Jordan Mackay is best known as a wine writer. He’s worked a harvest in New Zealand; covered all things vino for Food & Wine, the New York Times, and the San Francisco Chronicle; and won a James Beard Award for coauthoring the 2010 book Secrets of the Sommeliers with Rajat Parr.
But before that, he grew up in Austin, attended the University of Texas, and worked for Texas Monthly—which is only a partial answer to the question “How did a grape-head in San Francisco end up writing a book about barbecue with Aaron Franklin?”
Franklin Barbecue: A Meat-Smoking Manifesto (Ten Speed Press) was an instant classic when it came out in 2015, and now Franklin and Mackay have teamed up for another meaty tome: Franklin Steak: Dry-Aged. Live-Fired. Pure Beef. Both books are as much science as art, driven by history, context, and technique rather than recipes. If you’re the sort of person who wants to jury-rig a dry-aging fridge at home or Franklin’s DYI hybrid Hibachi (“It won’t take more than five hours for a moderately experienced welder”), this is the book for you. And if you just want to know how long to rest a steak (not as long as you think) or how to cook a tenderloin (butter), you’ll also get that. Once again featuring images by Texas Monthly contributing photographer Wyatt McSpadden, Franklin Steak also includes a mini-guide to steak restaurants around the world; a history of cattle (behold the Julius Caesar–era Aurochs!); the case for grass-fed beef; and a guide to cuts, done with the assistance of Austin butchers Bryan Butler and Ben Runkle, of Salt & Time. And yes, there are also recipes (but only for side dishes and sauces—we shared the one for Perky Red Wine sauce in the May issue).
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Now based in Napa Valley, Mackay also wrote a book with Dallas chef John Tesar in 2017 and recently published a second book with Parr, The Sommelier’s Atlas of Taste. He spoke to Texas Monthly via phone.
Texas Monthly: So let’s start at the beginning. How did you go from a little bit of everything at Texas Monthly to wine?
Jordan Mackay: I was just into wine as an amateur: tasting and learning and reading a lot. And I would see all these Texas winemakers around, and they made truly terrible wine—or most of them did. So I pitched this story about why Texas wine is so bad. It basically identified a couple of people who were trying some radical new things and where [Texas winemaking] could turn and become good. It came out in October 2000. A couple of months later, the phone in my cubicle rang, and it was the wine editor of Food & Wine magazine. That was kind of the beginning.
JM: Yeah. I came back to check out the progress that Texas had made, which was huge. I found [the 2000 story] in my archives, and when I read it, I was like, “Who the fuck does this guy think he is?!” I wrote that story with more confidence about wine tasting, and making judgments about wine, than I probably deserved to have at that time.
TM: So what brought you to barbecue and Aaron Franklin?
JM: I had done a story for this very high-end, very refined quarterly food journal called The Art of Eating on Central Texas barbecue. I met Aaron, though I didn’t get a lot of time with him. I did all of Lockhart. I did Snow’s. And Aaron and his agent, David Hale Smith, who’s now also my agent*, saw that and really liked my approach to writing about barbecue, which totally mirrored Aaron’s approach to thinking about it. He’s incredibly detailed, taking in all of these factors that no one else did or at least never talked about. The age of the wood, the weight of the wood, humidity, prevailing winds. All the kinds of things that make him such a crazy barbecue genius. And that’s how we write about wine, with super-attention to detail: understanding viticulture, soils, climates, dynamics, fermentation vessels. It’s a complex thing.
TM: You’re touching on this a bit already, but how did the two of you decide that Franklin Barbecue and Franklin Steak were not cookbooks per se?
JM: I think that just kind of happened naturally. Aaron’s barbecue is about technique, and that is also the way I naturally cook. I’m not a recipe follower. I’m someone who might scan a recipe to sort of understand the theory behind it, but I like to do it myself. When I hung out with Aaron, I quickly realized that the recipe for brisket is just brisket, salt, and pepper. And smoke, if you want to add that as an ingredient.
To get from a raw piece of brisket to Aaron Franklin’s brisket, it’s a much longer journey. It’s very hard to write about technique, but he’s got such a great voice, and he’s such a wonderful speaker. I just took everything that he would say, distilled it down, and we ended up with a fifteen-page recipe for brisket. The wonderful thing is that I’ve had so many people who have come up to me over the years and said, “Thank you for that book. It changed my life.” Somehow it divulged enough secrets to really help people up their game at home.
TM: A lot of people already know that Aaron rarely eats his own barbecue. But it’s funny to learn that what he eats instead is steak. Rather than, you know, a salad.
JM: What’s hilarious is so many people have said to me, “Oh, wow, you are so lucky working on Franklin Barbecue. You must have gotten to eat so much barbecue!” And I have to answer that actually, I barely ate any barbecue during that time because Aaron didn’t ever eat it. He could always tell the quality of his food just by feeling it and touching it and seeing it. And I was always with him! I was a little bit too timid to say, “Aaron, could I have some barbecue?”
