Working as a pitmaster in Texas has never been a job for the faint of heart, especially during the hot summer months. After waking up as early as 3:30 in the morning, barbecue experts spend their days in poorly ventilated rooms while the outside temperature routinely climbs past 100 degrees. Surrounded by thousand-gallon wood-fired ovens and plenty of stoves that spew water vapor into the air, pitmasters are often accustomed to enduring the kind of intense humidity and withering temperatures that would land the rest of us in the hospital for heat exhaustion.
But this year is different than almost any other before it. With Texas—not to mention much of the Northern Hemisphere—caught in a multimonth heat wave that has shattered records that have stood for decades, barbecue’s high priests find themselves inadvertently testing the outer limits of human performance. Depending on the season, pit rooms, where meat is cooked at high temperatures for hours at a time, used to range between 85 and 110 degrees. Now they’re reaching as high as 130 F—not just for a few unfortunate days, but weeks at a time. Even when temperatures are lower, pit rooms have been plagued by dangerously high dew points as well. There is more sweat, more fatigue, and certainly more suffering, but no less pressure to perform. This summer’s rise in temperature hasn’t led to a decline in customers, many of whom travel long distances for the state’s signature cuisine.
There are few places better suited for observing the impact of extreme temperatures than Louie Mueller Barbecue in Taylor, an iconic destination 35 minutes from North Austin located in an old masonry building with blackened, soot-stained walls and limited ventilation. This very publication has labeled the barbecue there “sacred.” And yet in the summer the restaurant resembles a Hieronymus Bosch painting, with heaven and hell juxtaposed a few feet apart. In the front, diners happily devour some of the finest meat Texas has to offer while portable AC units and exhaust fans ensure the air is tolerable. But a few feet away, near the back of the building, a large brick pit and an offset firebox surrounded by industrial ovens ensure that errant gusts of cool air dissipate in a wall of flame-broiled heat.
When the outside temperature inches past 100 with high humidity, even a few minutes in the kitchen is “freakin’ brutal,” because there’s “no place for the heat to go,” according to Wayne Mueller, the restaurant’s 57-year-old owner who estimates, on a good day, that the pit room is usually 5 to 8 degrees hotter than it is outside. Mueller said this year’s heat, which has pushed the pit room above 120 degrees at times, reminds him of summer 2011, a record-breaking year that coincided with a devastating drought and wildfires and still makes Texans shudder more than a decade later. “It’s like being in a hot-air balloon,” he said. “Not the basket where people are supposed to ride, but inside the balloon itself.”
Ask a group of pitmasters what it’s like to work in hundreds of other environments like Louie Mueller’s during a summer of extreme heat and you’ll get a different analogy from each of them. Some members of pit crews, who have spent time in the military, have compared the most brutal pit rooms to trekking through the Iraqi countryside with a seventy-pound rucksack strapped to their back—minus the gunfire. Others compare kitchen workers to professional athletes because of the strain placed on the body by extreme heat. (If the analogy holds true, then Texas pit workers are the Olympians of the restaurant world.) Still others compare the physical demands created by a typical pit crew’s shift to football two-a-days, when players prepare for the upcoming season by pushing their body to the limit twice a day in August heat. In the pit, the secret to success is embracing a mentality that would sound familiar to any football player practicing under the summer sun. “Keep pushing yourself,” as one pitmaster outside Houston put it. “But don’t die in the process.”
Like their counterparts on the gridiron, it can take restaurant employees at least a month to acclimate to extreme temperatures. Mueller won’t even let new employees begin kitchen work during the middle of the summer. Most people’s bodies just can’t handle it. Before a prospective employee signs on for a summer shift, the pitmaster asks him or her to talk to at least three other staffers about how they’re affected by heat on the job, almost in philosophical terms. “I want them to ask questions like, ‘What does heat mean to you?’ ” Mueller explained, noting its crushing power may be impossible to grasp fully without firsthand exposure. “If you haven’t had this kind of experience in the world of barbecue, you don’t have a reference point until you’re in it and you go, ‘Oh, geez—Hades—I get it now.’ ”
Once they’ve got a shift, members of a pit crew devise ritualistic training routines that are designed to maximize performance. Before clocking in, some prehydrate the same way athletes do, downing electrolyte-infused water, sipping sports drinks, and walking around with forty-ounce Buc-ee’s tumblers filled with something cold. During the hydration period, some pit workers renounce barbecue altogether, opting instead for water-saturated foods such as salad and fruit. Once the shift has begun, there’s little to be done besides tying an ice water–soaked bandana around your neck and continuing to guzzle liquids.
Everyone has their own techniques for dealing with the heat, which, over the course of a long shift, becomes as much a mental battle as a physical one. Some pitmasters change clothes multiple times. Others take occasional refuge in cool meat lockers until their core temperature drops. Jordan Jackson, who works the pit room at Franklin Barbecue in Austin, prefers to do mental aerobics. “It’s gonna suck and you’ve just gotta let your mind accept that fact,” said Jackson. During shifts, he uses soothing music to distract himself from the heat. “At the same time, don’t push yourself too hard out of pride, and take lots of mini breaks—five to eight minutes at a time.”
At other locations, it’s hard to imagine soothing music—or any other techniques, for that matter—successfully distracting from the conditions inside. For the past month or so, Joe Martinez, the owner of Smokin’ Joe’s Pit BBQ, a food truck in El Paso, has been sweating his way through forty consecutive days of triple-digit temperatures (an El Paso record) in a air-conditioned twenty-foot trailer that still regularly reaches 130 degrees inside. Martinez spent several decades working in a comfy corporate office before opening his food truck last year. He knew his first summer was going to be an adjustment, but this, he says, is “something different.” “You’re almost twice as tired as you’d be on a normal day because of the heat,” he said, noting that he’s still getting slammed by customers who are adjusting their eating schedule to avoid the hottest parts of the day. “Barbecue is normally a sixteen-hour shift, but these days it feels like you’ve worked a thirty-two-hour shift.”
Martinez and his brother, Martin, with whom he shares pitmaster duties, have placed extra fans in their truck, wear cold packs on their necks, and add Liquid I.V., an electrolyte powder, to their water bottles. Even so, when it’s 110 degrees outside and 130 degrees inside, there’s only so much they can do. “I told my brother that if it gets to 115 degrees outside then it’ll be between 135 and 140 degrees inside the trailer and we’re going to have to shut things down,” Martinez said. “That’s unbearable, and it would be dangerous too.”
Unless they’re being probed by a pesky reporter, pitmasters like Martinez aren’t the type to bemoan the kind of heat that would bring most people to their knees. A willingness to endure extreme heat in cramped spaces, they say, is a testament to the loyalty they feel to their customers. Perhaps even more so, though, it’s reflective of the loyalty to their shared craft, which the most successful pitmasters talk about with a reverence that can almost feel religious in nature. “We’ve been compared to people like high priests and alchemists and I think there’s a sacrificial price to pay for anyone who assumes those roles in the community,” Mueller said. “For us that price is certainly long hours and extreme heat, but the payoff is preserving our culture as Texans and then giving that culture back to people through our food.”
When asked to explain what it is about his passion for barbecue that allows him to endure one of the worst Texas summers on record, Jackson, from Franklin Barbecue, struggled to identify the precise connection. “I don’t think we’re superhuman,” he finally said. “But we are nuts.”
- More About:
- Politics & Policy