Owner/Pitmaster: Buzzie’s Bar-B-Q, opened 1993 (current location since 1997)
Smoker: Wood-fired smoker
Wood: Live Oak
I had just started a phone conversation with Harold “Buzzie” Hughes. “Let her rip potato chip” was his way of getting our interview kicked off. Buzzie is a man of steadfast opinions on smoked meats. “Cheap barbecue’s not good, and good barbecue’s not cheap.” And on the experience required to cook brisket: “Barbecue is like wine. You don’t pull a brisket before its time.” Perhaps these great one-liners were part of what landed him a spot on BBQ Pitmasters in Season 4 where he beat out Will Fleischman of Lockhart Smokehouse in Dallas and Ernest Servantes of Burnt Bean Co. BBQ in New Braunfels. His brisket and cowboy steak made him the Texas champion on the show.
Nowadays he’s just looking to be the best in the eyes of his regulars – the residents of tiny Kerr County. He loved his small hometown so much that he moved back, and he brought his barbecue with him. With his Top 50 spot in 2013 he’s now made the list twice in a row, and he’s not looking for that to change.
Daniel Vaughn: When did you start your life in barbecue?
Buzzie Hughes: I got started in barbecue when I was about eight years old grilling hot dogs and hamburgers. We cooked outside a lot in the weekends. I’ve been barbecuing since about 1965. I just burned a lot of meat and figured it out from there.
DV: Do you call hamburgers and hot dogs “barbecue?”
BH: Well yeah, when you grill them on an open flame. I guess that’s pretty much barbecue, huh?
DV: I guess. Where were you cooking in those early days?
BH: I grew up here in Kerrville. We’d barbecue down by the river, and in the backyard. It’s been a hobby.
DV: When did barbecue go from being a hobby into being a business?
BH: I had a full time job with Monsanto in Austin. I was working for Fisher-Rosemount. I barbecued on the weekends, and everybody I worked with would come over to my house on weekends. Every weekend we were barbecuing and my wife finally said “Hey man, give it up. It’s getting too expensive. Open a restaurant.” So I did.
DV: So you quit a good job in Austin and moved backed to Kerrville to open a barbecue joint?
BH: That’s pretty much how it was. My first store was actually in Comfort. That was in 1993. Then I opened one three or four years later in Kerrville.
DV: Moving to Comfort sound like quite a leap of faith.
BH: Yep. I left a good job and didn’t know what was gonna happen. We went for broke.
DV: It seems to have worked out alright.
BH: It did. It got us to Kerrville. There were more people in Kerrville, so we gradually migrated over here. Comfort is a really small town. We did well there, but then we had a fire here in Kerrville on June 7, 2008. I got financing to remodel here. We re-opened then closed the Comfort store in 2009.
DV: How did the fire start?
BH: The pit. We had about four catering gigs going on, and we had a light crew here. The pit was really full of grease drippings. My youngest son Tyler, Little Buzzie, was putting briskets on. He went into the walk-in to get briskets then went outside to put them on. When he walked out there we already had a fire. I was in Hondo, Texas when he called me and said “dad, the restaurant is on fire.” Talk about nuttin’ up. Get everybody outside, get the money, and run.
DV: Was it a total loss?
BH: No. It burned the pit room and part of the kitchen. It was a blessing in disguise. We saved the building, but gutted it and remodeled it. We made one big and better place.
DV: Did you change anything else about the place during the remodel? Did the menu change?
BH: No. Everything is still the same. My menu is still the same. We do simple Texas barbecue – beans, potato salad, and cole slaw. Even the prices haven’t changed.
DV: The prices are still the same?
BH: Yeah. Now with beef prices the way they are, I don’t know what I’m gonna do. It’s scary now. I’m in a small community. I live on repeat business, so I’m not just here to take your money.
DV: Is the new pit room that you built set away from the building now?
BH: We had to put fire brick and stuff in there now instead of wood. When brought the store up to code. We had to upgrade.
