I am the Jackson Pollack of barbecue sauce. That’s how I see things.
As I make my observation to Will Fleischman, Pitmaster at Lockhart Smokehouse, it becomes clear that he does not share my perspective.
“What are you … how? Geez! I have never seen anyone make that big of a mess refilling the barbecue sauce! Have you ever seen anyone make a mess that big, Bill?” He asks Bill Winslow, a cook who is also in the kitchen. I assume the question is rhetorical as Will continues unabated. “That’s unbelievable. How are you even managing to do that?”
“Well, that’s why the paper towel is underneath the bottles, right?” I ask, referring to the single piece of store-brand paper underneath the splatters and smudges of tomato-based sauce. “At least this means less sauce for everyone to drown their meat in, right?”
I see Will ponder this, and perhaps even slightly chuckle. My oft-absent wit has managed to come off the bench and hit a game-winner, but only because – even in my short time here – I have become acutely aware of the Stigma of Sauce.
There is, of course, a history to this Stigma. When Lockhart Smokehouse was founded a little over a year ago, co-owners Jill and Jeff Bergus established that their smoked products would be moist enough, tender enough, and good enough to eat without altering the flavor with a sauce. It is a philosophy that has long been established at Kreutz Market in Lockhart, Texas – the restaurant’s namesake – and Jill found it fitting to adopt the same policy. She is, after all, the granddaughter of Edgar Schmidt, the man who bought Kreutz market in 1948.
As I have learned already, though – and as the Berguses learned months ago – Dallas, Texas is a long way from Lockhart, Texas. And no matter how good the meat may be, philosophical arguments against its use are to little avail when faced with lunch customers unaccustomed to The Practice Of Central Texas Barbecue. So they made a sauce, and they made a good one. But it’s still sauce, and it still irritates Will to see his hard work get smothered in it.
“Just make sure you clean it up,” Will says.
I do, noticing – not without lament – that my Pollack is turning into a puddle. The paper towel never stood a chance.
My second and third days of working at Lockhart Smokehouse will be, as far as business and customer activity are concerned, far less eventful than the first. There will be no Mardi Gras parade outside the restaurant’s door, there won’t be a horde of intoxicated celebrants ordering absurd amounts – both large and small – of meat, and there won’t be eight people at once working behind the counter. But the slower traffic presents the opportunity for more work in the kitchen, and today, my speed at preparing sides doesn’t throw a wrench in the entire operation – in this world of Culinary NASCAR, I run in circles with a stick horse.
“Here, this will work a lot better than what you’re using,” says Bill, handing me a serving spoon to transport the potato salad I have just prepared into their plastic containers. I set aside the spatula.
“Wait. Were you going to use that to fill the containers?” Will asks, pointing to my previous instrument of choice.
“What, the spatula? No … I …” Yes. I was.
“I wish you hadn’t given him that spoon, Bill. I would have loved to have watched that.”
I begin to use my new instrument, and notice quickly that work does indeed go faster when one uses the right tool for the right job. In a matter of minutes, I have packed the containers with potato salad, sealed the lids, and stacked them for transportation to the refrigerated display case, completely unaware that my ego is about to take another kick in the crotch.
“Oh, those look good. Yeah, you see that there, how the sauce is stuck between the lid and the cap? That’s good, because then it looks like a hyperactive kindergartener filled those up, and we definitely want our customers to think that we don’t care enough to neatly put the potato salad in the containers,” Will casually observes. I pick up on the sarcasm somewhere near the end.
Will is, in fact, a genuinely nice guy. After I stock the potato salad, he begins to go into a bit of an explanation – not that an explanation is necessary or even reasonable. Dry and even a little biting it may be, every bit of his advice has been practical and useful. Frankly, he doesn’t have to let me into the kitchen or behind the counter at all. But he explains nonetheless.
“You know, it takes years – not days – in a kitchen to get everything right, and if you don’t hammer in the right way to do things, then people are just going to keep doing them the wrong way, and it’s going to get worse and worse,” he says. “So you need to do everything you can to make sure everyone is doing everything the right way, even down to the containers for the potato salad, to make sure the kitchen practices are where they should be all the time.”
The lunch crowd is, to no one’s surprise, the biggest rush of the day at Lockhart. By all accounts, today is a slow one but it’s still busy enough to keep everyone behind the counter actively engaged for a solid 90 minutes. A first-timer comes up to the counter.
“I’ve never been here before, this is my first time,” she says.
“Well, welcome,” says Bill with a smile. “You can order any of the things up there (points to the menu above his head), but you don’t have to get a half-pound of it. That’s just how much a half-pound would cost: we do everything by weight, so it’s basically like ordering meat like you would from a deli.”
The customer nods. “So, how much would it be for a sandwich?”
“Well,” Bill responds, “A quarter-pound is usually pretty good for a sandwich, and we’ll give you the meat and the bread to make it.”
“Okay,” she says. “I’ll do that.”
Bill has had this conversation before; Will has overheard it, and has the meat sliced seemingly before the dialogue has ended. He’s had this conversation before, too.
“Oh, and is there sauce?” she asks.
“The sauce will be on the table, but remember that we’ve got cameras in the dining room, and if you use sauce, we’re going to record you and make jokes about you later,” he jests.
The woman laughs, though I suspect she’s not really sure why.
Things have slowed to a snail’s pace, and they will end anticlimactically in a few hours. I never did get to cut any meat – I never asked – and in retrospect, I’m glad I didn’t. Earlier in the day, Bill had brought up in conversation that they have a cook who has been there for three months, and only now is getting to cut the meat during busy hours. He has put in the time to deserve it; I clearly have not. In fact, I likely didn’t deserve to do a lot of the things they let me do at Lockhart over the past three days – I got to make the rub, apply it, put the meat in the smoker, make some sides. I got to do everything I wanted to do for the story, and at every point I did some part of it wrong. If they had wanted me to do it, they would have offered – to have not been given the opportunity to put the butcher’s block to work seems appropriate.
The sauce bottles have come in again, and again I make a mess filling them up.
But this time, there’s no one else in the kitchen.
I fill the bottles, clean up the mess, and set them on the corner of the table.
“Whoa! Rich! Did you fill the bottles and not make an absolute mess of everything?” I hear Will ask when he walks into the kitchen.
“Yeah, man – I’m getting pretty good, huh?”
I don’t think Will falls for it, but he acts like he does.
“Yeah, you may end up being okay at this.”
I’m not sure if he means filling up bottles or working in a kitchen, but I cautiously assume he means the second, and quietly refrain from asking him to clarify.