Interview: John Lewis of La Barbecue
Owner/Pitmaster: La Barbecue; Opened 2012
Smoker: Indirect Heat Wood-Fired Pit
Wood: Post Oak
I talked to John Lewis over the phone while he was making preparations at La Barbecue to open up the following day. John Lewis became the pitmaster at La Barbecue on November, 4 2012. That’s a few days after John Mueller was forced out of the same barbecue trailer by the business’s owner and John Mueller’s sister, LeAnn Mueller. John Lewis inherited a trailer and a pit. After multiple adjustments to the pit he finally scrapped it and built his own. Now he’s part owner in the business with his own sausage on the menu, an ideal pit and lots of confidence.
Daniel Vaughn: Things ramped up pretty quickly for La Barbecue. You opened in November of 2012 and made it on Texas Monthly’s Top 50 list just a few months later. Did you expect to get that good that quickly?
John Lewis: Ohhh…I don’t know. I was kinda thinking it might happen. Once the photographer came over I knew something was going to happen. I was kinda hoping we wouldn’t make it on the list since we were so new and just not quite there yet. It took a couple months to get it where we wanted it.
DV: For a while you worked a pit that you inherited, but you’ve recently built a new pit. When did that come on line?
JL: Maybe two months ago? April-ish.
DV: After the new pit was installed, the general opinion including my own is that the barbecue got noticeably better. The pit doesn’t look dramatically different, so why do you think the new pit had such and affect on the barbecue?
JL: That’s the most key part of doing barbecue, I think. It’s all about the pit you’re cooking on. Some people say it’s the cook and not the cooker. I think it’s the opposite. Taking into account the product that your starting with, having the right kind of cooker that does what you want it to do makes all the difference. The one I started off with here, I modified it like crazy, but it was flawed from the beginning for the type of product that I wanted to turn out. I got it as close as I could, but at that point it was like having a car that messed up. It’s easier to get a new car than try to fix it.
DV: What about the old pit made it hard to use?
JL: It worked great for hot and fast cooking. The higher heat kind of style.
DV: There aren’t many pitmasters who need a new pit and just build one themselves. Where did you learn to build them?
JL: Just trial and error. This was number six for me. They keep getting bigger and bigger.
DV: Is it about tweaking the airflow to give you the even heat?
JL: It’s an offset pit, so it’s horizontal. Heat always wants to rise. You’re trying keep the same amount of heat underneath the grate and on top of the grate at the same time. The tricky thing about this one being so big is keeping the temperature even along the whole length. With this new one it does that as close as I’ve ever seen. Now we don’t have to wrap briskets anymore until they’re completely done cooking. I think there’s something about not having the paper during cooking. It might get more smoke and slightly more crust. We don’t even rotate them and they all come off within forty-five minutes of each other.
DV: That’s got to make things easier when preparing for a big day.
JL: Definitely. There’s also a lot more useable product on them too. From end to end it’s almost all something that we can sell, something that meets our standard.
DV: I hadn’t even considered that.
JL: Yeah. It’s exciting. It’s still easy because there’s just one of them [referring to the pit] . We want to add more and we see how it goes then.
DV: You seem to look at pit design scientifically. Do you feel like this one is an end point in the design process? Is this design the one?
JL: I think so.
DV: Not bad for just your sixth pit.
JL: I guess. It is the biggest one I’ve ever built. Over at Franklin [John Lewis worked at Franklin Barbecue for 2 ½ years) when I left there was only one of them that was this big. The problem was that kind of design worked well on the ones that were half the size so I was trying to make the long cook chamber work when building this one.
DV: Let’s talk barbecue. Where did you get interested in barbecue and where did you learn to cook it?
JL: I grew up in El Paso then moved to Austin when I was eighteen. Then I moved from Austin to Denver for a few years. I was hooked on Central Texas style barbecue and wanted to eat it…a lot. There wasn’t any good barbecue up there, and there still isn’t. I started experimenting in my backyard, trying to do the same thing I found in Central Texas. Then I started having parties and having people over. Someone mentioned competition barbecue to me, so I started doing that.
DV: When did you make it back to Austin.
