Twenty six year old Leonard Botello represents a new type of pit master. While culinary skills were honed at his family’s restaurant, he wasn’t born into a famous barbecue family. He didn’t learn his smoking skills under the tutelage of an old master or even work at one of the legendary barbecue joints. In fact, while he respects and has visited the old favorites, he idolizes a younger generation of pit masters, such as Aaron Franklin and John Lewis.
Below is my interview with him in March of 2016.
Bryan – Based on your choice of meat suppliers, you didn’t just fall into this, did you?
Leonard Botello – I did all the research, you, Pit Quest, Smoking Ho, I look at all that stuff. I watch all the videos about everyone. People ask me how I learned to cook barbecue and I say I learned it from the internet. You can find anything on the internet these days.
Bryan – where did the name come from?
LB – Staying true to Texas barbecue; a stick burner, no propane, no gas, charcoal or anything like that and everything from scratch.
Bryan – So what is your culinary background?
LB – My father and mother have been in the restaurant business for thirty six years. About a year and a half ago some guy out of California came in looking to buy. We weren’t looking to sell but my dad had just got diagnosed with diabetes and decided it would be a good time to retire. After about two weeks of watching Netflix he’d had enough, he was bored out of his mind.
A funny story, the first week that we had this (Truth BBQ) He was walking down here on the grass and rolled his ankle. He ripped all the tendons; broke it. That was in late August 2015. We did some stuff out at Antique Week (more info http://www.antiqueweekend.com/indexmain.html )and he didn’t stay off of it long enough. After that he went back to the doctor and it was worse than what it was originally so he had to have another surgery over Christmas break. That’s why we were closed for almost a month. He’s a busy body and likes to be around.
I just enjoy food. What got me started in barbecue? Well it’s a gold rush, everybody wants to go eat barbecue. I don’t know why now because it’s been around for ages but I think it’s awesome there are people standing in line and they don’t care about the line, they just want to get it.
You see that for Beatles or Stones tickets. They don’t care. These people are waiting three or four hours at Franklin, for food. Unless there’s unicorn meat in it I don’t know.
Bryan – There may not be all that many secrets in barbecue but it still takes pride and effort to turn out a good product.
LB – Oh yeah, it’s a labor of love. I was out here night before last at 4am and was pissed off because it was pouring down rain. I don’t have a cover between the pit and the restaurant and I had to go put wood on the fire. It’s a labor of love; I love the way (the food) looks when its on the plate. I love lean brisket but I love the way marbled looks and I love the way it tastes, its where all the flavor comes from. Beef ribs are easy to cook and they’re beautiful. I want to give people stuff where they go “aw man, what’s going on here”
Bryan – You’ve got a wide array of sides, was there any that were brought from the old restaurant?
LB – The cakes. We’re going through cakes here like crazy. I don’t know what it is, but people see those cakes and go “whoa”, but I’ve seen them all my life.
Bryan – What are those, like 10-12 inches tall?
LB – Yeah people get excited about it. As for the sides, I want people to do the same. I wanted to go above and beyond. You go to some places and they have good ribs, good brisket, but its hit or miss on some things.
Bryan – As far as the recipes for the sides, how did they come about?
LB – Dad likes to wing it sometimes, he’s got a palette on him you know, he can say “it needs a pinch more of this” and it works out. You know there are a lot of people who don’t like collard greens and I’ll give a sample if someone isn’t sure. It’s doing so well some people are ordering quarts at a time, sometimes that’s all they’re getting!
Bryan – I noticed you’re doing your own sausage. What drove you to make your own rather than to outsource it?
LB – It’s the above and beyond thing, it’s like a sport. So and so is up there so what can we do to be better than them, you know. It’s fun tweaking things. I’m still tweaking things now. I stay up at night thinking “what can I fix?” My friends are like “you don’t need to do anything to it, stop messing with it.” But there’s got to be more to it than this.
