Austin high schoolers build own pit after touring Franklin Barbecue

Austin

AUSTIN (KXAN) — The school year may be over for Austin ISD students, but a group at Lanier High School is still cooking up what could be called classwork.

The group is the school’s barbecue team, and Thursday the students — many of whom have already graduated — smoked briskets, pork and ribs to prepare for an event they were commissioned to cater at a local union hall on Friday.

Set up outside the back of their high school, the budding pitmasters stoked a pit they designed and built themselves from the ground up from two propane tanks they mounted on a trailer. It was a class project they finished in May as part of their welding course.

“This one is built very similar to what Aaron Franklin does,” said Tracey Cortez, the agriculture science teacher at Lanier.

That’s because the famous Austin restauranteur and pitmaster met with some of the students at the start of the school year and gave them a tour of his smokehouse. He also gave them a big tray of free barbecue.

“It was kind of fun skipping the whole line and just go straight to his kitchen,” Felipe Martinez said. 

He graduated this spring and is one the founding members of Lanier’s barbecue team. Not only did Franklin show them around, he answered their questions about hit pits and cooking process for a couple hours straight.

“That just basically inspired us even more to build our own pits,” Martinez said.

So they did. 

Satrting with a couple donated propane tanks, the students welded fire boxes made from another tank on one end and smokestacks on the other. On top the students even attached horseshoes as door stops, the same as the ones Franklin uses on his homemade pits. The pair of pits were then mounted onto a trailer.

“I think they nailed it,” Franklin said. “Looks like something that we would have built.”

Franklin told KXAN he was happy to show the students around his restaurant and teach what he could about building and using barbecue pits. 

“Tracey from Lanier, he just emailed and was like, ‘Hey, I got this class. We’re learning how to weld,'” he said. “I’m like, ‘Yeah, bring them over!'”

Cortez, the kids’ teacher, said he was inspired to reach out because like agriculture teachers across the country, he tries to find local experts and resources to help his students learn more hands-on.

“That was probably one of the best resources locally that you could have,” he said.

The barbecue team was so inspired, they even redesigned their team logo to resemble Franklin Barbecue’s, complete with script lettering at the top, a flame to dot the “i” in “Lanier,” and “barbecue team” in block letters below.

After the visit, the students got to work, building for the entire school year and finishing just in time to take the mobile pit to Burnet High School and the third annual State of Texas High School Barbecue Cook Off.

They didn’t have time to get used to the new cooker before they took it to the contest two days later. “We just had a dry run-through and hoped for the best,” Martinez said, “and we got pretty good.”

That competition, on May 5, featured 42 teams from across the state, said Mike Erickson, the culinary arts teacher at Burnet. Lanier placed 10th overall, a big improvement from the year before. The new pit also won them third in the welding category among the teams that built their own pits.

The students didn’t get to finish another project they started over the last school year, a replica of Franklin’s rotisserie barbecue pit. Next year’s class will complete it and get it cooking. 

Meanwhile, the graduates will keep cooking and keep improving. Martinez said they’ve cooked up a few batches of “restaurant-quality” brisket already. He doesn’t expect to have the line that Franklin has, at least not yet.

“Since he has done this for years, his is still better than ours,” he said. “But we’ll get there.”

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