Chef Chat -- The Pit Masters
Part 1: Will & Nichole Buckman of
CorkScrew BBQ

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It's February, the time of year when Houstonian thoughts turn to barbecue. The Houston Livestock Show & Rodeo World's Championship Bar-B-Que is just around the corner. April will bring the Third Annual Houston Barbecue Festival. (Hopefully, April won't also bring showers during the festival like it did last year.)

With that in mind, this is the first of a three-week series where Chef Chat will focus on just a few of Houston's talented pit masters. It's not glamorous work. It involves working with raw meat, smelling like wood smoke all the time and staying up all night to mind the pits (or finding a night owl who's willing to mind the fires for you). The results, though, are well worth it and greatly appreciated by barbecue fans (as evidenced by the long lines of customers).

Will and Nichole Buckman are high school sweethearts who had a dream of running their own business. Will's first restaurant job just happened to be at a barbecue place, so it was perhaps a stroke of fate that life would lead him away from a job at AT&T, and both he and Nichole into a place of their very own: CorkScrew BBQ in Spring, Texas.

In Part 1 of this Chef Chat, Will and Nichole will talk about how they got started, some of the challenges they faced in finding an acceptable a piece of land for their barbecue business and why beef prices are so high right now.

Come back for Part 2 tomorrow, when Will and Nichole will talk about managing the ebbs and flows of the meat business, the best days and times to visit to get to try all the different meats and their "top secret marinating technique."

EOW: Are either or both of you native Houstonians, or "Springlandians," or...

NB: We're both from Spring, born and raised.

EOW: What do you call someone from Spring? Is there a word for that?

WB: They call us a lot of things. I don't know if there's a term. (laughs)

WB: Most people I hear call it "Sprang."

EOW: Sprang, with an "a." (laughs)

NB: Yeah, you're from Sprang.

EOW: So you've been here your whole lives.

WB: For the most part, yeah.

EOW: That's remarkable. Do you find that most of the people you meet around here are or are not originally from Spring?

WB: This part of Spring there's a lot of transplants. We've kind of on the border between The Woodlands and Spring. We've got a lot of oil and gas here in The Woodlands, so we get a lot of people from around the country, out of country. So it's a pretty great mix.

EOW: How did you meet?

WB: High school.

NB: When we were 14.

EOW: You're high school sweethearts!

NB: Yeah, we started dating when we were 17 and 18.

EOW: That is so awesome!

NB: 18 years in March.

EOW: That's so wonderful. Congratulations!

WB: Thank you so much.

EOW: Did you get involved with food and cooking separately or did you get involved at the same time? How did you know you were even interested?

NB: I always cooked. My mom cooked homemade growing up. I always cooked--pretty much every night, So, it was something we [she and Will] love to do together.

WB: Pretty much. We've worked in separate restaurants early on in our younger days. I've always loved to eat, so that's a plus. But, yeah, when we started this it was definitely a combined effort. We developed the menu and all the recipes together. I think coming into it we both had a definite interest for food.

EOW: Tell me about your early restaurant experiences.

WB: I've only worked in one restaurant before and it happened to be a barbecue restaurant. I kind of grew up in a barbecue restaurant called Reed's Barbecue, a family-owned place. Great family. I consider them my second family at this point years later. That was it. I started as a bus boy there and worked my way up to kitchen manager. I never really learned a whole lot about barbecue but it definitely taught me a whole lot about life and a whole lot about the restaurant industry.

EOW: How did you know that you wanted to get into the restaurant industry?

WB: We really didn't. We kind of fell into the restaurant industry. It was all happenstance.

NB: We always knew we wanted to own something of our own. We looked and we thought about crossbreeds of bars and grills. We thought about a lot of different things. This just happened to be it.

EOW: Nichole, did you have any early restaurant experience also?

NB: Yes. I've worked in lots of restaurants.

EOW: Where did you work?

NB: I worked at Friday's for a really long time, but I've worked at Atchafalaya, which is no longer here, I've worked at Pappasito's, TGI Friday's. This is all from about 16. And then I think I stopped working at restaurants when I was about 23.

