The Soul of a Pitmaster
For a quarter century, Roy Perez has been tending the fires and smoking the meats at Kreuz Market, without ever taking a single vacation. His distinctive look has made him an icon of Texas barbecue, the subject of many thousands of photos with fans and customers. So who is the man behind the muttonchops?
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For an expanded version of this interview, go to tmbbq.com.
Kreuz Market is the most famous name in the most famous barbecue city in Texas.
Founded in 1900, it has for decades been an exemplar of the classic German meat-market style of Texas barbecue and one of the first places mentioned in any list of the state’s best joints. Since 1987, its legendary pits have been watched over by Roy Perez, a Lockhart native who has become perhaps the most recognizable face in Texas barbecue. With his signature muttonchops, rolled-up sleeves, and customary scowl, Perez has been the subject of thousands of photographs over the years.
Much of that has to do with the history of the fires he tends, the coals of which have been burning, according to Kreuz, for more than a century. In 1999 the restaurant’s owner, Rick Schmidt, was forced to move the business from its longtime home near the courthouse. He built a brand-new restaurant on an empty lot half a mile north, but rather than start a fire from scratch at the new Kreuz, Perez and Rick’s sons Keith and Leeman took a bucket filled with coals from the original pits. That fire is going strong fourteen years later. Keith now owns the place, and Roy is still happily posing for his adoring fans.
The barbecue methods haven’t changed much at Kreuz either. Although low-and-slow is de rigueur among the younger pitmasters of the blossoming barbecue scene in nearby Austin, Kreuz has always cooked it hot. Really hot. Perez’s fires routinely get into the 600-degree range (by comparison, your home smoker probably tops out at 225). That’s how the briskets get done in four hours and also why the meat sometimes dries out after being sliced.
In recent years Kreuz has struggled a bit to defend its position in the state’s highest echelon of smoked-meat purveyors. Not only are there the well-known crosstown rivalries with Smitty’s Market and Black’s Barbecue, but Austin, where a great new barbecue place seems to open every month, poses a threat as well. Last year, when Texas Monthly compiled its list of the fifty best barbecue joints in Texas, Kreuz made the list but slipped from the top-tier ranking for the first time ever.
None of that seems to bother Perez, who approaches his job with a Zen-like rigor. In 26 years he has missed only two days. His longevity has made him an icon in Texas barbecue, a tough, cleaver-wielding master of the pits. Yet beneath this gruff exterior lies the soul of a thoughtful man. From his perch behind the counter at Kreuz, Perez has watched the world unfold—and had time to consider his place in it.
DANIEL VAUGHN: How often do you eat barbecue?
ROY PEREZ: Here? Maybe once a day, just to make sure it’s coming out good.
DV: So is it more like taking bites here and there?
RP: Yes, sir. Some sausage, some rib. I learned that from Rick, who was one of the owners when I was hired.
DV: I know you’ve got a journal to keep track of what to cook day to day, week to week, month to month. How long have you been keeping that?
RP: Since I started—1987.
DV: You still have all the ledgers?
RP: Yes, sir.
DV: You do that on paper?
RP: Yeah. I used to do it on butcher paper, then I decided to transfer it all to datebooks.
DV: And you’ve only missed two days of work in 26 years?
RP: Yeah, I got fired for two days for stealing. It was someone else, but Rick assumed that me being a manager, I had done it.
DV: That’s pretty rough.
RP: Rick was mean. He would snap over anything. “That sausage is too dry!” I almost wanted to quit on the third day. He looked at me and said, “What’s the problem?” And I said, “You’re mean!” So he took me aside and said, “Let me tell you why. It’s not that I’m mean. When you’re at the top, where do you go from the top? Down. I care about this product—that’s why I eat it every day, that’s why I’m watching it, keeping an eye on it like an eagle.”
DV: Did you guys get into any more confrontations?
RP: No, that was the main one. I came into his office two days after he fired me and said, “Sir, you have no proof that I did this.” First words out of his mouth were “Do you want to take a polygraph test?” And I said, “Yes, sir. I can go right now.” And he said, “No, that’s good enough for me.” And he gave me back my job. In 26 years, those are the only two days I missed.
DV: What about the time between the old Kreuz Market location and this one?
RP: We closed there one day and came over here the next. Carried the hot coals over here in a tub.
DV: There’s a pretty famous photo of you hauling those coals up the street.