DV: Have you always cooked with live oak?
BH: Yes. I like to use different woods on different meats at home, but at the restaurant I use only oak. Its just more abundant here. Mesquite is good too, but what I do here for my Kerr County customers is just dried up oak that they seem to like.
DV: You only use the dry stuff?
BH: Yep. At least two years. I like it where it’s gray and the bark is coming off.
DV: How hot is the fire in your smoker?
BH: When I cook my briskets I run it up to 350, then as it cooks the coals die to down to 225 or 200. I cook fat side up, and I like to sear the fat on top so all my juices stay in. I don’t poke it with a fork or anything. It’s all touch, sight, and smell. When they’re ready they’ve got a certain smell to them.
DV: It’s all about the smell, eh?
BH: Yeah. You’ve got to adjust your temperature to get you meat done. If it’s a colder or wet day you have to run things a little hotter, but then I’m still in training.
DV: Is there anything that you cook that you consider a specialty?
BH: I try to do it all. I’m not afraid to cook any kind of meat. I cook all kinds of exotic meats for the game ranches around here. I can look at the piece of meat and know how to cook it. Game meats are lean so you don’t want to dry them out, but I don’t inject or use a sop. I use just a dry rub and some moisture in the pit.
DV: What kind of exotic game out there is common?
BH: Axis deer, buffalo, scimitar oryx, elk…a lot of people kill eland, but they’re as big as a cow. They weigh about 2000 pounds. It’s a red meat kinda like beef. It’s a different taste. Part of it is that people kill these big old deer for the trophy and they’re real gamey. If you want to eat exotic game then you want the younger ones. You don’t want a four hundred pound wild hog with grinders and tusks. You want one that’s about sixty pounds. It’s like cattle. You don’t want to butcher the big old bull because you wouldn’t want to eat it.
DV: Do the game ranches ask you to come out and cook, or do they bring it to the restaurant to cook?
BH: A lot of them bring it to me, especially around the holidays.
DV: Do you hunt?
BH: I do when I get a chance. I hunt for meat and make jerky and sausage for our own personal use. We come from a long line of Germans that did it that way. People are still old school around here. There are still lots of folks who butcher their own calves and hogs. They process their own meat to save money.
DV: I read an old story about somebody breaking into your place to make a sandwich.
BH: The guy was kicked off the bus. He pried my door open. He had good taste, but he didn’t have good sense. It was a bad day for him.
DV: How was your experience on the show BBQ Pitmasters?
BH: That was a really exciting thing, and it increased business from all over the country.
DV: You did Texas proud on that show. It wasn’t about injections and phosphates and foil.
BH: It all falls back to the old school – low fire, low heat, long cooking times. If you’ve got a good piece of meat and then you squirt it and juice it all up, what are you tasting? What’s a barbecue competition if you can’t taste the meat?
DV: How were you chosen for the show?
BH: They contacted me and we filled out an application. They accepted us and we went up there and had a really good time. It was stressful, but fun. I brought enough wood to cook for a month, but I didn’t want to be caught with my pants down. Then you open a mystery box and you don’t know what’s in there. It’s like walking in a cave without a flashlight.
DV: I think you did just fine.
BH: Well, I tried to represent the Hill Country well. I’d never been on T.V. so I was a nervous as a three-legged cat in a sandbox.
DV: You had a lot less pressure the last time I saw you at the Texas Monthly BBQ Festival.
BH: Yes. That was a lot of fun. The camaraderie there is great. Everybody’s got their own little knack. I had the best time. I still keep up with them. They come by here and chat with me. Gaylan from Big Boys BBQ was just in here last week. I’m looking forward to the Red Dirt Fest this weekend too. Being able to hang with these guys means more than anything. I never anticipated this. It’s a passion that grew into a full time deal.
DV: Are we going to see you back at the Texas Monthly BBQ Festival this year?
BH: You’re darn right. I’ve already got my paperwork filled out, brother.