Chef Chat -- The Pit Masters
Part 2: Will & Nichole Buckman of
CorkScrew BBQ

As we learned in Part 1 of our Chef Chat yesterday, It takes time to build a barbecue operation. CorkScrew BBQ consists of two trailers. The original is nicknamed "Baby" and the big, shiny, black metal one with the hot pink CorkScrew logo is called "Mama." There's a smokehouse as well, from which briskets with a deep brown crust and spiced racks of ribs the color of mahogany emerge.

CorkScrew has become so popular over the past four years that owners Will and Nichole Buckman have maxed out production. Every morning, except Sundays and Mondays when they're closed, customers gather at the picnic benches outside sometimes hours before the place opens at 11 a.m.

In this part of our Chef Chat with the Buckmans, we get down to the nitty gritty of making barbecue as well as that all-important question: what time do people have to arrive in order to have a shot at all of the meats?

EOW: Do you have any trade secrets?

WB: Not really, I mean we're pretty much an open book. We do our thing. I don't really have any secrets. We barbecue and that's pretty much how it is. We do have our own recipes that we won't divulge all the ingredients of them. But as far as secrets are concerned, I don't have any.

Will & Nichole Buckman of CorkScrew BBQ
Will & Nichole Buckman of CorkScrew BBQ
Photo by Phaedra Cook

EOW: What kind of wood do you use?

WB: Red oak.

EOW: For a brisket, how long does it take to smoke one of those?

WB: It depends. At the minimum they're on the pit for 12 hours. The size, weight and fat content determines that. You can have two 12-pound briskets sitting right next to each other on the smoker, and one of them will come off at 12 hours, and one of them might come off at 16 hours. So, the brisket determines when it's ready to come off.

EOW: I know you do trimming. I would assume you probably trim a pretty decent amount of the fat cap on a brisket.

WB: Yeah, we do.

EOW: Trim it down like a quarter-inch or something?

WB: Yeah, I've got a tolerance of a quarter-inch to half-inch is where we try to keep it.

EOW: About how many briskets do you smoke overnight?

WB: Right now, I try to get about 20 of them on there. Again, it depends on size and weight. We use prime briskets, so they vary greatly. We'll have a five-pound brisket and then we'll have an 18-pound brisket sitting next to it. We try to stay within a certain pound range. This kitchen is basically busting at it seams, as far as what we can do.

NB: We have a bigger pit now, but we didn't get a bigger kitchen. (laughs)

WB: Yeah, our pit is definitely not being worked to its potential yet, until we figure out a way to get more people, more employees and a way to get that food out.

NB: And that's why we're offering whole uncut meats for pre-order, because we can do that, we just can't cook more in the restaurant than we can now. We upped it once we got the new pit, but now we're stuck because there's nowhere to put it. So we do the whole meat pre-orders so we can cook more on the pit and utilize the bigger pit, but not have to store it while we're cutting, cooking, and all that kind of stuff.

Ribs, sausage and turkey with a helping of fresh jalapeños on the side at CorkScrew BBQ
Ribs, sausage and turkey with a helping of fresh jalapeños on the side at CorkScrew BBQ
Photo by Phaedra Cook

EOW: Do you have any expansion plans to surmount those kinds of problems?

WB: Yes and no. We've always kind of thought it. You've got a lingering fear, like, "When will this run out? When is this all going to end?" Personally and in business we don't like to finance things. We like to just pay for it. If we don't have enough money for it, then we're not there yet. So we need to keep working, earn the money and then go do it. But it's something that we fight with constantly. It's like, "Do we expand or do we not?" We'd have to leave this spot if we expand really any further.

NB: We're maxed out.

WB: We're maxed out here. I can tell you that we are looking to purchase a piece of property or an existing building. We just haven't found the right one yet.

EOW: How do the logistics of having the smoke stuff overnight work? Because it takes 12 hours, I assume you start at night or after you close. So, does somebody has to be here all night minding the pits?