Bryan – Your ribs are a little more sweet than some
LB – I went with that because that’s what the people like up here. I started with baby backs and spare ribs. First with salt and pepper and then tweaked it.
Bryan – Anything you want to say?
LB – The hardest thing is pork ribs. There is like a 10 minute window when you have to have the right pull. A lot of people don’t know about that and that’s what I’m getting worried about back there, that it will pull too much or fall off the bone. We have it down by feel now.
Bryan – For brisket you’re using Master Chef Prime from Creekstone, a higher end cut more intended for competition cook offs than a restaurant, what possessed you to do that?
LB – I want to get to that point where people have an “oh shit” moment. If I keep using it, someone’s going to hear about it.
I love the quality of that product. Right now I’m at that spot where I want people to hear about me. I want to give people the quality they’re paying for. I’m just trying to get the word out.
If I was in Austin or Houston I’d be charging 20 or more a pound for that product but out here it’s harder. There’s so much traffic come through here now from out of town, they are hearing about it
Bryan – Earlier while I was eating I was listening to the positive comments from customers as they came through, for the locals did it take them some time to get used to this style of brisket? Usually it’s the moist that gives them the most trouble.
LB – Some don’t like the moist and what hurts me the most is when they ask me to trim off all the fat. I’m like “oh my god I don’t want to do that. I trim them before, I go through two hours of trimming before I load up the pit and you want me to cut it all of now?” It’s so beautiful, (the brisket) is the way I want it.
We’ve sold out every day we’ve been open. I’ve worked my way up in volume and we’re about twenty-something briskets a day. Everything’s about social media today. If It doesn’t look the way I want it to be I’ll throw it in the trash or find another use for it.
Bryan – that’s an excellent point and something that I’ve spoken with @HoustonFed and Scott (@TxArch) about, in today’s world with social media pictures of your food are advertising. HoustonFed went to a hot dog spot today and they proactively made him another entrée because it “didn’t look pretty”. In the barbecue world, as one example the Buckman’s at Corkscrew plate up their food really well.
LB – Yeah definitely.
Bryan – We think that’s important now because everybody’s taking a picture of their food and sharing it.
LB – Yeah, more people are sharing it, reading about it. I was at South Congress hotel two weeks ago and ordered some bone marrow. I had to take a picture of it, it was beautiful. That’s what I want to do with my food every time. It frustrates my mom, when she sees me and asks “what are you going to do with that” and I tell her I’m not using it. She yells at me “don’t do anything I’ll keep it”. We’ll use that brisket in the pinto beans and pork ribs in the baked beans. I want everything that goes out on the plate to be like “man I want to take a picture of it.” Everyone’s on social media these days and there’s always someone watching you.
Bryan – It’s smart to see what other people are doing, too. It’s not about copying each other but seeing what sells and what the trends are.
LB – I’m always looking at the blogs, Twitter, Instagram. I respect good barbecue. I like la Barbecue, I love Snow’s, and John Lewis. I’m always trying to figure out what the other guys are doing; what are they doing different. It’s that sport and the challenge.
Bryan – What you’re cooking here I call Central Texas Style. What wood are you using?
LB – Post oak, that’s another central Texas thing. I’ve tried everything but we cook those briskets 12-16 hours and when it’s on for that long, that’s the most mild wood. It won’t overkill the smoke flavor. Don’t get me wrong, I love mesquite wood and I love it on a steak but when you’re cooking for this long it’s too much.
Bryan – Tell me about the pit, the previous joint here had some rectangle flat top pits I think
LB – I was thinking about getting a custom pit built but hadn’t decided and wasn’t sure how I’d want it built. I was also searching through craigslist, all over the U.S. and one day this ad pops up for a 22 or 23 foot Klose pit in Cleveland, Ohio. I was like “this must be Spam, why would that pit be all the way up there” My dad has wanted one of those pits since before I was born, it’s quality stuff, the steel’s thick and heavy.
