Chef Chat, Part 2: Greg Gatlin of Gatlin's BBQ, On Working with His Family, the Flavor of His Barbecue and the Staggering Amount of Brisket He Sold Last Year
Greg Gatlin and one of his smokers
Photo by Mai Pham
This is Part 2 of a three-part Chef Chat series. You can read Part 1 here and Part 3 in this same space on Friday.
EOW: Gatlin's is a family affair. Tell me who is in the family.
GG: The three main people that you'll see here are myself, my mom and my dad. So that's Henry, Mary and myself. And then I've got two other brothers. One is here in town. He's a teacher and a coach, so he's not here very much -- he pops in and out. And then my older brother, he's in Kansas City, he's in the military. Both of them were very encouraging as far as starting the business, so we just all pooled our resources together to start the catering piece. And then we let the catering piece do everything else to help get this restaurant started.
EOW: What were your parents doing before? You said you were a commercial real estate appraiser.
GG: Mom was at home. Mom was a stay-at-home mom since my older brother was two. Dad was an engineer. So he was always around, but he traveled a bit until I was about eight or nine, and he's been in Houston ever since.
EOW: So how do you go from mom's at home, dad's an engineer and you're a commerical real estate appraiser to "We're going to open a catering business?"
GG: (Laughs heartily.) Hey, it was just one of those things where I think everybody was ready for something new. I got out of commercial real estate and started catering part time. I got another job working for Pappas Restaurants, at a Pappadeaux on 290.
EOW: What were you doing at Pappadeaux?
GG: I was managing. I was learning the business. I think without that experience, I wouldn't have been able to have gotten this place up with the success that we had.
EOW: Did you start at the bottom and move up?
GG: What we discussed when I started was: "I want to be in management." And they got me there in three months.
EOW: And they hired you just like that?
GG: Well, I had the educational background and maturity.
EOW: Where did you go to school?
GG: I went to Rice and majored in Business and Economics. I also played football. I grew up here in Houston, went to St. Thomas. So, we had a lot of local connects when we started our deal. What we did was we blasted out on Facebook, Twitter, all that kind of stuff; we were like, "Hey, guys, we're opening up a new restaurant." We got a ton of response.
EOW: This was 2008?
GG: No, this was 2010, when we opened this shop. The catering piece was just through word of mouth. Each catering we went to, we said "Hey, let's get at least two people at each of these catering jobs." On the weekends, when I wasn't working at Pappadeaux, I would take my mobile unit over here off of Piemont and Shepherd, and we would set up there in the parking lot between the EZ Pawn and the Valero, and sell barbecue on the weekends. And so that was just another vehicle, it was like "Hey, there's this barbecue place right down here -- it's a truck -- but it's really good."
EOW: So when you opened up this business, how did you parse out who was gonna do what?
GG: We were all doing everything. When we opened up, it was just us three and one other person, a bartender who used to work for me at Pappadeaux.
EOW: Did you hit any bumps along the way, or was everyone just waiting for good barbecue?
GG: The biggest bump that we hit was being put into the Houston Chronicle. We opened in June, and it published in November. When the article hit, it was just pandemonium. There were cars everywhere, people everywhere. We had a catering for a funeral over here in the Heights, and we actually had to close our doors for 30 minutes to get to the funeral. That adventure was just crazy. We went home that evening and we were like "What did we get ourselves into?" We tried our best to handle that particular flow. The way things funnel through this small building, it can bottleneck easily.
EOW: I want you to describe your barbecue. Describe what you're going after in terms of flavor. Your sauce, how would you characterize it?
GG: What I want to see is a consistent, bold flavor that's unique to us. Like our rub; we use a dry rub on all of our meat -- except the pulled pork, we use a combination of dry and wet -- and we want our barbecue to have its own distinct flavor, so that if you put our barbecue down next to someone else's, you'll say, "Oh, that's Gatlin's BBQ." We flavor our meat with hickory wood. A lot of people around here don't use hickory.
EOW: When you say flavor, you mean you smoke with hickory?
GG: Yes, that's the smoke element we're using. A lot of people use Pecan or Post Oak and Mesquite.
EOW: What is hickory like?