JL: Aaron [referring to Aaron Franklin, owner/pitmaster of Franklin Barbecue in Austin] was getting ready to open the trailer down here [in late 2009]. It worked out perfect that I was coming back to Austin. So I came down and we started the place together.
DV: Was there one or two Texas barbecue joints that you were really missing while you were in Colorado?
JL: At this point I don’t want to say it, but I really liked Salt Lick back then. I also liked Smitty’s [in Lockhart] and Luling City Market [in Luling] was my favorite of all of them. But you could take any of these places, and there’s nothing like it in the rest of the country. You go anywhere else and it seems like oven-cooked meat with a bunch of sauce slathered on at the end. I also liked that in Central Texas the meat isn’t over-smoked. I’ve found that a lot across the country and even in Texas. Some people just want to put way too much smoke on stuff.
DV: What do you mean by too much smoke? Aren’t you putting smoke on the meat the whole time if you don’t wrap it?
JL: If you’re going to run all wood the whole time you can have it closed off or you’ll have nasty black smoke coming out. I’ve had that a few times in East Texas and in West Texas where they use mesquite. It gets tender, but it starts to taste like medicine after a while. There are smoked foods and then there’s barbecue. With smoked foods like bacon you’re trying to get the smoky flavor on there. With barbecue the smoke is a byproduct. It’s something extra. Just a kiss of smoke flavor is best.
DV: Did you enter many competitions in Colorado? Were you successful?
JL: I didn’t do too bad. When I came down to Austin I worked on it more. It’s totally different kind of barbecue from what you’d serve in a restaurant. That one bite barbecue thing is so intense with the flavors on it. You’re just trying to wow judges and stand out from the crowd. You can’t eat a whole plate of it.
DV: Are you still doing competitions?
JL: Not at this point. There’s too much work to do here. They happen on Fridays and Saturdays and I just can’t get away then.
DV: What was your last competition?
JL: It was a KCBS competition in Missouri. I didn’t do too well. We did it Texas style and out of thirty teams we were twenty-fifth in brisket. They didn’t care for Texas barbecue up in Missouri.
DV: Not sweet enough?
JL: I don’t know. They definitely like sweet. When you talk about the brisket, they’re just not into what we like down here. They like something that you have to slice really thin because that’s what most people [outside of Texas] have grown up eating. It’s kind of like lunchmeat, so if you get something that’s thick sliced and tender and luscious, they’re just not used to that.
DV: Has what you learned on the competition circuit informed what you do at the barbecue joint, or are they just two completely separate things?
JL: A little. You can use some of it. Like with pork ribs you can use those competition ingredients that put a glossy shine on it with some glaze. You can really elevate it without full competition mode. I think there’s no ceiling to this whole barbecue thing. There’s always ways to keep it interesting. It’s definitely not boring.
DV: How do you keep it fresh? Is it constantly tweaking something to make it better or is it adding new menu items? What keeps it fun?
JL: I think all of it.
DV: You have beef ribs on your menu, and I’ve noticed they’re pretty popular.
JL: Yes, and I really wish they weren’t. With what we’re paying for beef ribs versus what we’re charging, we’re pretty much breaking even on them. It’s a novelty, but we’re getting close to perfecting them around here. The next step would be to find a better quality product. But that would be more expensive, and I don’t know how much more we could charge and still have people buy them.
DV: How many racks of beef ribs are you cooking?
JL: Twenty-four racks on every day of the weekend.
DV: That’s a lot of pit space to break even.
JL: Yeah. We’ve got to keep enough room for thirty-two briskets, sixteen racks of pork ribs, three whole turkey breasts and six pork butts. For the sausage, we just keep making it if people want more.
DV: Let’s talk about that sausage. One of the first things you did after taking the reins at La Barbecue was add your own homemade sausage to the menu. Where did the recipe come from?
JL: I had been making sausage for a while, even back in Denver. All you could get up there was that Polish style sausage that was like a hot dog. My favorite sausage before I moved there was the Southside Market sausage. It’s an all beef sausage that’s a little more coarse grained with a lot of grease in it. It’s so juicy. That was my example when I started messing with it in Denver. When I started making it here I used that as a base but made it more spicy. If you’re going to call it Texas hot guts then you should actually make it hot. I’ve never had a “Texas hot gut” that actually made you perk up. You don’t want it too hot, but just hot enough that you want to keep eating it. Ours is all beef and it’s all from scratch.
