Smoking with Evan LeRoy
Lisa Flynn sat down with Evan LeRoy, pitmaster at LeRoy and Lewis, the prime-time player in Austin’s “new school” barbecue. From constructing his own smokers to maintaining a dedication to local suppliers and dealing with unruly, brisket-centric guests, LeRoy provides a compelling profile of an operation dedicated to independence and creativity.
Lisa Flynn: Let's start off with the smoker. How did you learn to weld?
Evan LeRoy: I never really learned to weld. I just started doing it. I just watched a lot of YouTube videos. I was looking at buying smokers, and then I picked up the Franklin Barbecue book, and he's just very much about, “Look, you can do this on your own. You don't need anybody else to do this.” And that really stuck with me. I had the money at the time to buy a welder, I didn't have the money to buy a smoker. So I bought just the trailer itself and the tank. And then we had to cut the doors and I had to find another tank for the fire box, and I had to find the pipe. But it came together, piece by piece.
"If it's our food, I'd like it to come out of our smokers. I don't want to have anybody else that can claim credit for what we're producing." - Evan Leroy
LF: So is it about control?
EL: Kind of. It's more about authenticity. If it's our food, I'd like it to come out of our smokers. I don't want to have anybody else that can claim credit for what we're producing. Because I think it's special, and I think it's really good, and I don't want our food coming out of a Moberg smoker or a Jambo smoker. Not that those are poorly built; they're very, very finely built. But they're also really expensive. And it's just important to me. It goes back to this entire idea of being able to bootstrap everything.
LF: What was the plan after college?
EL: So, after I left Florida State I came back to Austin and went to culinary school, and started working at Hudson's on the Bend at the same time, too. Obviously the only restaurants I'd worked before were very, very low quality. But then I went to Hudson's, which was fine dining and wild game and Texas, and amazing service, and everything's smoked. And so it really sparked something.
LF: What was the smoker like there?
EL: It was awesome. It was just a shack. It was a shack with metro shelving on one side, and there was a fire in the corner. And it's like ... you had to walk into it to put stuff on it and to take stuff off of it. It was amazing. I've always wanted to build something like that.
LF: Is that an old-school smoking method?
EL: They'll have, like, that shack, but a long set of tubing, and then fire somewhere else. To make it like cold smoking. I'd never seen anything like that, still never seen anything like that. Especially when the fire's hot, and then you're just going into an oven, essentially. It's crazy. We'd smoke duck breast and ribeyes and all kinds of stuff on there.
LF: Smoking ribeye?
EL: You'd smoke 'em whole and then cut 'em individually. First, steaks, and then grill them to order. It's where I made quail for the first time. I probably ate more whole pieces of quail over there than anything else.
LF: So when did you head to the Hill Country in New York?
EL: Right after I finished culinary school, I moved to New York. My then-girlfriend, now wife moved up there right after graduation. And I only took a six-month culinary program, so I came back here. We were long-distance for that amount of time.
LF: What was it like doing Texas barbecue in Manhattan?
EL: I think the hardest thing was just … people weren't used to ordering in the style that they do here. “How much is a pound? Do I have to get a whole pound?” There were so many people that also thought the smoke ring is underdone meat. Which, if you look at a slice of brisket, there's no possible way for it to be done in the middle and underdone on the outside. So just trying to get people over this thing, just these mental barriers, was the hardest part.
LF: What did training look like?
EL: So, when you're talking about teaching people barbecue, everybody's like, “Oh, it's supposed to feel like this. You cook by feel.” And so [you teach that] the cooking process of the brisket is so long that there's a lot of points of data that you can collect. It's like, “Okay, this many hours in, the crust is supposed to look like this. It'll feel tightened up but kinda loose, because it's not fully cooked yet. Probe it; it's at this internal temperature. A few hours later, the bark will be darker. It'll be tightened up a little bit more, higher temperature. And then, when it's almost time to take it off, it's not gonna be tightened up anymore. It's gonna relax. After the meat's passed 175, 185, even closer to 200, it'll kind of relax and slough out.” And that's what we talk about when we talk about cooking by feel. “Has it loosened up? Is it tender yet?” So, teaching people that tactile sensation. That's the most important part.
LF: That's something I've noticed. Really good grillers, they do it all by touch. They don't use meat thermometers. They use their hands. Is there any similar [method] for brisket?
EL: Not necessarily. It's funny, one of the owners of Hudson's on the Bend used to do like a thing on your face test. So he was like, “Rare, right? Medium rare. Medium. Medium well.” And then well done is the bottom of your shoe.
LF: When you're cooking barbecue, what do you do?
EL: I tend to use the digital probe thermometer.
LF: Which model? The Thermapen, or … ?
EL: The Thermapen's nice. I have a little Javelin that I carry with me. Anything that's instant read. You don't want to be sitting there waiting for it to go up, or wait for it to level off or something.
LF: What else is in your tool belt when you're smoking?
EL: I usually have a rag handy. Gloves around all the time. One of the new guys is buying a couple sets of knives and he's never really worked in restaurants and stuff before. He's just done backyard barbecuing and he's really into it. So I'm like, “Get a chef's knife for cutting vegetables, get a boning knife for trimming meat, and get a scalloped slicer for cutting finished meat. That's all you need.”
