked at Postrio, and that’s where I kind learned the finer art of smoking. I ran the charcuterie department, and it was there that we smoked all of our own salmon, smoked our own hams, made our own bacon, and made all our own sausages. That’s where I really learned charcuterie, sausage making, curing, bringing, and smoking. But instead of doing Texas barbecue, we were doing all European-style foods. They use a lot of smoking and brining and same types of meat, just different flavors and different products. But whether you’re smoking salmon or you’re smoking a pork loin, the same principles are applied.

You guys are one of the bigger barbecue joints coming to the festival. How do you maintain such good, solid barbecue in the midst of becoming so popular? What’s your secret?

We have hands-on chefs who are also the owners and operators, meaning that Tom, me, and Larry are there everyday and oversee the operation on a daily basis. I think the consistency in product is because you have a consistency in the people actually doing the food everyday.

With that said, what do you think is the secret to becoming a great pitmaster? Trial and error?

When I said trial and error, that was as I was learning the finer arts because if you talk to ten pitmasters, each one has their own little trick. Do they use a dry rub? Do they wet mop? Do they use coals? It is more finding out what your standards are and what your interpretation of barbecue is. I think the making of a pitmaster is somebody that has a lot of experience and conviction of what their trying to do, what their quality is, and what their standards are.

What is your signature meat?

We get most compliments on the brisket. I think it’s because of the dry rub we have, the time and temperature that we cook it at, and the quality of brisket we buy.

If you had to pick a city in Texas that has the best barbecue, what would it be?

You know, that’s debatable. This is my personal preference: I love the barbecue around Austin. I just think that’s the style I like eating and that I associate with great Texas barbecue.

When you say that style, what does that mean exactly?

That means that in Austin, it’s a little more straight-forward. Our rubs tend to be not as sweet as you get around Houston or other places. They put a little more sugar in their rubs. We have a good balance. The flavor balance in Austin, I think it’s better. Some places, say around Stephenville in North Texas, they’ll just do a salt and pepper rub, which is good, but I think the Austin style has a little chili powder, a little sugar, and salt and pepper. It’s a little more straight-forward with just a little bit of seasoning.

What are your two favorite side dishes in barbecue?

Well, I’m a traditionalist. Can I do three?

Sure, go for it.

I think you’ve gotta have a good pinto bean straight-forward, not too spicy or seasoned. Just straight up pinto beans with some of the meat drippings for the flavoring. A good, tangy cole slaw. And a creamy potato salad.

Sauce or no sauce?

For me, it’s no sauce, but you offer it on the side if you have people that aren’t purists. You never slather your barbecue with sauce.

What’s the secret to making a good sausage?

The secret to making good sausage is almost like anything you cook. You start out with the best ingredients you can buy. Our sausage, it’s in the spice blend we put in our hot links, and then it’s method, meaning you know how to make a proper sausage. Then, it’s smoking; we do a smoked hot link here and finish it on the grill.

What’s your temperature style? Are you a slow and low kind of guy, or do you prefer high and fast?

Low and slow.

Do you have a specific temperature you are trying to maintain?

I’d rather not divulge what temperature. It’s like the recipe to Coca-Cola. We can’t tell you.

What are the non-secret ingredients in your spice rub, if you do use one?

We do a little bit of a dry rub. We use a different rub for chicken, a different rub for pork, a different for beef, and the non-secret [ingredients] in the beef dry rub are salt, pepper, a little bit of chili pepper, and sugar. We’re well-known for a little bit of finely ground coffee too. A dark roast finely ground coffee.

How long did it take you to sort of figure out that was going to be the right rub for you?

Honestly, it didn’t take long because we were all kind of on the same page of what we were looking for. But again, I really want to tip my hat to Larry and Tommy.

You recently wrote your first cookbook, Big Ranch, Big City Cookbook, and that’s an embodiment of all the different types of cuisine that have been in your life and been influential in your life. Would you ever consider doing a cookbook solely dedicated to Texas barbecue?

I just pitched a book to our publisher on Texas barbecue and grilling. A big meat cookbook through the eyes of somebody who does a lot of grilling and smoking and barbecuing. To answer your question, yes.

What is your favorite barbecue restaurant in Texas, other than your own?

See, that is tough. Right now, I’m really liking, and I referenced it to Stephenville, a place called the Hard Eight BBQ in Stephenville. I think does a really good job. It’s one of those places that I have just newly discovered and I’m enjoying eating there. They do a really great job, and I like it because it’s pretty simple and straight-forward.

