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?
Photograph by Leann Mueller

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 con frontations?

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

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