LF: I want to hear more about your team. These guys all have such personalities..
EL: The core team, the ownership, is LeRoy and Lewis. So it's me and my wife Lindsay. Lindsay handles PR, a lot of outward-facing communications. Lewis is Nathan and Sawyer. Sawyer works with me on the truck every day. General Manager. She does everything having to do with the business except cooking the food. And she keeps the wheels on the truck. Her husband Nathan is our beer brewer. So he's gonna be brewing when we go into our brick and mortar, hopefully very soon. There's Tom and Brad, which we already talked about. The third guy we brought on was somebody who came with me from Freedmen’s. His name is Ben Hollander. He has a fermentation company, so he makes kombucha and sells it here.
LF: Any teasers on the brick and mortar?
EL: Can't really say too much. We've gotten so close on a couple places and it's fallen through at the last minute for just random reasons. So we try not to get too many hopes up. And also trying to just focus on immediate needs.
LF: How do you design your menu?
EL: The basic idea is beef-centric, cuts by the pound, something that is adjacent to what people are very familiar with as barbecue already. Instead of brisket, there's beef cheeks. Instead of something like chopped beef there's barbacoa, which is arguably a barbecue meat in its own. We do pork steaks, we have done pork belly, some kind of sliced pork instead of ribs and we do sausage. We have a sausage on almost every day. Then we have chicken or quail as our poultry option. For sides, if it's cool out we'll have more warm sides than cool sides. If it's hot out, like now, we'll have three cold sides and one hot side. Usually just batchable, scoopable, picnic-style stuff with fresh vegetables. Some of it's very good, like a foil to heavy meat.
LF: Where does the recipe development start?
EL: Just thinking outside of the box. Like, I was talking to one of our cooks the other day about these pork belly burnt ends that we were doing. And he's like, “Dude, those were so good, how come we don't do those all the time?” We could, but it's also a little too ... it's something that somebody would do if they were trying to imitate us. It's like, “Nah, not cool enough.” We could do that, or we could take one step further and do something else off the wall.
LF: And there's a seasonality you focus on, which is really cool. Who do you work with on the produce side?
EL: Mostly we do Johnson's Backyard Garden. We do a lot of Gundermann Acres, pretty much just whatever’s on a really good deal. We've got a price cap on the produce that we order. Like sweet potatoes, cucumbers and tomatoes - those things are cheap. We're not getting micro-greens.
LF: Making the economics work is really hard, especially with your focus on sustainable agriculture.
EL: Yeah, that's been a huge challenge. But, like I said, having the produce there helps a lot. What we really want is for people to order one meat and three sides, but often people just come up and get four meats.
LF: A customer comes up and asks for a recommendation. Where do you lead them?
EL: It depends on what they're looking for. If we're trying to push something out the door that day, then, “Oh, definitely go for this.” We'll make a weird sausage that we can't really cut up and reuse in another dish. This week we had spaghetti and meatball sausage, right? With pieces of cooked noodle and pork meatball flavoring and Italian seasonings inside of it. It was really good and, well, there's no way we can cut this up and put it with sauerkraut and have a sausage and kraut side. So we will push to sell the spaghetti and meatball sausage. And it works. We sold out.
LF: At Freedmen’s, sausage was your big claim to fame.
EL: Yeah, we did a lot of different sausage work there. It's also just about trying to make the economics work, because making sausage ... I've talked to so many barbecue cooks who are like, “Man, I need to start making my own sausage. I'm throwing away so much meat.” And I'm like, “What? What are you even doing? Why are you throwing meat away?” Not only is that not economical, but this is flesh. In the grossest sense of the word, this is muscle mass that was grown in a body, and it doesn't belong in the trash.
LF: So, when you first started looking at opening a truck, how did you find all your suppliers? What did the journey look like?
EL: Well, we had some suppliers lined up just from working at the farmers' markets with Freedmen’s. Made a lot of connections through there. And then also, in between Freedmen’s and the truck here, I worked at Salt & Time, so that helped me connect with a lot of the ranchers there, too, with Peaceful Pork, our pig farmer.
LF: What were you looking for in a client?
EL: Consistent supplier, the right price, somebody that I could have a long-term relationship with.
LF: How do you get all your weird, cool cuts? Are you buying the whole animal?
EL: Sometimes when we’re cooking pigs, specifically, we'll buy either a half pig or a third of a pig. So Sloane will cut it down into the front third, and then the middle third, and then the hams. So we usually get a couple shoulders a week and a couple hams. We don't always take the middles, because that's bellies and chops, essentially. It's the most desirable and expensive part of the pig. So we essentially get the other parts of the pig that other people do not get.
LF: So, no ribs?
EL: Right, no ribs. But hopefully when we move into the brick and mortar, or our new commissary, we'll have more storage space. That's something we're very, very challenged on right now is storage space.
LF: I can only imagine.