EOW: You knew that you wanted to own your own business at some point. Why barbecue?

WB: As it turns out I was working in construction for AT&T. She was a stay-at-home mother. We have two children. We had a smoker in the driveway. One year for Christmas at AT&T, we had a potluck lunch and that was what I brought, barbecue. All of my co-workers decided that they liked what I did, so they started asking me if I would cook them a brisket for a birthday party or whatever occasion they might have. It got to the point to where that's all I was doing anymore. All of our free time, I was in the driveway.

NB: And I said, "We have to start charging for this."

WB: Yeah. So we did. We started charging for it. She made a website. We came up with a name and it just kind of snowballed. We started doing catering on the side and it just grew and grew, to the point to where we had to decide am I going to stay with AT&T, or are we going to do this full-time? We chose to do this full-time.

EOW: You just get to that point where you just can't. There's not enough of you to go around anymore.

NB: He's done with all his vacation time and all his sick days. We've gotten to the point where his work's kind of like, "What are you going to do?"

EOW: How long ago did you open CorkScrew?

NB: May 2010, when we started catering and then we opened November of 2011.

EOW: What made you decide on this particular piece of property?

WB: We were actually set to open in a different piece of property. It was in a small town, Oak Ridge North. I think it was two weeks before we were scheduled to open. Oak Ridge North told us that they did not allow mobile vendors in their community. We had all of our cards done.

NB: All the press was done, too.

WB: Everything was ready to go. That hurt pretty bad. We just started scrambling, looking for a place to go. In this area is pretty hard to find just a raw piece of land that somebody's willing to let you set up a camp on, you know? But we just stumbled across this one. I made an inquiry about it, and here we are.

EOW: There is an actual trailer over there that you serve out of and it is mobile. So, you can do things like drive it to these barbecue festivals?

NB: No, all this is now permanent. We're a permanent restaurant now, so we cannot move. We're tied to septic, sewer, water and all that stuff.

EOW: So you're fixed. But, you do participate regularly in the Houston Barbecue Festival. What kind of endeavor is that when you have to go pack up and participate. How does that work?

WB: It's somewhat of an endeavor. Anytime you cook off of location, somewhere that isn't what you're used to, it's definitely an undertaking. Here, we have more of a controlled environment, so we have our pit, we know where everything is, it's all the day-in and day-out stuff.

When you go to a location, you're dealing with the elements a lot of the time. We don't have a mobile pit so we're dealing with a borrowed or rented pit. So you're dealing with a piece of equipment that you're not used to that you never used before.

Then, logistically, trying to figure out how to maintain your business here and go and do it. So, it really can be a nightmare at times, but luckily the Houston Barbecue Festival is always on a Sunday and we're closed on that day. But it's fun! That's what you do. If you barbecue, you're used to the elements, stress, and what-have-you.

NB: It's hard. But you always have fun once you do it. It's one of those things, the week of you're like, "Oh my gosh, I can't believe I have to go already." You have to work. You end up having to work 7 days because you start back on Tuesday and you work your only day off. But, it always ends up being lots of fun. You get to meet people, you get to meet other other pit masters and chefs at the restaurants, co-workers, you get to mingle. We always end up having a lot of fun once it's said and done, other than him staying up 24 hours those two days.

EOW: When you first opened, how did people find you?

WB: We used social media. We've never paid for advertising still to this day. It's all word-of-mouth and social media. I don't know how people did it before that. I can only imagine the hill they had to climb. For us, it's a no-brainer. You go to the web. That's where you go.

NB: We got lucky. Within the first four months we had the Houston Chronicle come out. We had a couple of other newspapers come out and interview, stuff like that. We got lucky in that aspect. It caught on pretty quick. People spread the word to people they knew and other advertising and stuff like that.

WB: It made its way to the right people very early on.

NB: Good. Of course, Chris Reid is doing the barbecue column at the Houston Chronicle now and he and [Michael] Fulmer are always on this never-ending quest for barbecue. Author's note: Chris Reid and Michale Fulmer are co-founders of the Houston Barbecue Festival.