DV: How did you learn to make sausage?
JL: I read a bunch of books on it and the rest is just trial and error. With our sausage there are a bunch of unusual ingredients that you wouldn’t think belong in a sausage; things that they wouldn’t be using down in Lockhart. You can find those ingredients out by reading in older sausage making books about how to use additives to increase juiciness.
DV: For example?
JL: I can’t tell you.
DV: All secrets, eh?
JL: Well, there’s no soy in it. I can tell you that much. My goal is to make the juiciest all beef sausage you can get. It should be like Johnsonville bratwurst. I think they are the juiciest bratwurst out there, but I want to do it with all beef and no pork or veal. Then I want to add some Texas spices so I have a greasy and juicy sausage like that Southside Market sausage that love.
DV: What’s your most popular menu item these days?
JL: Brisket, by far. I really think I’m getting close to perfecting it and going farther than I was able to do at Franklin before I left. It’s the same with beef ribs. Now I get it. I was trying to cook them like John [Mueller]. I’d get them really hot which made them really crusty. That works, but it only makes two really good bones on each four bone rack. I didn’t really know what people wanted in a beef rib. If you make it too crusty there can be more crust than meat. Then, I saw you post a photo on Twitter of a Louie Mueller beef rib that you said was the example of the perfect beef rib. So the next week I went up there and got a beef rib. He knew who I was so I asked him for a really nice one. I got it and it hit me. Just do it like I do briskets. We started cooking them different that night.
DV: Did you immediately start working at Franklin Barbecue when you moved back to Austin.
DV: How long did you work there?
JL: I put in my notice in June of 2012.
DV: Were you planning to move to California at the time?
JL: That was the plan. I went to do competitions for two months, but you have to be really rich to keep doing that. I came back to Austin in late August. John [Mueller] called me one night to see if I wanted to have a beer. He asked me to come in and cook with him for fun. I figured I might learn some more stuff like different cooking techniques. Some things them happened with him and his sister [John Mueller was then kicked out of the business], so she asked me if I wanted to work there. It sounded like a cool opportunity, so I signed up for it.
DV: How long of a period did you take off for the transition?
JL: Two and half days. So that explains why it was so tough at the beginning. I didn’t really know what I was doing with the pit. I didn’t have a full crew.
DV: You and John Mueller were friends and he asked you to come work with him. Did you have any qualms taking over his position?
JL: I’m still friends with him, I think. I don’t know what he thinks about me. We’ve had a couple brief conversations and I think he’s still friendly with me. He got mixed up in some stuff , and that’s not my problem.
DV: You just saw a good opportunity and took it?
DV: After the transition was made into La Barbecue the original announcement was that you’d be there temporarily, but it sounds like this is now a permanent gig.
JL: I think it is. I own part of the business now. When I started off it was basically a consulting gig, but once I got going it was exciting.
DV: Back when you worked at Franklin Barbecue, Aaron Franklin was the face of the business and you worked in the background. Was that easier, or is it good to be the man in charge?
JL: It’s a little more gratifying now. I get the feedback. Positive and negative. Back at Franklin, the best stuff we were doing was at the trailer. The main thing we were doing was brisket and I could see it all the way through from start to finish. Once we got to the brick and mortar things started changing. We had way more volume and the quality may have dropped, but at the new place I’m back in control of the quality of the food.
DV: Are you still excited about barbecue? Are you still having fun?
JL: Oh yeah. It gets more exciting every week.
DV: Is there anything about La Barbecue or your history in barbecue that we didn’t cover?
JL: I did want to add that I’ve never cooked a brisket in my life whether it be at La Barbecue, at Franklin Barbecue or on the competition circuit with just salt and pepper. I have yet to do that.
DV: What do you use for seasoning at La Barbecue?
JL: Lawry’s seasoned salt, black pepper, garlic powder, mustard and pickle juice.
DV: Is that the rub you used at Franklin?
JL: I can’t say.