But, as we say in the book, when we were hanging out together in the evenings, he does love cooking steak, and he just has the same amazing touch cooking steak that he has with barbecue: that ability to cook perfect steak time after time. I don’t cook enough meat all the time to be as confident—to know when to take it off, when to flip it, how long to let it rest. I had been interested in writing about steak for a long time. Because, one, I’ve always loved it. Two, it’s got a hook into so many world cultures. Three, it’s the simplest food that is also very difficult to do perfectly every time—similar to barbecue. And four, it’s a great vehicle for wine. The more complex wines you have, the simpler foods you want.
Aaron just has this native intuition for cooking steak, and I said, “You know what? This would be cool to capture in a book too” and combine it with my interest in steak in different cultures and its origins. I wanted to find out if different breeds really impacted flavor, and if there’s a sort of terroir.
TM: Franklin Steak is noticeably more of a collaboration, whereas the barbecue book was first-person, entirely in Aaron’s voice.
JM: It’s true. Aaron, to be honest, at first he was a little reluctant about doing this, because he said, “I don’t have a steakhouse.” I was going to do a steak book one way or the other, and the opportunity to work with him and Stacy [Franklin] is truly one of the great pleasures of my professional life. He also saw this as a chance for me to enhance my own profile, by writing in the third-person voice as we did and having me be a character in the book. It was pretty cool to get my picture on the back cover too. That’s the first time ever.
TM: You say in this book that the best steak you ever had was in Spain. As a Texas Monthly writer, I guess I’m supposed to say, “Not Texas?”
JM: Texas does have great beef, and we explored a lot of that. But the thing in Spain is this use of older cattle, which we just don’t have in the U.S. In the U.S., almost everything we eat is thirty months of age, max. And I’m not talking about dry-aging, I’m talking about the age of the cow. In Spain, we’re talking cattle that is 10, 12, sometimes 15 or 18 years old, and they’re always on grass. It’s one of the structural things about the American beef industry that holds back grass-fed here, I think. You just can’t get enough richness and weight and flavor in a grass-fed, pasture-raised cow in thirty months or less. But you go to Spain, and it’s like, “Oh my God.” The complexity of the steak there. The beefiness. That’s really what I look for, that deep, deep beefiness. The best way to get that deep, beefy savor [in America], frankly, is in Aaron Franklin’s brisket.
TM: In between the two Franklin books, you also wrote Dallas chef John Tesar’s 2017 book Knife, which you took over after food writer Josh Ozersky died.
JM: That was a tough situation. But I was really happy to work on that. I was very dedicated to just getting out John’s vision and John’s voice. In some ways I think the other book would have been much more a collaboration between John and Josh Ozersky, because Josh was also this towering figure. Just like Aaron, John instinctively knows how to cook meat. And I say, unequivocally —not just because I wrote his book —that I think Knife [the restaurant] has the best steak. His aging room, the meat that he gets and selects . . . I don’t know what it is, but Knife, to me, has the most flavorful, most beefy steak—in that Spanish sort of way—that I’ve had in the United States. I’m so impressed with him.
TM: So what’s your go-to steak on the average Tuesday night?
JM: For the longest time, the filet was the great steak in the country. Anyone who loves steak, that was their favorite cut. And I feel like, in the last ten to twenty years, that’s been supplanted by the ribeye. But Aaron and I are of like mind: ribeyes are good, but to us it’s not the be-all-end-all. Ribeye people are really into juiciness and marbling, but we love flavor. Texture is something that’s very important in all food and and in wine. But in the case of steak, for me, flavor takes primacy over texture. I would rather have a super beefy, chewy steak then a silky-smooth steak that didn’t have any flavor. So we are really into the so-called off cuts or butcher cuts. We love bavette [which Franklin serves at Loro, his Asian smokehouse with chef Tyson Cole]. That’s definitely Aaron’s favorite, and it’s also one of mine. Hanger steaks are also great. So it’s pretty cool that two of the most flavorful cuts are not nearly the most expensive.
TM: There’s a longer answer in the book, but give us a couple of steak wine pairings: one predictable and one surprising.
JM: The predictable is cabernet. The king of grapes and the most ubiquitous fine wine grape in the world. It really is great with steak, although I will say that the predilection for Napa Valley cabernet with steak—I’m kind of over that. A good steak is so rich, and a Napa Valley wine is so rich, that it’s almost too much. My go-to: I love syrah from the northern Rhone, in France. It’s a very umami-rich wine. It’s peppery. It’s great with steak. And then, as I mention in the book, one of the most remarkable pairings I ever learned was from John Tesar, and that is, funky, dry-aged steak—45 days or 60 days on—pairs unbelievably with French white burgundy or chardonnay. An incredible pairing.
TM: Your next book is with the owners of the Brooklyn bar Maison Premiere. Is it too soon to ask if you and Aaron have another one in you?
JM: I think we might down the road. I still feel like there’s a lot of stuff that he is great at that hasn’t been mentioned in any of the books. In the Franklin Barbecue book, the sausage chapter is not really complete or comprehensive because he was still having his sausage made out of house [at the time]. So there could be more to be written about sausage and all kinds of other things. No firm plans, but if we feel like getting the band back together in another couple of years, it could happen.
* Disclosure: David Hale Smith also represents multiple Texas Monthly staffers and contributors, including the interviewer.