When I first met Burt Bakman, I was in the middle of explaining my theory that you should only eat a place’s signature food in that place, because anywhere else, you were destined for disappointment. “And that,” I said smugly, “is why I only eat brisket in Austin.”
I turned to the guy who had just sat down. “What’s your name?”
“Julie, that’s Burt.”
So, I had just told the star chef of the Los Angeles barbecue scene — the one who, before he went legit and opened his own restaurant, had thousands of people sliding into his DMs every week trying to get brisket from his secret, moving kitchen — that I thought his food was going to be shit.
Even worse: I should have seen it coming. I was at BBQ Bootcamp, a three-day class at Alisal Guest Ranch in Solvang, learning grilling techniques from some of California’s top barbecue chefs. The woman who made that introduction was Valerie Gordon of Valerie Confections, who is on the forefront of grilled desserts. (The next day, she made a grilled sticky toffee pudding that I’m still thinking about.) So, to say that I should have shut my goddamn mouth about my brisket opinions — me, who later told a man holding a Fred Flintstone-sized bone-in tomahawk steak that my favorite fast food burger is from Veggie Grill — is an understatement.
Luckily, Bakman turned out to be even more into Austin brisket than I am. After all, it was a plate of barbecue in that city that started everything. “I went to Texas for a work conference,” he said. “I went to get some barbecue, and I never went to the conference. I just kept eating. I came back to LA and I thought I would make some barbecue.” (The fateful meal was at Iron Works, if you’re curious, though my own was at Micklethwait Craft Meats).
Bakman bought a smoker, put it in his Studio City backyard, and started offering brisket to friends. “As time went by, a friend would bring a friend,” he said. “Over time, there was so much demand and so many requests that I couldn’t stop.” The hobby became Trudy’s Underground Barbecue, named after a friend’s mom who would cook brisket when she came to visit. People would line up in Bakman’s driveway to get some of his completely unlicensed, uninspected, unbelievably good brisket. It turned into the worst-kept secret in town. “The backyard really turned into something amazing. It got to the point where my friends were telling me about this illegal underground barbecue in our neighborhood, and that we had to find the guy. It was me.”
Celebrities started showing up, as did invites to cater certain NDA-required events that Bakman, frustratingly, will not disclose in anything but vague terms. (But when I joked about how it was Kanye’s church, he didn’t, like, completely say no.) Dave Grohl, in a recent Bon Appetit Foodcast about his own love of barbecuing, called Trudy’s “the barbecue Cinderella story here in the San Fernando Valley.”
“You need to talk to Burt,” Grohl said. “This guy is a fucking badass.”
Eventually, the authorities caught on, and the logistics became harder to manage. The only way to get in, or to find out the changing location, was via Instagram direct message. People complained that it was becoming too exclusive. Really, Bakman says, he was just trying not to get caught.
The next time I met Burt Bakman, it was Slab, the restaurant he opened late last year on the Beverly Grove/West Hollywood line, with the help of some investors who were enthusiastic about his food. The place goes through 30 briskets a day, and that’s in addition to the pulled pork, three kinds of ribs and smoked chicken on the menu. (Whatever you do, do not skip the Frito Pie. I know I haven’t given you a lot of reason to trust my opinions on food, but it’s Bakman’s favorite thing on the menu, too, so that should tell you something.)
He was fresh off of a weekend at Eeeeeatscon, where he served 600 pounds of meat in two days. Bakman was on-site in Santa Monica smoking briskets basically all night for the previous two nights. After the meat spends half a calendar day in the smoker, it has to sit for nearly the same amount of time to allow for a better distribution of juices. “Brisket is a commitment,” he said. “It really is about 15 hours. You have to work for it.”
Bakman basically just uses seasoned salt and pepper on his brisket, in the classic Central Texas style. For him, it isn’t about some secret recipe. It’s about craftsmanship. About perfectly prepared meat, smoked at an excruciatingly slow pace, over a fire that’s precisely structured and tended to every couple of hours, even throughout the night. At his BBQ Bootcamp demonstration, Bakman easily spent 15 minutes trimming down a brisket, describing exactly what he wants the meat to look like before it goes in the smoker. “You want to make it as aerodynamic as possible so the smoke goes around it and doesn’t get stuck on any edges,” he told the crowd. “Expect to lose 45% to trimming.”
He’s cooking with almost scientific precision. When he was learning, he said, “I would keep notes of the weather, whether it was windy or hot, how often I added wood, the temperature of the meat.” Cooking with a smoker is a perpetual experiment — one that takes a long time to see the results of, but when it’s successful, it’s really successful. People are still lining up, but now it’s outside the restaurant, especially on Mondays, when Slab serves a very limited number of house-made pastrami sandwiches. “We only do 50,” he said. “When they’re gone, they’re gone.”