WB: Yeah, pretty much. With the purchase of this new smoker that we have, it's an Oyler so it's all wood burning, there's no gas assist or electric element in it but it does have a temperature control on it and it's super insulated. They say you can run it unassisted for about 12 hours but I've never left it more than five hours. But yes, the big proteins, the briskets, the pork butt and the beef ribs, they'll cook through the night. Briskets and pork butts go on the pit at about 5 p.m. and they'll cook through the night. So, most of that portion is most of the time myself but I have another guy that helps me out with that as well that does assist through the night.

EOW: So you've got brisket, beef ribs, pork butt, what other meats?

WB: Turkey breast, pork ribs, sausage. We do chicken on the weekends. Beef ribs are only on the weekends as well.

EOW: Okay. What are all of your side dishes?

NB: We do potato salad, cobbler, coleslaw, baked beans,and mac and cheese. All homemade, all our recipes.

EOW: What are your most popular sides?

NB: All of them. It's pretty equal on all of them. They pretty much all sell out the same.

EOW: What about the meats? Are there certain favorite meats?

NB: That's hard. Other than beef rib on Saturday because you can't get during the week--some days we'll have brisket left and nothing else. Some days we'll have turkey left and nothing else. Everybody really ends up wanting the same things on the same days. It's weird how it happens, but it'll be pulled pork day, or it'll be a turkey day, or it'll be brisket day. Sausage might go first. There's no telling. Ribs are usually always first.

WB: Ribs go first. Pound-wise we do cook the most of brisket. Being Texas barbecue, that's generally what people come here for. They're definitely getting brisket to take home with them or to eat here. But like she said, it's weird how people run in packs and they don't even know it, because everybody will be on the same page that day. They all want pulled pork or turkey breast.

NB: "Can I get pulled pork tacos?" "Can I get a pulled pork plate?" It's just weird how it happens.

Blueberry cobbler at CorkScrew BBQ
Blueberry cobbler at CorkScrew BBQ
Photo by Phaedra Cook

EOW: I wonder if it has to do with the season, weather, temperature, everybody has a psychic link?

NB: I really think that's honestly true because there will be nobody here and then eight cars will pull up at one time, and then nobody, and then like eight cars.

WB: It comes in waves.

NB: It's just the Earth's pull.

EOW: With that in mind, even though you've been doing this for a while, is it hard to accurately predict what you're going to sell out of?

WB: It used to be really hard because we'd have lulls in business. We'd have days where there would be a crowd and then days where there wouldn't so much be a crowd. These days though, it's just a matter of what our kitchen capacity is and what it can handle. So basically we're cooking the same amount of food every single day, except for Saturdays when we add the other two proteins to the menu. But really, every day's just the same because we're pushing this place to its limits.

EOW: In Texas, barbecue is a religion.

WB: Yep.

EOW: Do you have any particular beliefs that you espouse or really go against?

NB: You got to marinate with rap music on.

EOW: Yeah. The pit master's secret. It's never been revealed before. Gangster rap is the difference. (laughter)

NB: I don't know that we do. I think that everybody here, including our employees, love it here. We all work extremely well together and they all help with everything--sides and everything. And they all just put 150 percent into it. They don't see it as just our restaurant, they see it as a reflection on themselves also because we've put them out there as part of CorkScrew. We're a family here. When you're small, it's hard not to be connected together. I just don't think we have any secrets or ways of it. Lots of prayer.

WB: Yeah, barbecue in itself is a religion. That's true and everybody has their own methods of doing it. There's a thousand ways to skin a cat, as they say. We have our preferences, definitely. I guess being not trained by anyone, we do things our way. That's how it is. Our way is the right way to us. Any competition cook or restaurant owner might tell me otherwise, but what works for me doesn't necessarily work for him and vice versa.

NB: It's working, so why change it?

EOW: Are there other people in the barbecue industry that you admire?

WB: Absolutely. The first one that comes to mind is Wayne Mueller of Louie Mueller Barbecue. He's just one of the most fantastic people you'll ever meet.

NB: Extremely humble to be who he is.

WB: And he's a genius. He's very eloquent on how he speaks unlike us. He's all around just a great guy. He's in it for the right reason. So we definitely look up to him. Almost every single person we've met who's in the industry brings something to the table and they're all really good folks.