RP: I thought of that as a joke, so we could say we’ve had the same fire for a hundred years. But then the media got a hold of it, and we had a police escort. It was pretty neat. There’s been a lot of neat stuff at the place. But I don’t understand why. I’m not a rock star or music star. I’m just a barbecue guy doing a job.
DV: You kind of are the rock star of Texas pitmasters. I mean, you look like a rock star.
RP: I wanted to take off my sideburns once, but Keith said, “No, that’s what people come here for.” And sure enough, people come in here and ask me to turn my head to see them. What’s the big deal? They’re just sideburns. There’s a lot of people with Elvis sideburns.
DV: When were these muttonchops born?
RP: When I was eighteen. I tried to grow them in high school, but there was a rule back then where if you turned your head and your sideburns touched your collar, they were considered too long. Now you can have a mustache in high school. So they have it good.
DV: So you always wanted them?
RP: Yeah. I’m a big Elvis fan. I fell in love with Elvis when I was five years old. I always wanted to be like him. I wanted to sign autographs, have a nice car. I was at the bottom of the food chain growing up, so I wanted to be like Elvis. Be in books, magazines, go on TV. So I prayed to God, “Let me have some of this.”
RP: Yeah. I was tired of being poor, tired of living at the bottom of the food chain. I wanted to be something. But at the same time, I was very shy. After graduation I went to build houses, because you don’t have to worry about crowds, just your crew. Once you know what to do, they leave you alone. You put your headphones on and you build this wall and that wall. You do roofing or Sheetrocking, whatever. You know how to do it, and they leave you alone.
DV: So you worked for a home builder?
RP: Yes, sir. I worked there from 1981 to 1986. Then in 1987 there was a guy here who was working on the sausage who died in a wreck. So I took his place.
DV: How did that come about?
RP: My nephew used to work here, over at the old place. He was a butcher. He worked up in front. So he called and said, “You want to come and work over here?” And I said, “No, I don’t want to work in the public. I’m a very shy person.” He said, “You don’t have to do nothing. They tell you how much sausage to get, you put it on the block, and that’s all you got to do. You don’t even have to talk.”
DV: And that was the job at first?
RP: Yes, sir. Make sausage, heat up sausage, bring it over. I would watch the guy who was slicing, and it looked like a pretty cool job, but I didn’t want to do it, because you’re closer to the public. Then, two or three months later, they made me manager and said, “Now you got to learn how to slice.” It helped me get out of this shell that I had. Just asking, “Can I help you?” Nowadays, a lot of people come in here and say, “When I was a kid, I used to be scared of coming here because you looked mean. You never smiled.”
DV: And you’ve got the muttonchops and the sleeves rolled up and a big knife. There’s sort of an irony to all this. You wanted to be famous, like Elvis, but you were almost too shy to talk to people in line for barbecue.
RP: Right. So I kept praying—and I’m not a religious man. I never got an answer, but that’s the thing about religion: sometimes your prayers don’t get answered in the moment, but they will be eventually. Here I am, at a barbecue place of all places, and I get a taste of it. I sign autographs, get my picture taken, I’m on TV. So in a way I did get a taste of the Elvis thing.
DV: You said you were poor growing up. Did you have any brothers or sisters?
RP: Yeah, there were ten of us.
DV: And where did you fall on that list?
RP: I was the oldest. My parents were both alcoholics, so my mother kept getting pregnant. And me being the oldest, the big son, it fell on me to take care of the other kids. I had to raise them because my parents were too busy getting drunk or lying naked on the floor. So I didn’t have a childhood. I became a man at twelve years old.
DV: Do you refrain from drinking?
RP: Yeah. Every once in a while I’ll have a Smirnoff Ice. But that tastes like Kool-Aid; it doesn’t taste like alcohol.
DV: Do you think that’s because of how you grew up?
RP: Yeah, because I saw what it did to my parents and how they turned out. My mom died when she was forty years old.
DV: How old were you then?
RP: I was 24. I don’t want to do that. My brothers drink. They’ll go mow a yard just to get money to buy another six-pack. We all came from the same household. Why did some of us choose that path but some of us didn’t? You can’t use that as an excuse.
DV: Do all your brothers and sisters still live here?
RP: None of them live in Lockhart.
DV: So it’s safe to say you’re not close with your brothers and sisters?
