A BBQ internship

 

As it tends to go with highly controversial people, things have changed since I first wrote this post in late 2012. JMueller BBQ (the scene of my internship) no longer exists, John was ousted overnight amidst allegations of embezzlement, and in fact the original owners went on to open La Barbecue in East Austin. John, has continued on to a new business with new investors, though it seems that trouble has followed, too.

My business is owed money by John Mueller for social media services rendered, a debt which has been outstanding since October 2013 (to be clear, this internship took place well before I was contracted to work for him). In addition to my personal situation, an alarming number of other individuals and businesses have come out of the woodwork, most backed by evidence and legal documents, who are owed by John Mueller what amounts to hundreds of thousands of dollars in debts, loans and outstanding invoices.

These facts, combined with my first hand experiences dealing with John Mueller over the months I worked with him, have led me to conclude that it would be unethical to encourage anyone to patronize his establishment. If you are looking for examples of fine Texas BBQ, please consult this guide.

The core subject of this post, which focused on a day in the life of a pit boss, still remains relevant and the original post appears below.

 

ORIGINAL POST:

There are three things you needed to know about eating at JMueller BBQ:

  1. Do not show up before 10.30am. John will shoo you off the property.
  2. Keep a sense of humor. You may be subjected to surly and grumpy remarks, but don’t take ‘em seriously.
  3. It’s pronounced “Meller” not “Myooller”

So John Mueller. Well, he’s the ornery looking guy on the right.

 

In fact, that Texas Monthly article tells his tale very well, so I’m not about to try and re-write his rather epic life story. Let me just attempt to break it down:

John hails from the legendary Louie Mueller BBQ family of Taylor, TX. He still lives out there and commutes one hour each way to Austin every day. Anyway, as a third generation BBQ-er John was at the top of his game, having inherited control of the pits from his father, Bobby.

The next portion of his life is the subject of much conjecture and dispute, as told by many different players in the saga, so let’s just focus on the BBQ.

What can you expect from BBQ at JMueller? You can expect to be given a moist nugget of brisket with a thick black crust as a taste test sampler as you step up to order. You can expect John himself to hand you a cold Lone Star on the house as you wait in line. You can expect a selection of pork ribs, beef ribs, sliced pork, brisket (moist & lean), turkey and house-made smoked sausage; plus four killer side dishes.

At JMueller BBQ, the working day starts at 3.30am, when the fires are lit in the firebox to the right of the enormous pit, a repurposed propane tank custom built to John’s specifications. The fire is started using the grease-soaked butcher paper from the previous day’s BBQ, and burns with regular ol’ Post Oak wood.

cans full of ash from the previous day’s fires

I arrived at 4.30 am (2 minutes late, if you ask John) with my friend Cole who helped capture my experience via some awesome pics. The lot was eerily quiet in the early morning dark, though the bbq sauce was already simmering on the stove and a gentle smokey smell was rising from the pit.

the fire, the pit, the trailer, the cook

No time to mess about, we had meat that needed seasoning. John uses a pretty basic rub of salt and coarse black pepper, plus one other secret ingredient which I promised to keep a secret (note: secret ingredient was not unicorn farts, much to my disappointment). All of the meats at JMueller get seasoned with this rub, the brisket a little more heavily than the others. The pork ribs also get a special marinade glaze towards the end of cooking. Time to rub em down!


Pro-tip: rubbing down 40 odd brisket and several racks of ribs with large grains of salt leaves you with softest hands ever! I’m seeing an opportunity here for someone to launch a Texas style manicure.

John had already gotten to work on the beef ribs, and had em up in the pit closest to the firebox, aka the hottest part. Each different type of meat had its own place in the pit according to the heat and cooking time required.

beef ribs placed in the smoker

pork ribs are placed in the pit, next to the now seared beef ribs.

Oh, here’s the really crazy part: there is no temperature gauge or thermometer in sight. John cooks by intuition and experience. He knows simply from years of practice how hot each part of the mammoth pit is, and the temperature of the fire just by reading the color of the flame. So if you think I got some great tips on how long to cook something and at what temp, you’re shit outta luck. But watching someone cook by pure instinct was more educational than any recipe could have been.

Right! Time to head into the trailer and prep the sides. The huge pot of BBQ sauce is covered with foil as it gently simmers. JMueller’s BBQ sauce is very different to most you have tried – it’s served warm and isn’t blended together, so you’re served a rich, thin red gravy swimming around chunks of vegetables and other aromatics.

trailer interior

 

There are four sides on offer, all made fresh daily: chipotle coleslaw, potato salad, pinto beans and baked squash. The baked squash is a signature dish round these parts, a kinda of low-carb mac and cheese. Yellow squash are slow cooked with seasoning and lots of melty gooey cheese until they become a casserole of comfort. My personal favourite of all the sides is the potato salad, mashed fine with lots of mustard and pickles. It’s so good, I recommend upgrading to a pint, rather than a cup.

 

potatoes about to be smooshed

the makings of some crazy tasty beans

After the sides are prepped, it’s time to go and check on the meat. You’ve seen those large insulated rubber gloves? Or those super long BBQ tongs? Yeah apparently they’re for pussies. When you’ve been doing this a while, and your hands have grown a natural asbestos coating, you need only reach into a hot metal pit to pick up searing meat with a small rag. Like this man.

Yup – all the meat in the pit is moved around with just the help of that little towel. Badass. The sun had risen and the lot was bathed in that fabulous Texan early morning magic light.

Good news, the beef ribs were just about ready. One of the most seriously underestimated items on a BBQ menu, beef ribs are where it’s at. IMHO, beef tallow/fat has so much more intense flavour than the fat around pork ribs. So opening the pit and smelling them was completely drool worthy. Look at that crust!