NB: We all learn from each other, and we all get to talk, and it's nice. Because you get to talk to somebody who understands what you go through on a daily basis. The hard work, the days that you want to pull your hair out, and the days you want to cry and the days you're happy. It's nice to share that with other people.

WB: And with the Houston Barbecue [Festival], I think that's the coolest part about it for us in the industry is that it gives us as sense of community within the barbecue realm. There's no sense in feuds, and "I'm the best," "No, I'm the best," and all that good stuff. Everybody's successful and everybody's doing the best that they can. It's really cool.

EOW: I distinctly still remember about the same time as when y'all were getting started, that talking of Houston barbecue was almost a joke. There just wasn't any respect for it and everybody was like, "Oh, real barbecue, you've got to go Central Texas to get real barbecue." It's amazing how that has totally changed.

WB: Well, I think being natives we didn't really much care for hearing that. Obviously, they're doing great things in Central and West Texas, there's no doubt about it. But it's not the barbecue capital of the state, in my opinion. There's a lot of talented folks here in Houston. It was only a matter of it being recognized, not that it wasn't ever here. You had a lot of great folks. The Gatlins have been here longer than us. They were doing great things before the barbecue bubble burst.

EOW: Absolutely. And there was Burns Barbecue.

WB: Burns, Pizzitola's, they were all doing great things. It's just they weren't getting the recognition for it, I think.

NB: And we just got so many chains and stuff like that, that's started popping up. It was like the ratio was more chains to small, so it got to the point where it was like, "Houston barbecue sucks." But you just got to move those chains out of the way and see what is really there. We can't help the chains popping up. We can't help that there's a Dickey's on every single corner, that there's a Spring Creek on every corner. We can't help those things. I haven't been to them so I can't say whether it's good barbecue or not. I'm not a big chain restaurant person, either. I prefer to support mom-and-pops, family-owned and stuff like that. I think that's just the biggest thing, which is moving the top layer off and seeing that there is still really good barbecue out here--barbecue where the owners are sitting at the pit working it.

EOW: Is there anything else that you want to make sure that our readers know?

WB: We try to educate as much as we can. Back to beef prices--bear with us. We're doing the best we can with what we have right now. Barbecue is not what it used to be. Barbecue used to be a preservation process of meat. So it used to be a way that a butcher shop could hold onto that meat a little bit longer without having to throw it away. A lot of the cuts were cuts that people didn't want. That's why they were having to preserve them and try to sell them in another way. So, what used to be trash is now a treasure and that treasure is so super expensive for us right now. A lot of folks see prices of beef in grocery stores, which is still way cheaper than what I buy it for. The grocery stores rely on making money on other products and they take a loss on meat a lot of the times, whereas we source our meat through vendors and we're paying quite a bit more than what you can buy it yourself at the grocery store for.

NB: Because we're buying prime. We're buying the best meat out there.

WB: Our high prices aren't due to popularity or press. We have margins that we have to keep regardless to keep our doors open and that's the only reason why prices are going up everywhere.

EOW: That's a good bit of information to pass on. I'm going to ask one more thing. It's a very consumer-oriented question. What time should someone get here and on what days in order to ensure they can get pretty much everything and it hasn't ran out yet.

WB: Definitely the beginning of the week, if you have the time available. You could probably stroll in here at 10:45, 10:30, just before we open and you'll have your pick of the litter. You'll get whatever you want to. On Saturdays, right now the record holder is 5:45 in morning. That's when the first customer arrived. We open at 11 am.

EOW: Oh my. (laughs)

WB: We do have a number system. Our numbers go up to 25. So the first 25 people who get here can grab a number, sit down at a table, relax, read a book, look at their iPad, whatever they want to do. But Saturdays, if you're here after 9:30 you might find yourself in trouble.

NB: You'll get food, but you might not get beef ribs, chicken--

WB: You just have to have a couple of different options.

NB: Yeah, you definitely want to and you're going to wait. But we do free beer on Saturday. A lot of people get to know each other. It's always fun on Saturday. But then we're be BYOB all the other times. You can bring your own beer on Saturday but we do offer free beer.

EOW: That is great to know. Thank you so much!

NB: Thank you very much.


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