RP: I raised them all and I tried to show them: Be like me or be like Mom and Dad. But if you’re like Mom and Dad, then you’re on your own. I still love them, because they’re my brothers and sister, but I wasted my childhood to raise them.
DV: Is your dad still around?
RP: My dad died the year we moved over here from the old place. He had a stroke.
DV: So both your parents died young?
RP: No, my dad was 86.
DV: Oh, wow, so there was a big gap.
RP: Yes, sir. When they got married my mom was, like, 14 and my dad was in his forties. It was hard on my little brothers and my little sister, particularly, because she would go to school and people would ask, “Is that your grandpa?”
DV: How much older are you than her?
RP: I was born in ’62; she was born in 1979. This is the first time I’ve ever told anyone this stuff.
DV: So you really didn’t learn anything about barbecue until you started working here?
RP: Nope. Not at home, just at work.
DV: It sounds like your home life was just about surviving.
RP: More or less. But I’m fifty years old now, and half of my life I’ve given to Kreuz. No regrets. I’ll probably be here until they bury me in the ashes.
DV: Is that going to be in your will?
RP: Probably. I’ll let them just throw me up in the air and let me blow in the wind, like Bob Dylan said. That’s the honest truth.
DV: Here’s the honest truth: this is the best brisket I’ve ever had at Kreuz.
RP: That’s good.
DV: You don’t seem too worked up about that.
RP: You can’t please everybody. You say that’s the best you’ve had. Other people might come in and say, “This is the sorriest thing I ever tasted. You’re overrated.” That’s why I don’t go by that.
DV: So what do you go by? How do you tell when the meats are done?
RP: Take a brisket: You poke it with a steel rod, and if it goes in pretty good like butter, then you know to move it to a cooler pit. If it gets overdone, then you can’t pick it up anymore. It’ll be too mushy. It’s all by feel. We don’t have gauges.
DV: Back up. What’s the process you go through every day?
RP: I come in at 8 a.m. on Monday through Thursday and 5 a.m. on Fridays and Saturdays. When I get here, I bring in some wood to start the fires for the day. I’ll look at my journal to gauge how many pounds of meat I think I’ll need. Then I go get my raw meat and put it in the tubs to season it. When it’s time to put the meat on, I start with briskets and shoulder clods, then I put on the pork chops and ribs. Then I start sweeping up the floor and sharpening my knives.
DV: Are those few hours fast-paced, or are they more relaxed?
RP: It’s my time to be at peace. I put my music on my headphones and enjoy quiet time before all the craziness gets here.
DV: What kind of music?
RP: Moby, Eminem, Elvis, and some country. It’s a mixture.
DV: Those are some divergent tastes.
RP: It’s just like the divergent mix of customers here. We get people from Japan, China, Sweden, blacks, whites, Mexicans. We get everybody. A lady came just yesterday from Louisiana. It was her birthday. She asked if we had a lighter. I gave it to her, and they did their thing with cake and candles. Then I called her over and gave her a T-shirt and a hug. She said, “It’s an honor to be hugged by you.” She was crying. I told her, “I’m just a barbecue guy. I ain’t Jesus or anything.”
DV: Well, let me ask you something: When we did our list of the best barbecue in Texas last year, Kreuz Market fell out of the top ranks for the first time in years. And it wasn’t listed in the top ranks in my book either, though I did say you cook the state’s finest pork chop. Did that piss you off?
RP: No. That stuff doesn’t motivate me. It’s the customers that motivate me. I don’t care if we finish in the top one hundred or whatever. But if there’s no line here on a Saturday that goes around the entire building, then I start to worry. Don’t think that means your book doesn’t matter to me. It does, because you’re helping me by putting me out there. But personally, I’m not going to get hurt. I’m not going to say, “Why wasn’t I in the top four?” It doesn’t matter. What matters to me is that you came in here and ate.
DV: It sounds like the daily feedback means more to you.
RP: Yes, sir. And I’ll take the good with the bad. I’m not into these rankings. It’s great when people come in and say, “Roy, you were in this magazine. Can you autograph this for me?” Yeah, that’s great. But you don’t want to be thinking, “This is so good. I’m so good.” You don’t want to get a big head. Rick knew that because he went through that with his dad. He told me, “I know you’re the future of this place, so I’m going to toughen you up like I was toughened up.” When he chewed me out and I thought it was for no reason, it made me mad and made me want to try harder tomorrow.
DV: So you cook better angry?
