A Houston chef did not win a James Beard: Best Chef Southwest award last night. If we had to lose, though, at least we lost to someone that many Houstonians respect. We may even owe him some thanks.
Over the past three years, Houston has witnessed an incredible surge in new barbecue restaurants (Corkscrew BBQ, Killen’s Barbecue and Brooks’ Place, just to name a few). More, like Pinkerton’s Barbecue, are on the way. Greg Gatlin has not one but two new endeavors now. He’ll not only open the new Gatlin’s BBQ soon but is also a partner in Jackson Street Barbecue along with Bryan Caswell and Bill Floyd. Even the new H-E-B on Fountainview and San Felipe has a big smoker and offers barbecue now.
We’ve gone nuts for high-quality smoked meat, and to an extent, we can thank Aaron Franklin of Franklin Barbecue in Austin for our renewed passion. He’s won fans since his humble beginnings in a former gas station parking lot in 2010, prompting Daniel Vaughn of the Full Custom Gospel BBQ blog (who now runs Texas Monthly’s “TM BBQ” blog) to write, “Aaron Franklin, it seems, can do no wrong with a smoker.”
It’s set several Houston barbecue chefs chasing after the dream of pitch-perfect brisket, and we Houstonians are better off for it. Franklin’s success even inspired Russell Roegels to leave the Baker’s Ribs franchise and strike out with a new method of doing Texas barbecue under his own banner, Roegels Barbecue Co.
In an interview with Roegels earlier this year, he said, “The name that keeps popping up is Aaron Franklin. Franklin Barbecue in Austin. Everybody knows who he is. So, he's got this 3,000-mile-long line [waiting to buy his barbecue] and I'm like, ‘What makes his product so good?’” When Roegels found out, he changed his methodology and is now getting his own rave reviews.
Franklin has been generous in sharing what he’s learned as well, both off-the-cuff and in more formalized events like Camp Brisket at Texas A&M. His Franklin Barbecue cookbook came out just a few months ago and in a review, Eater features editor Helen Rosner wrote, “Franklin's brisket recipe isn't seven and a half pages long, it's not fourteen or even twenty. It's two hundred and thirteen pages. That's the whole book, intro to index, which to be fair includes a few things that are very much not recipes for Texas-style smoked brisket (like, for example, a recipe for Texas-style smoked beef ribs). But still, somehow, all of that is brisket. The entire book, in its heart, is brisket."
Yes, we would have been happier if a Houston chef had won. This was Hugo Ortega’s fourth march to the ceremony as a finalist for the Best Chef: Southwest award and Justin Yu’s second. (Ortega is the chef behind Hugo’s and Caracol, and Yu is the chef at Oxheart.) Yu has previously also been a finalist in the Rising Star category—a category he’s since outgrown. (The other finalists were Kevin Binkley of Binkley’s in Cave Creek, Arizona, the formidable Bryce Gilmore of Barley Swine in Austin and Martín Rios of Restaurant Martín in Santa Fe, New Mexico.
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Will these chefs make it to the finals again? If they continue innovating and pushing the envelope of Houston’s culinary scene, it’s likely. Being nominated several times before winning is quite common when it comes to the James Beard Awards. Oxheart continues to wow diners and stay completely booked while Ortega’s coastal Mexican seafood endeavor, Caracol, has quickly become a beloved restaurant that’s packed with diners every night.
It is no small consolation, though, that Aaron Franklin’s win is a win for Texas barbecue and our way of life—a life that ideally comes with a side of potato salad.