After a well received (if somewhat hasty) debut last May, Austin’s Hot Luck festival returns for year two this Memorial Day weekend, starting Thursday. A collaboration between Aaron Franklin, Austin entrepreneur James Moody (creative agency Guerilla Suit and the Mohawk music venue), and Feast Portland co-founder Mike Thelin, the four-day series of food and music events tips a cap to old-school Austin while working to showcase cutting-edge chefs, musicians, and cookery. “With Hot Luck, I get to use all my skills,” says Franklin. “I build cookers, I invite friends, and we create and throw big parties.”
Franklin’s status as Texas’s most recognizable pitmaster could have taken him down an alternate, celebrity chef path, but the notion is anathema to Franklin, who recently opened Loro with Uchi’s Tyson Cole. “With most big food events or demos, you aren’t set up for a good cook, or you feel a little gross at the end. There are a lot of chefs that feel that way, which is why I wanted to do a magical, Austin-y event,” he says. Franklin turned to Moody and Thelin as kindred spirits: Moody helped create the music, comedy, and sports hybrid Fun Fun Fun Fest for ten years, while Thelin co-founded Feast, one of the country’s most highly regarded food festivals. “Festivals are a celebration of place,” says Thelin, “and while everyone told us Austin has festival fatigue, what we learned last year was that there’s always room for another great event—if you have the right idea.”
Freedom To Create
After having just four months to prepare for 2017’s debut, Franklin sounds—for the most part—happy with the way the second year has evolved. “There’s never quite enough time to do everything you’d want, but I was able to get invites [to participants] out last summer, and we’ve had nine full months to plan and build.” The event roster happens organically and by committee: Franklin and Moody came up with one idea during a Chicago taxi ride, while another was hatched during a conversation about hot rods with a friend. “Most festivals aren’t curated by a cook,” says Thelin. “Aaron is an obsessive curator. It makes Hot Luck unique.” The chef roster consists of national and local names, as well as talent from around the state—including Dallas’s John Tesar, Rebecca Masson of Houston, and San Antonio’s Rico Torres, all of whom talked about the fest on a recent episode of The National Podcast of Texas.
Last year’s Al Fuego grilling event saw chef Jesse Griffiths (Dai Due) making tacos on two woks (one standard, one upside down) welded to what appeared to be an oil drum. John Tesar (Knife) stood in a field manning burgers and cast iron skillets on a low, welded circular grill on a concrete pipe. The unconventional grills were each welded and fashioned by Franklin at his Bastrop ranch specifically for the festival. “I do think barbecue lovers will like [Al] Fuego best—we’re just all on a ranch with these weird cookers and fire and friends.” Al Fuego, the main event, takes place Saturday at Wild Onion Ranch.
The festival founders each cite the idea of nostalgia as key to the Hot Luck concept. “Our intent is to do something different every year,” Franklin says. After last year’s focus on childhood home cooking nostalgia with “The Hi-Lo,” the event enters a (purposefully) awkward adolescent phase with “Night Court,” a stroll through 1980s and 1990s mall specialties. Franklin laughs when recounting ideas that have been floated by the chefs: “There was a McRib riff in the works. Someone suggested an Orange Julius.” The final menu reveals that many of Hot Luck’s chefs frequented their local mall’s Chinese food outlet, with Lenoir’s Todd Duplechan cooking duck egg rolls and Theodore Rex’s Justin Yu opting for sweet and sour spicy chicken. Franklin is happy to let the chefs have fun, saying: “We’re OK with rad hot dogs if that’s what they want to cook.” (For the record, Barley Swine chef Bryce Gilmore has opted for a Nacho Chili Dog.)
Franklin cites new events at Cisco’s (a late-night taco takeover) and the Austin Speed Shop (a new Sunday brunch stroll) as a bellwether for Hot Luck’s future. “We’d like to do smaller events at special places, especially ones that feel like Old Austin. And there are so many cool ones.” When asked about future venues, Franklin was full of ideas: “I’d love to do something at Dart Bowl, or at Joe’s Bakery.”
Hot Luck’s musical identity isn’t an accident. A mix of retro-cool country, loud indie rock, and DJs, the lineup includes something for everyone with an adventurous spirit at venues including the Mohawk, Barracuda, the White Horse, and Antone’s. Franklin personally requested DJ Questlove, and he mentions the post-hardcore band Hot Snakes was a big priority for all three partners. To tie food and music together, some late-night events have chefs doing “show snacks:” Top Chef winner Kristen Kish, who will soon open Arlo Grey at the upcoming Line ATX Hotel in Austin, will cook at Questlove’s closing party DJ set, while Portland chef Elias Cairo is brainstorming snake-like sausage charcuterie pairings for the Hot Snakes show. Ticket prices include the snacks, with the general concept being a lower cost way for music fans and locals to try out the festival.
Given the frivolity on display with smart chefs doing casual cookery, it would be easy to assume that Lone Star and bourbon would be the de facto festival tipples. Those are certainly available, but so are smart portfolios of wines from two of the world’s most interesting regions, Germany and Washington state. As with the casual cooking, the regions are honoring the event’s spirit by showing wines appropriate for outdoor grilling (big Washington Cabernets and Merlots) and hot Texas weather (refreshing dry Riesling, Pinot Blanc, and rosé.) There’s also an array of the country’s best craft beers (Bell’s, Lagunitas) and some upmarket Scotch and sotol selections.