EL: Hopefully we can do more ribs in the future, but there's only two racks of ribs per pig, so it's not really economical to keep 'em around, unless we're gonna do something like a big bone-in belly, which has the ribs attached to it, and is almost like a beef rib serving. Something that's really, really big.
LF: What are you dying to get people to try?
EL: I guess we've been on the beef cheek train since we opened up. It's funny because on Saturdays we don't always have beef cheeks, but we'll have brisket. So every day people come asking for brisket, and then on Saturdays people people come asking for beef cheeks, so you can't win. Can't win with you people.
LF: So walk us through the beef cheeks.
EL: So they come in a big case, we defrost 'em, trim 'em up to a nice, clean size of a fist. Those get seasoned with salt and pepper and they go in the smoker for about four hours. And then they go into a beef fat confit for about four hours. So they stay really juicy, they stay really smoky. And they hold a lot of integrity upon cooling down and reheating in the beef fat.
LF: Are you rendering your own beef fat for this?
EL: Yeah, from the briskets. We trim fat off the brisket, grind it, render it, strain it. And we do the same preparation for the barbacoa, all the pieces we trim off the barbacoa and then do the same thing, put it on the smoker, confit it, and then drain it and shred it.
LF: I'm hungry. What other cuts are you looking to get your hands on for experiments?
EL: More than just cuts, I would say we want to start working … we already do a good amount of full animal butchery, but we want to do more beef butchery. It's much more economical to buy [larger portions of] beef than sub-primals or primals. They're just big, big pieces. Or if I can buy a half steer, we're gonna make a lot more money off of all that meat than we would have if we bought one chuck roll and one brisket and steamship and all this stuff. Hopefully we can do more stuff like that. It'll afford us the opportunity to butcher for barbecue. To start breaking down animals and stop before we get to retail cutting. Essentially just breaking out big muscles, trimming the sinew off of them and seeing how they perform on the pit.
LF: Favorite cookbooks? I saw you mentioned Michael Ruhlman's book Ratio for sausage.
EL: Yeah, absolutely.
LF: I'm a huge fan. Any other cookbooks you love?
EL: One of my favorite ... well, I already talked about the Franklin book [A Meat-Smoking Manifesto], that's great. Michael Ruhlman's Charcuterie is amazing. Honestly, the books I go back to a lot are the Hudson's on the Bend cookbooks. Any time we're looking for something for an event, we just flip through those. You can find them online still. I also just like getting cookbooks from whenever we go to travel, something like that.
LF: Where in the world is big barbecue happening right now?
EL: Oh, man, all over the place. Me and Lindsay went to, where did we go? Went to Costa Rica, and we were driving up to Arenal, and we passed a barbecue place. It's not Texas-style barbecue, but there's live fire, ribs hanging over there, and it was delicious. It's the same as everywhere else, they're just slicing meat, cooking it over fire.
LF: You call your barbecue “new school.” What does that mean to you?
EL: It just means that we don't serve brisket and ribs and sausage every day. That's the point. I was asking myself this question ever since I started working in barbecue. Why is this it? Why does everybody have the same menu? Why is this not a method, and it's a menu instead?
LF: What is the method, in your own take, your own stamp of LeRoy's?
EL: Big cuts of meat cooked over a live fire. It can be direct coals, it can be indirect pit, it can be however you want.
LF: Can I ask what the most rewarding part of all this is?
EL: I think teaching other people. Because they get really, really into it. Obviously I love serving people, I love serving guests. But that's also offset by, you know, you get people who are just not into it, or like barbecue people who are like, well, this isn't this and that. So the guest experience thing is a give and take. Some people are awesome and super appreciative, but then some people are like, “Screw you if you don't have brisket,” or, “This is way too expensive.” Or any other number of complaints that you can field for whatever reason. Teaching people like Ben or Matt or Brad, any of these guys that are just really into it, you can give them an outlet for that creativity and for that excitement.
LF: So, you own a business with your wife. That's awesome, and it is your little family thing. Can you talk about that just a little bit?
EL: A lot of people were really apprehensive when we were saying, not only is it me and my wife, but it's another couple. It's two couples. So that's double the chance of things going wrong in the business or in the relationship, or both at the same time. But honestly, we could not have found a better set of partners. Everybody brings something very different to the table, which is super important. I'm cooking, Lindsay does PR, Sawyer does literally everything else, and Nathan is a really technical mind and brews the beer. And we're a really, really solid team. But I think the most important part is we all have a singular focus, and that's the success of this place. So we're all united under these same ideals of, “We're going to build our own smokers, and we're gonna source sustainably. We're gonna do different, fun, creative stuff. And we’re going to be successful.”
LF: So, last question, wood.
EL: Yeah. We use post oak wood. That's just the classic flavor of Texas barbecue, for me. A lot of people use mesquite in different parts of the state, or red oak or white oak or whatever, but post oak for me is the one true wood.
LF: To rule them all.
LF: What is Texas barbecue? In a definition.
EL: It's a place. It's a meal. It's a culture. It's a community. I guess, summed up all into one, Texas barbecue is a cultural tent pole of the state. Cowboy hats, margaritas...
LF: Post oak.