What was the dish or the meat that won you over?

Their brisket. I always judge a barbecue place by their brisket.

Do you start a new fire each day or do you keep the same on going?

There’s a little bit of coal, but it’s a new beginning each day.

Aluminum foil or butcher paper?

Butcher paper.

Why that?

If you’ve ever cooked a lot in the kitchen, [you know] foil can transfer to the meat, especially if it’s in direct contact. Sometimes if you cook meat with foil, you can see it sticking to the meat and you always run that risk of imparting those flavors into the meat.

Let’s say a cook wants to do a good brisket at home, what should they look for when they go to the market to get one?

They should not be afraid of fat. By nature, the brisket is a fatty meat. You have to have the fat, and not just the external fat, but the internal marbling. That’s what keeps it moist and juicy during that long cooking time. If you try to slow cook a very lean brisket, yes it will be more tender, but it will be more dry no matter how you cook it. You need the fatty brisket with marbling on the outside, but more importantly the internal fat. When I’m picking a brisket, I usually try to get at least a choice brisket. If you start getting a select brisket, select translates into lean. Even though it may look fatty, if you cut into it, you’re going see that it doesn’t have a lot of internal marbling. No matter how you cook it, it’s gonna be a little bit dry.

Can you pick out a good brisket at the grocery store, or do you say go to the meat market?

No, you can go to your grocery store. I’ve bought brisket from them before. But again, don’t go and look for the cheapest brisket you can find because that doesn’t translate into quality. Brisket is expensive anyway. Why not spend an extra fifty cents a pound and get a really great brisket?

What’s the one piece of advice you would give to someone who is smoking a brisket at home?

Give yourself plenty of time to cook it and maintain a steady, low heat. The brisket will tell you when it’s done because it will be tender and falling apart. If you’re going to do it, I read a recipe and it says to cook it for 8 hours, well, 8 hours doesn’t determine if it’s done or not. It’s done when it’s done. So give yourself plenty of time. Cook it at a steady temperature, low and slow.

Do you or have you ever considered using a gas-fired or electric smoker for your meats?

If you’re in a bind, I would use an electric smoker. But the reason you want to is the fire source, more so than the temperature. In most electric smokers they use pellets and/or sawdust, and it just does not produce the same quality of smoke. I’ve used them before when I was on the road and doing catering jobs, and the flavor is never as good. They tend to be a little more bitter, number one. Number two, a good smoker has a moisture source and has been cured, and that gives you the flavor and moisture in the air to get a good brisket.

Have you ever had Texas barbecue outside Texas, and if so, what did you think of it?

I have. I’ve been to quite a few places around the United States. It’s a little bit in New York; in the Village, there’s a place called Blue Smoke. I have a lot of respect for them. I think they do a great job, but it’s not Texas barbecue, even though some of the things on the menu they attribute to Texas. Somehow you try to transplant that and you lose the heart and soul of the flavor. I’m not saying it wasn’t good barbecue, but it was not Texas-quality barbecue.

Do you know how many pounds of barbecue you smoke a day?

I don’t. A lot of meat.

What can ruin a good piece of meat when you’re barbecuing it?

The same things that can make it great. The seasoning and doing a rub that’s not well-balanced. To cook it too quickly and end up drying it out. Not cooking it long enough is where it gets tough.

When you’re eating your barbecue, is there a certain type of beer that you really like to have with it? What are you digging right now?

It’s almost like drinking wine; it depends on the time of the year. In the summertime, I love to have something crisp and light. Some import Mexican beers for barbecue. In the winter and especially this time of year, I love a bock beer. It’s really great with barbecue.

Whose barbecue are you looking forward to trying at the festival this year?

Oh no! Everybody! Well I will say this, I’m looking forward to trying everyone’s [barbecue]. Barbecue is one of those things that you can really see into a chef and how they cook. I’m always interested in trying other people’s barbecue to see how they interpret what barbecue should be.

After the festival, whats next on the horizon for you?

Well, I’m actually in the middle of a new book. For the next six months, I’m gonna be in the kitchen testing recipes for the new book which is a bakery book, a pastry and bread book. I’m hard at it right now. Especially for the next year, I’m gonna be in the kitchen really going over our desserts and baked goods. Both the stuff that we do at the restaurants and Jo’s baked goods.

(Questions by Jason Cohen, Andrea Valdez, Pat Sharpe, Katy Vine, Sonia Smith, Daniel VaughnJim ShahinJ.C. Reid@stewlevine&@JoePerryinTX.)

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