GG: It's not overly powerful, but it's very distinct from its taste profile. It's not overly bitter, not overly sweet, it's right in the middle. It's not bitter like a green mesquite. You can definitely tell the difference between the two. Oak is a really aromatic wood. You'll smell oak before you taste it. Once you've had and tasted enough barbecues, you can totally tell the difference. So that's what we want to do. We want the meat to be juicy, we want it to be tender and we want it to have that bold, distinct flavor without compromising the taste. Because you can do a lot of different things as far as flavor profile, but people in Texas know their barbecue.
EOW: Okay, the style of barbecue sauce, what style is that?
GG: Regionally, Texas is a tomato-based style of barbecue sauce. Out in the Carolinas, it's more vinegar-based. In the Southeast, you've got really sweet in Mississippi/Memphis area. In Alabama area, it's more mustard-based. Ours, it's a kind of a mix of the tomato-based and the vinegar. And it's kind of a balance between sweet and heat. Here in Texas, we do a lot of spicy. We get a lot of spicy sauces. I didn't want ours to be overly spicy, so hopefully with our barbecue sauce, you've got the heat, you've got the sweet and you've got the kind of tang of the Carolinas.
EOW: So, are you making the sauce?
GG: Yes, we make the sauce every day. There's guys in there, but nobody does the barbecue rub or the barbecue sauce except me or my dad. We're the only ones that do it. We go through about seven or eight gallons a day. Some days, usually Saturdays, we'll have a complete sellout. What we want to do is, we want to cook enough meat to where we sell out every day. Get rid of it all and start fresh the next day.
EOW: What is your involvement day-to-day? How much of the business are you touching?
GG: Everything. Me and my dad work in the pit. Mom created quite a few of the sides, but we all have a hand in it. Mom's a great tester of taste. You kind of bring her these ideas and say, "Hey, Mom, taste this," and then she's like, "No, baby, that's not gonna work. No!" Her in all her infinite wisdom, she's like, "Nope. That's not gonna work, don't do that!" And I'm like, "Really, Mom? That tastes pretty good." (Laughs.)
EOW: I want you to address this thing about why barbecue people think Houston doesn't have good barbecue. Because I'm not sophisticated enough to know.
GG: When you think about barbecue, the whole Texas tradition of barbecue started in a certain area. That's why aficionados are going to gravitate towards those places. Barbecue here in Houston, being a more metropolitan city, I think it's more business-based than craft-based. I think of the lot of people here get into the barbecue business, they want to feed as many people as they can; if it tastes halfway good, great. But there are people in Houston that do care about the craft of barbecue -- you just have to find them. And Houston being as fast-paced as it is, some people are not gonna drive around to find the little guy on 19th -- they're going to stop on the side of the freeway. There are so many smaller places in Houston that need to be visited and celebrated.
EOW: Everyone talks about the brisket here. I've been hearing about the brisket.
GG: It's so funny because to me, brisket is the easiest thing to fix. You have to have cooked them enough -- I've had the repetition, so it probably seems more easy to me. But to me, ribs and chicken are more difficult to cook than a brisket. You have to be attentive with the brisket, because you fall asleep on it, your temperature isn't consistent -- there are all these variables with cooking brisket that you have to be on top of, but you can control it. As far as ribs and chicken, you're using a bit higher heat, and then there's that element of when is it tender enough, and when is it overcooked. And it's a very fine line. It's one of those things you have to pay attention to. You can mess it up, and you can have a bad day with it, and it's like "Oh, gosh!" I've had a day where I won't sell it. If I have a day when I didn't keep an eye on it, and I mess it up, I won't sell it.
EOW: Okay, I'm going to stump you.
GG: Go for it!
EOW: How many briskets did you make last year?
GG: How many briskets did I make last year? Oh my gosh. That's crazy! I need a calculator. (Pulls out his calculator.)
EOW: Get as close as you can. Think of it as a game, like The Price Is Right. (Laughs.)
GG: This is gonna be good, because I hadn't ever counted it like that. So it's 260 days a year that I'm open. We're doing 15 to 20 briskets a day. Wow! And that's not even including the catering -- that's 3,900 briskets.
EOW: And how many people does a brisket serve?
GG: About 20 people. Multiply it by 20; 78,000. (Looks stunned.)
EOW: Seventy-eight thousand plates of brisket that you did last year -- is that insane?
GG: I never looked at it that way! (incredulous) I mean, I just get up and barbecue every day.
Check back with us tomorrow as we taste some of Gatlin's barbecue.
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