I messaged the owner and asked what they were looking to get for the pit. I know they aren’t cheap but I figure I’ll try it and she what she says. She said “what can you give me for it” She said her husband had just passed away and it had been sitting around for five years. It had only been used seven times. She said “how about $4,700?” I packed my stuff and texted her when I was on my way, I said “I’ll be there in two days.” When I saw it that was a moment. I said to myself “alright, we’re doing this”. Two days later I was hauling it back to Texas. I had two blowouts on the way back. It was in pristine condition, I mean there was a little rust but I hit it with a wire wheel.
I took it to Klose pits and they offered to buy it on the spot. It’s a great pit, but I know what I need now.
Bryan – You’ve been open about five months. What have you learned during that time?
LB – I’ve tweaked the rub a bit. I use three different kinds of pepper, a fine layer on bottom then coarser on top. It give a really good bark. Other than that I haven’t had to change much. I came to Brenham to set the bar higher, just like Franklin did in Austin. The locals are getting it. We made 11th on a buzzfeed list of Texas barbecue http://www.buzzfeed.com/farrahpenn/best-bbq-places-in-texas#.mcJev99BX , I don’t know how that even works. I’m looking for Texas Monthly and you guys to come out here, because you guys know barbecue.
Bryan – I have to say I was shocked when I stopped in. I didn’t have high expectations, nothing against you, but I’ve been burned just trying random places.
LB – Before we opened up we tried to hit as many places as we could and you know how that can turn out.
What I do is fire up this pit on Thursday and it will not die until Sunday afternoon. I don’t reheat anything. You don’t go to a steak restaurant and they pull you out a reheated steak, it’s the same thing. Now I don’t have enough room on my pit. I need a bigger pit, but it’s been great.
My buddy and I, we went to high school together, then we went to A&M together. He’s working on his masters in Houston. He’s been a huge help. He comes up here and helps me cook at night. He’s like me now, he’s looking at all these blogs, all these pictures for barbecue research. I don’t think his parents know what he’s doing on the weekend. He’s cooking his ass off. He’s helping me, he doesn’t thinks he has it down but that kid can cook a brisket. My little brother Brandon, he’s 17 and helping me out here. He knows everything, I don’t know how. I’ve walked him through it and he’s memorized it.
Bryan – he has the patience for it?
LB – Yeah. He’s come up here and helped me on the weekends. He had spring break last week and brought his xbox up here. If I can get a couple hours sleep while he’s watching the pit that’s great. He knows what a done brisket feels like and he’ll tell me “hey, this is done” without sticking a thermometer in.
Bryan – what’s your goal here long term?
LB – My father sold our restaurant and we picked up a 1965 Airstream. We were going to set up shop in either Austin or Houston. I said you know what, I’m not going to go into Austin, I’m not going to go into Franklin’s territory. I thought about Houston but then I watched a Franklin video on YouTube and he said “do it in a small town and let them hear about you” and I sat and thought about that for three months. Then this location went up for sale. I said you know what, kind of like a Field of Dreams kind of thing, if you build it and you can cook it, they’ll show up. We didn’t do any advertising or anything like that. I just thought it would be crazy if that could happen, and it’s kind of happened.
I started with a Facebook page and it was really hard coming into a place that was already a barbecue restaurant. The previous guys would cook on open coals and direct heat and would crank them out in four or five hours, and that’s what the people were expecting when I got here. It was hard to change them over at first. When they first came in they didn’t want brisket, they wanted pork but I would give them a sample of brisket from an end piece off the fatty side and now the pork is usually the last to sell out, everybody wants brisket now.
I had somebody come in last week, someone from San Marcos. I was down to the last of the brisket, about two pounds left, and he called ahead and I said I would hold it for them. I had someone come in like fifteen minutes later and they asked if we had any barbecue left. I had to tell them I was wiped out, and was holding this for someone from on their way. She asked if I was sure they were coming and offered to buy it. That’s what I like about barbecue now, how crazy it’s gotten, I mean what has gotten into these people?