I asked him how he knew the briskets were ready. “You know how you tell?” he said, and then jammed his thumb straight into one. “Dang, that’s hot”, John muttered. “My dad taught me that. If your brisket is ready, you should be able to get your thumb in there with no resistance. If you can’t, it’s not ready. Simple, really”.

Now it was time to hang the all-beef sausages in the little smoke box built beneath the smokestack outlet of the pit (clever, right?).

We had just about enough time to set up the tables with hot sauce and paper towels before the first customers started appearing. So why exactly does John chase people off the lot before 10.30? “I want there to be equality when you come eat my food. If I let people line up for hours beforehand, it’s not fair to the people who don’t have the time to get here at 7am to stand in line. So you get here at 10.30 like everyone else, and it’s first come, first served. That’s fair”, he says.

And so, in I went to the trailer to work as part of the team taking orders for the day.

pretending im working hard

nearly finished serving the huge line!

You won’t see John when you get to the window to order – he rarely does the cutting anymore these days. Though he is notorious for his grumpy attitude (which is largely in jest and is part of his unique brand of customer service), the main reason you won’t see him cutting the meat is that he is too efficient. “If i were up there cutting”, he says, “we’d be sold out by 11am every day. I just get through to line too quickly”. So instead, he busies himself running the meat from the pit up to the trailer as needed.

Finally around 1.30pm, the line was down to a few bodies and most of the meat was sold out. Once the last customer is served, the entire trailer gets cleaned down and packed up, and the work day usually wraps up around 3pm. And in about 12 hours time, John gets to do it all over again.

I went home and barely managed to shower the grease off before I collapsed onto my bed, exhausted. When I eventually woke up, still incredibly groggy, I wondered how many years it took for John to get used to working such long and intense days. I shrugged my shoulders and reheated my dinner in the oven. A beef rib. Reward for a job well done.

So what exactly did I learn from my amazing opportunity? Well, aside from the brisket ready thumb-test and a few secret recipes for sides, I learned that to BBQ for a living, you have to love it. There is no glory in getting up at 2.30am to spend the day sweating and overheating in front of a huge pit. Nor is there a huge monetary reward. Public demand for your product has you working all but 4 days a year. It’s a largely thankless task with few people actually realising the sacrifice and sheer physical work that goes into it.

 

I was also lucky enough to be thrown a goodbye party, hosted by JMueller BBQ. My friends at Tito’s Vodka (an Austin icon) and Austin Beerworks also came to the party supplying the fun alcoholic beverages. The only thing better than finally being allowed to cut the brisket myself, was the most excellent Texas flag cake given to me by my gorgeous friend Olivia from Sugar Mama’s Bakeshop.

cutting the meat – photo by Lance Rosenfield

Myself, John and my Sugar Mama’s cake! :)

 

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Posted on Oct 17, 2012

14 Comments

  1. BBQforChrist says:

    Jess,
    Worth the wait. Tremendous insight into why it is a continuing dynasty. Great approach avoiding the tacky details of familial conflict. Your narrative is clean and leaves the reader wanting more. The occasional vulgarity is in keeping with our secular society and I won’t get “holier than thou” about it. And, yes, I was hoping for clues about his techniques to improve my talents. I know I “give mine away” to the homeless and to church sponsored events but I still quest to make it as good as I can. Just because someone is on the streets and hungry should not be a reason to deny them a taste of good BBQ. I looked at the rub one day when I was there late and they were prepping for the next day. The third ingredient is garlic powder, not granulated. I have used those three ingredients for quite awhile and, like you, love the beef ribs. I am getting closer. Your good friend, Dennis.

    • BurgerMary says:

      Thanks Dennis! And sorry for the cussing :) I can neither confirm nor deny the third ingredient – im sworn to secrecy! I think at the end of the day, the real clue is just to keep practicing. Having been round BBQ since the age of 6 is a big part of what makes John so talented. Best of luck in continuing your excellent work!

  2. Awesome post, Jess!! I wish I had been there to see you work your magic! Enjoyed your write up & shared it with the parents!! xo

  3. Cole says:

    Awesome wrap-up. Thanks again for letting me tag along. Getting up at 4:00 in the morning really sucks, but it was a really fun day!

  4. TequilaBob23 says:

    Great write-up and glad I got a chance to visit that day and meet you. What a great way to spend a day doing something you love with a true master of the craft.

  5. jwind says:

    funny how life’s best experiences aren’t the ones that pay or the ones you have to pay for…instead they’re doing things you love and…..nothing more gratifying than working your butt off but having something awesome to show for it (like beef ribs)….you’re lucky to have such an awesome teacher

    enjoy your blog

  6. Bubba says:

    Fantastic article but sad to read that “unicorn farts” are not part of John’s rub as I had saved some of the “unicorn farts” from my stoner days and now they aren’t worth a “popcorn fart”.
    I don’t know if I wanna stick my thumb in a hot brisket (190F-200F) to insure it’s done but if that’s good enough for John and I’m gonna take you for your word…it’s good nuff for me.
    I’ll be looking forward to reading your next blog.

    Bubba

  7. Amy Lynn says:

    REALLY great blog posting. We are die hard fans, and it was awesome to see what goes down early in the morning :-) Lucky you getting a party at the best BBQ spot in the world!

  8. Neil says:

    I’m not jealous, not a bit. Oww! My nose just hit my keyboard.

  9. koverholt says:

    Epic post! Thanks for sharing such an awesome experience and equally amazing pictures. You’ve given insight to the rest of us into what it is to truly love the passion of TX BBQ. I was drooling and hanging on every word. Kudos!

  10. smokinronnie says:

    Putting all this in perspective, you do realize that most, including myself, would have gladly PAID DOUBLE or TRIPLE whatever you are owed to have been lucky enough to stand next to John while he cooks.

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