RP: Yeah, and then you cruise from there. It’s like Elvis again. He was doing a lot when he was in rockabilly, when he started in 1955. Then he started listening to all these people saying, “Make movies, Elvis. Make sound tracks, Elvis.” And he knew the sound tracks sucked, he admitted that. The movies sucked, he admitted it. King Creole, Jailhouse Rock, and Loving You are great movies. The rest sucked. And Elvis knew that. But he listened to all the people saying, “Let’s make money.” Elvis didn’t want money, but he was signed to all these contracts by the Colonel. So in 1968, when he was making his comeback special, he said, “Do the fans still love me? Can I still rock?” And he put on his leather jacket and his leather watch and went out and sang his heart out. He was back. He was a rockabilly star who went off track making movies and listening to everybody, and then he came back with a bang.
DV: Do you see yourself doing that?
RP: I had my cousin come in here and get a job, starting out like I did making sausage. And then all of a sudden he wanted to learn how to do the cooking. So I told him, “Go ahead,” to give myself a little rest. He started coming in and helping me on Saturdays. It gave me a break, but at the same time I had a jealous feeling.
DV: Do you think that break was good for your cooking?
RP: Yes, that’s what I told my cousin. The food was good, but I started getting jealous because somebody else was doing it. He only did it on Saturdays, I did it the rest of the week—but Saturdays are the ones that count. Everybody comes to Kreuz Market on Saturdays. I let him keep doing it even though I was jealous and I wanted to go back. And then there was an intervention from above: an opening came up at Schmidt Family Barbecue, and he had his own chance to be a rock star over there. I don’t like being so spiritual, but God said to me, “Hey, you got your passion back. You got your Elvis back. Are you going to use it or let someone take it away from you?” So I’ve embraced it again. To me, if you treat people with respect and you put out a good product, they’ll come back and spread the word. It doesn’t matter who you are, it doesn’t matter if you’re mentioned in a book. It’s like pizza. Pizza Hut, great pizza. Or sometimes I’ll go to Chuck E. Cheese. I’ll stop at Bill Miller’s on Sundays. I love their tea. I think it’s the best tea in the world. And chicken too. We don’t sell chicken.
DV: They do fried chicken, right?
RP: Yeah, but I don’t really care for fried chicken. They have good barbecue chicken, and their sausage is good, and it’s different from ours.
DV: So Roy Perez’s barbecue of choice outside of Kreuz is Bill Miller?
RP: Yes, sir.
DV: Because it’s way different?
RP: Yeah, it’s way different. And do people consider it a barbecue place? Do you see them in books? Do you see them on television shows? No. But it’s still a barbecue place. Everybody has their fans. There are a lot of Cowboys haters, but I’ll stick with them even if they’re zero and sixteen. I’m a diehard for America’s Team. Even though they suck every year, I keep sticking with them.
DV: Seems like loyalty is important to you.
RP: Yeah, and the other thing is, we don’t put anybody down. At Kreuz, anybody who comes to work for us, we tell them to never say that we’re the best. Let the customers decide. People come in and ask, “Are you better than Black’s? Are you better than Smitty’s?” We tell them to decide. Go eat over there and then eat over here and decide. And sometimes they come and say we’re better, and that’s great. And sometimes they say we have the sorriest barbecue. That goes back to whether I care about being ranked. Black’s is on a lot of lists higher than us. But someone went there on a Sunday, because we were closed, and they said, “Oh, I regret going there on a Sunday. I should’ve waited until Monday when you were open.” We say, “We’re sorry you experienced that.” Not “Well, we told you not to go over there.” We let them make the decision, we don’t put it in their heads. That’s the main thing I’m proud of working here, the way we do things. When people come here and ask if we sell steaks, we say, “No, but Smitty’s does.” “Could you give us their number?” “Sure, there it is.” We’re not going to say Black’s is sorry or Smitty’s is sorry. We let y’all decide.
DV: There’s some new blood in Texas barbecue getting lots of attention. Most of them sell out of their meat for the day in the early afternoon, but you stay open until dinnertime. That has to be a challenge.
RP: People try to get me to say ugly things about Franklin’s. They say, “Look at Franklin. He comes in and cooks his barbecue and runs out at two, two-thirty.” The key is keeping it moist. I have to keep it moist until eight at night. We don’t run out at two. Anybody can do that. That’s not to say he’s a bad person. People just say things to try and stir things up.