John Lewis—who made his name at Franklin Barbecue and La Barbecue, in Austin, Texas—opened Lewis Barbecue, the joint of his dreams, in Charleston, South Carolina, last June. Here’s the path that took him there. —Lucas Turner
I grew up in El Paso, Texas, and moved to Austin when I was eighteen. In Austin, barbecue joints are like Starbucks or McDonald’s—they’re on every corner. That’s when I fell in love with central Texas barbecue. That’s also the same year my parents gave me a crappy smoker from Home Depot for my birthday. And every day I had off after that I was in the backyard trying to make brisket and ribs, trying to re-create what I was eating at the barbecue joints.
Then, when I was twenty-six, I moved to Denver, where there was absolutely no barbecue, so I started making it in my backyard. When you’re smoking all that meat, you need someone to eat it, so I invited people over. The parties started getting bigger and bigger, and I thought I might be onto something. After three years, I was ready to move back to Austin, and my buddy Aaron Franklin was opening Franklin Barbecue, so I started helping him out.
Barbecue turns into an obsession because it’s never perfect. For a long time, I was fixated on finding the ideal seasoning for the meat. I was making rubs with chili powders and cumin and ground celery seed. Nothing was working. I couldn’t get a good bark (the flavorful exterior shell that separates good barbecue from great barbecue).
My epiphany came in 2005 at Snow’s BBQ, which Texas Monthly eventually dubbed the very best barbecue joint in all of Texas. It was the best brisket I had ever had. When I was standing in line for the bathroom, I noticed tubs and tubs of seasoned salt. That’s all they were using! The next time I made brisket, I rubbed it with Lawry’s Seasoned Salt and black pepper, and I was like, That’s it. Now I know: when it comes to barbecue, simpler is always better.
That applies to your cookers too. One of my favorite pits, outside of propane tanks, is made out of trash cans. But there’s not one smoker that works great for everything. If you’re doing chicken or pork loin or beef rib roast, you want something that’s more like an oven. With brisket, you want something with an incredible amount of air moving through it.
I went to Charleston for an event last summer, and I fell in love with it. I knew I wanted to live there and I wanted to make barbecue, but there have been a few challenges in opening Lewis Barbecue. Sourcing the wood has been difficult. Wood is very, very dense in South Carolina, which makes it harder to burn. The oak in Texas is not as tight grained; it burns more readily, and cleaner, too. After eight months, I found a source of perfect wood. Staffing’s another one. It’s hard to find staff in Charleston. There are more restaurants and more service-industry people needed than are available.
Know this: if you’re planning to get into barbecue, it’s not what TV makes it look like. It’s hard-ass work. I’ve worked in all kinds of kitchens, and it’s way harder than any fine-dining restaurant. You sleep less, and you live in the pit. It takes eighteen hours to make a brisket. And when it comes off, you’ve got to load the pit up with all the other proteins. You’re breathing smoke all day long. Your arms are getting burned.
Challenges aside, this is my dream barbecue joint. Everything functions around these pits, and you can see them everywhere. There’s no chicken wire, no corrugated tin roofing. Real places look like that because they’ve been there forever—when you try to re-create that, it’s fake. Since I’m basically living here, I needed to make it a space that I enjoy living in.