It's not easy smoking barbecue in a trailer. Briskets take overnight to cook and have to be minded to make sure the temperature stays consistent and the fires don't die out.
Trent Brooks, however, has been managing for years and it's not like he gets to just run out to his backyard and check the smoker. When he lost his job as a materials specialist for a gas compression company, he turned his side job, cooking barbecue on the weekends, into full-time work. His quality meats and sides have caught the attention of both local and statewide publications, including Texas Monthly. That's not bad for a guy working out of a trailer in a parking lot in Cypress near an Ace Hardware.
In Part 1 of this Chef Chat, we'll learn how he got into the business and started gaining recognition as one of the best pit masters in the area. Come back tomorrow for Part 2, where we'll learn more about the work that goes into his business and Brooks's methodology of barbecue.
EOW: Tell me how you got into cooking.
TB: Well, cooking's in my background. My dad and my grandfather did it a long time ago. My dad still does it on the north side of town. I hated it, believe it or not, growing up because it just took too much of my time. But I guess it's safe to say that along the way, I must have paid attention to something that he was doing, because I ended up doing it.
EOW: I didn't realize your dad cooks in Houston. What's his place?
TB: He does stuff mainly for churches. Every once awhile, he'd do something for the neighborhood, things like that. My mom and dad have their own catering service also where they do different parties for companies, churches and stuff like that.
EOW: What's their catering service called?
TB: I think it's all under Mister's Barbecue.
EOW: How old were you when you realized that there was something to that cooking thing after all?
TB: This just happened about six years ago. I started doing it on the weekends as a supplement income because my wife wasn't able to go back to work. One thing led to another, and I ended up losing my job and started doing this full-time. So, I focused on my craft. I told my wife that this was it. I wasn't going back to work again. That didn't go over too well. (laughs) But here we are six years later. We're still going hard at it and I have no regrets for getting into this business.
EOW: What did you do before?
TB: Before this I was a material specialist for a gas compression company.
EOW: So, barbecue was very different from that!
TB: Very different.
EOW: How many years did you do that?
TB: I did that for about four years at that company. Things fizzled out and here we are.
EOW: You started running the trailer on the weekends. Well, first of all, was it this same trailer?
TB: No, it wasn't a trailer starting out. It grew into a trailer. The demand became overwhelming to where we could no longer do it the way we were doing it, and then we wanted to be up to code and standard with the health department and everything. We followed the rules and did everything by the book and built this trailer.
EOW: Was it hard to get approval for this trailer? Is that a time-consuming process?
TB: Well, it is time-consuming. To be honest with you, they do everything they can to discourage you because they're not big on food trucks in this town. The city of Houston is not a popular place for food trucks, though it's growing. With all of the health regulations and requirements and everything, it can be discouraging if you let it get to you. It almost makes you want to give up. But in the end, if you stick with it, it's worth it. It also depends on where you're going to set up at. The rules are different. The rules for the city of Houston are different than the rules of Harris County. The city of Houston tends to be a little more strict. But so far, we've done well. We passed all of our inspections and everything.
EOW: What year was it that you started the trailer out here?
TB: I started the trailer out here Labor Day of 2009. It will be six years this year.
EOW: How do people find you here? How do they find you in the parking lot of an Ace Hardware?
TB: I can honestly say everything was word of mouth. I got out here and people started showing up as I was working on my craft and getting it to where I wanted it. I have to give a lot of credit to a local pastor. He came by and he was one of the first ones who got behind me and got behind my product and everything. He started telling me about the different things that was going on with Texas Monthly magazine.
I was listening to it, but I'm just starting out. I'm in a trailer so it really didn't click at what he was talking about until it happened. I have to give a lot credit to him because he reached out to Texas Monthly and a lot of people on my behalf to get the right people coming this way.
EOW: Oh, that's good. Was Texas Monthly the first media outlet to come out here and check you out?
TB: No. The very first media outlet, the very first article that was written on us was from Urban Swank.
EOW: The Swanky Girls! They're good friends.
TB: They wrote the very first article on us and then after they wrote that article, Chris Reid got wind of everything some kind of way. Him and Michael Fulmer started showing up and then they started bringing people out here. The rest is history.
EOW: They're the best. Those are all some good people right there.
EOW: I have a question because there's conflicting information online about whether you are located in Cypress or Houston. It's almost like you're on the border.
TB: We are on the border. Actually, Houston, it's just a couple of [stop]lights away, but this is Cypress. The address that we use is Cypress, Texas.
EOW: Okay. As far as compliance rules go, is that Harris County or is it city of Cypress?
TB: That's Harris County.
EOW: Okay. When you started up, what were some of the lessons that you learned early on, because everybody makes mistakes.
TB: One of my biggest lessons that I've learned was consistency, which is hard to do when you're cooking for a lot of people on a daily basis. That pays off. Consistency speaks volumes. Whether it's in your product or whether it's on your schedule -- the days that you say you're going to be open, you have to be here. If they come by and see certain hours that you were supposed to be here, they expect you to be here. It's not only your product that has to be consistent, but you also have to be consistent with your time.
EOW: What is the best way for people to find your hours?
TB: If they don't come -- they're posted on the side of the trailer -- they can always go to the website. We do have a functioning website where they can go and view the menu, place orders online, view the hours and get directions. All of that stuff is on the website.
EOW: You talk about consistency. Is barbecue a product where that is very difficult to achieve?
TB: Yes, it is. It's very difficult. Each day that you cook is a different day. Each piece of meat that you cook is different. You can go and buy two cases of ribs, and every last one of them is going to cook differently. You can buy cases of briskets. You could have two briskets that weigh 12 pounds or 15 pounds right next to each other, and they're going to cook different. Every time that you cook that meat, it's not going to cook the same. So, it's always a challenge because you're dealing with the elements. You have the cold, you have the hot and you have the humidity. All of that plays a factor in the barbecue. Doing it right on a consistent basis -- that can be difficult.
EOW: Do you have any trade secrets, like anything I shouldn't ask you? I'm not going to ask you about individual ingredients in your rub. Is it okay to ask you about things like wood and temperature?
TB: When we started out, we started out cooking at 200 degrees. In the beginning of 2013, we went up to 250 degrees. So we cook right now anywhere between 250 and 275. We prefer Red Oak, but Red Oak is hard to find down here. So, if we can't find Red Oak, then we just use regular Post Oak. We're not too much into flavors. If we do use a flavored wood, it's pecan, but that's about it. We don't do the hickory, mesquite and all of that anymore. We got away from all of that.
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EOW: Do you subscribe to the salt-and-pepper theory of brisket?
TB: I do. I believe salt and pepper is the main ingredient on brisket. I don't believe sugar should be put on beef. I'm not a big sweet guy when it comes to beef. Chicken and pork is fine, but beef should be made with salt and pepper.
EOW: But on pork or like pork ribs?
TB: Pork, you can use a sugar base. I use a sugar base on my pork. I use a salt- and sugar-based rub on my chicken.