WB: Those guys are awesome. I don't know of a single person who's done more for barbecue. Those guys are just stellar in our book.

EOW: I went on a barbecue run with them a couple of years ago, and it certainly was an eye-opener. We went to Lockhart and to Franklin's [Barbecue in Austin]. They've really done a great deal for educating consumers about barbecue.

NB: Absolutely. And not just places but the types of meats and how expensive it is. Your cost is all meat. It's meat and dairy. That's what barbecue restaurants are and that's the two highest things that you buy.

EOW: And of course beef, depending what the market is like, can be quite expensive.

WB: It's through the roof right now.

EOW: Yeah, that's what I have heard.

WB: It makes our already-slim margin that much slimmer.

EOW: What has driven up the prices on beef?

WB: There's a lot of things. I just got back from Texas A&M. We did a barbecue town hall meeting and there are so many factors. A lot of it is weather-driven, fuel-driven. We suffered an incredible winter in the Midwest where all of our corn comes from. The gas prices are through the roof. All that stuff affects you. The cows' feed, the gas prices to get the cow feed to them, the gas prices to get the cows to slaughter and then shortages. You've got diseased cows and things like that that kill off herds. The droughts kill off herds, the hard winters kill off herds, same with crops. And [beef is] in high demand more so than ever.

NB: It's extremely popular. You even see fast foods do it now. Arby's, Wendy's. Burger King, they're all jumping on and doing barbecue.

EOW: I've heard there was a greater demand for beef in countries like China where the economic situation has improved and the overall situation of their people. Now, they want to eat like everybody else.

WB: Yeah, a lot of it is going overseas. There's certain cuts from certain vendors that we can't even get because the Asian market is willing to pay so much higher a price than we are. They don't even offer it for sale in the U.S. anymore. They ship it all overseas.

EOW: My. goodness. So things like chateaubriand?

WB: It depends what vendor you're dealing with. Our briskets come from Creekstone. Creekstone sells all of their beef ribs to the Asian market. They won't even market and sell them here.

EOW: You just answered a question for me because you very rarely see beef ribs in grocery stores these days. You see pork ribs.

WB: A lot of people don't know what thay are, either. Obviously they know a cow has ribs. The popularity is growing with beef ribs. So it's not something you necessarily grew up eating and you're like--

NB: Except for the small beef ribs.

EOW: The spare ribs? Or, I mean, short ribs?

NB: Yeah, the short ribs. My mom always cooked those. They're mostly bone and not a lot of meat.

WB: Yeah, they take the chuck off the top of it so all you're left with is bones basically with a very tiny portion of meat in between the bones, and they're just not worth time or effort.

With this different [more meaty] cut [used by barbecue places], they're impressive looking and their popularity is growing. But like I said, we educate people, every day we sell them. I'd say 90 percent of our customers who come in here have never seen one before. They don't know what it is. They'll watch one go by them from the window and they'll say. "Whatever that is, I want it."

I think the more that people get educated on what they are, you might start seeing them be more available in grocery stores. It's a cut that's available here. It's just a matter of who you want to get it from.

EOW: That leads to another question. Does someone do your butchery for you? Because I assume you have to have some special cuts to get those ribs.

WB: Actually, we rely on the vendors for all of our products. No actual butchering goes on here. We do trim work on all of the meats and get them ready to our specs that we want them to. But we're definitely not a butcher shop, so you won't find any whole carcasses hanging in our pit room or anything like that. We get everything the way we want it, basically, and we take it from there.

EOW: How long did it take from the time you opened here to having lines at lunchtime?

NB: March when the [Houston] Chronicle [article] came out. We had smaller lines up until then but in March it was our first time to have a line that was to the parking lot and we were floored.

WB: And it lasted through the week.

NB: We were very unprepared. There was only three of us. There was me and him [points at Will] and a guy at the window.

EOW: Oh my. That's rough.

NB: It was very scary. It never stopped since then. It just progressively got more, and more, and more. Luckily it did, obviously, and we just found really good people to help us.

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