This is Part 1 of a three-part Chef Chat series. Check back with us in this same space Thursday and Friday to read Parts 2 and 3.
Above and beyond the excellent barbecue, there's just something so quaint and charming about Gatlin's BBQ, that I loved it immediately. Maybe it was the sight of cars haphazardly parked out in front, directly in front of a wooden building with a side porch that could easily have been someone's home. Or maybe it was the unexpected fact that there was only room for three tables inside.
But I think what charmed me the most is the fact that Gatlin's epitomizes a real mom-and-pop restaurant. It's a family business where the mom, dad and son create this delicious food on the strength of a family tradition, doing it with the love and care borne out of true blood, sweat and tears. In fact, they've been working so hard that it took me eight months from the time I first contacted him to actually get a confirmed interview time.
EOW: So, Greg Gatlin. How old are you?
GG: Oh, wow. You're gonna ask a guy his age? (Laughs.) No, I'm kidding. I'm 33.
EOW: And I understand this business started as a catering business? Tell me about that.
GG: Back in 2008, I left my job as a commercial real estate appraiser. I kind of got this wild itch to do the barbecue thing. I did a little catering for a couple of buddies that I played football with. And some of their folks that were at the party said, "Hey, do you want to do catering for us?"
EOW: Wait, but why would they ask you? How did you know how to barbecue?
GG: We've been barbecuing since we were little. We even had little bitty barbecue pits.
EOW: Are you kidding? So this was a family tradition?
GG: Yeah, it was always something that we did. For reunions, somebody's birthday, whatever was going on. We played little league football, so we would barbecue at the parks, too.
EOW: What was barbecuing like as a kid? Tell me how you did it.
GG: It was more of trying not to burn yourself (laughs heartily). And trying not to start too big of a fire while we were growing up. But it was something fun. My dad and his brother, and me and my cousins -- we were five boy cousins. And so that was our thing that the guys got out and did away from my mom and my aunt. They did the inside thing with the baking and the cooking, and the kids are outside running around throwing footballs and barbecuing.
EOW: So, if you're barbecuing, what's in a barbecue at home?
GG: Depends on what we were doing. You always have ribs. You're always gonna have ribs. And then you're going to have hot dogs and hamburgers and stuff if we're just grilling. And if we're doing something else, with a lot of people over, then we'll have brisket and sausage and chicken.
EOW: Now, was that done in a smoker?
GG: Yes, that was done in a smoker. It was a smaller backyard smoker. But my uncle, he had a larger pit, you know, if we were going to do something with the church. We got involved in that the older we got, in our teenage years, because there was a lot more to do and it was more of a job.
EOW: What's the most you remember making?
GG: The largest we've ever done was probably 1,600 or so. That was for a tailgate. We stayed up two and a half days straight and we barbecued for about four days. And we only had one pit at the point. And we did that for the Bowl Game. The first Bowl Game at Rice. That had to be 2009.
EOW: And this was unofficial...
GG: Yeah, at this point, we didn't have a shop. All we had was a catering business. That's when we were just kind of trying to get up on our feet. My affiliation with Rice, from playing football there, that's how we got kind of tied in to that. We thought it was going to be 800 to 1,000 people. But people just started lining up. You could see a line from here to there (points very far away).
EOW: Okay, so 1,600 people, four days of barbecue, how much meat was there?
GG: There was brisket, sausage and big pork loins. Oh my gosh, I can't even count how much meat we did. I think we did something like 30 to 40 briskets, and then we had three cases of loins, and we probably went through about 200 pounds of sausage. It was a lot, and we had to do beans...There was a guy with a prep kitchen out close to my house. Thank goodness he had it, otherwise we would have been doing all of it out of my house! And then we had a mobile barbecue pit and trailer. It was a really great time.
EOW: Do you still have the mobile unit?
GG: Yeah, we don't use the mobile unit that much just because we are tied down at the shop. But every now and then, we'll have some folks like out in Montgomery or Waller, where we drag the pit down there, and they had a band, and we actually barbecue on site. We had the briskets cooked already, but the ribs and chicken, we cook on site. It's always fun to do that because you get the interaction from the guests.
EOW: What's your magic formula -- what's the amount of time to make a brisket, especially when you're doing quantity?
GG: Twelve hours.
EOW: If you're barbecuing on site, then, do you partially cook it?
GG: No, we pretty much have those cooked. We cook them the night before. And then we put them on the pit, wrapped up, as we travel down there, take 'em off down there -- that way they're just resting, not overcooking. And then, an hour out, we put those briskets back on and make sure they're hot and ready to go, slice it up and serve it.
EOW: Is it possible to overcook brisket?
GG: Yes, it is. It gets crumbly. Think about a piece of chicken. When it dries out, it just falls apart; there's no form or consistency to it. It's the same with the brisket. If it overcooks, when you cut it, it just falls apart.
EOW: Is there a way to prevent that from happening?
GG: It's just in the timing. You cook enough briskets to the point where you can kind of feel it, to where you know exactly, "Okay, this one's ready." And then if something comes up to where it's not ready, you just put it back on for about an hour or so, and you're ready to go.
Check back with us tomorrow as we continue our chat and learn more about Greg Gatlin's family business, Gatlin's BBQ.
Keep the Houston Press Free... Since we started the Houston Press, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Houston, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Houston with no paywalls.