Two of Austin’s most famous entrepreneurs have hit on the perfect recipe for Hot Luck. With the quirky food-and-music festival now in its third year, they just keep turning up the heat.
by Dorothy Guerrero
Photographs by Ashleigh Amoroso
Hot Luck began as an excuse for Aaron Franklin and James Moody to hang out more. The pair, who had known each other for years, concocted a plan over lunch one day to create an event they’d actually want to attend. For America’s preeminent James Beard Award-winning pitmaster, of Franklin Barbecue fame, and the owner one of Austin’s most iconic clubs, the Mohawk, it would have been easy for their joint venture to quickly get overexposed and overproduced. But they wanted this thing to have a soul.
Fortunately for us, Franklin and Moody, along with Mike Thelin, co-founder of Feast Portland, have found the sweet spot of hype, effort and fun in their festival-that’s-not-a-festival, which bills itself as something closer to a religious sensory experience: “Hot Luck is what happens at the fire — in the flames. It’s where the inspiration turns into food. And that food feeds the people, and the music, and the next round of crazy ideas that flicker to life.”
From random music collaborations to unfussy food from high-end chefs, the Memorial Day weekend event, spread across different venues like Antone’s and the Barracuda, has something for most people, but not everyone. And that’s kind of the point. This year the potluck lineup includes several bands with food names (Leftover Salmon and Archers of Loaf, haha) and culinary geniuses from around the country cooking the stuff they make for friends and family.
If you’re tired of standing in lines and dusty fields for hours on end, Hot Luck is here for you. The small-scale format, easy pace and lack of pretension all make it clear: These guys are serving up something hot and fresh.
How did this thing come about?
James Moody: Aaron and I were together at Franklin Barbecue one day, just sitting at the picnic table. We were having beers, just talking about how Fun Fun Fun Fest went away and how Franklin was doing and how we were all looking to do something new. So it just accidentally started amongst friends, honestly.
What makes Hot Luck different from other festivals out there?
Aaron Franklin: We try to set it up like you’re in our backyard. Like you’re kind of going to your best friend’s house, and your best friend just happens to be the raddest chef in the world cooking hot dogs and just hanging out. I also encourage the chefs to not go out of their way to be fancy.
JM: It’s what South by Southwest felt like in the early 2000s — super-venue-based and intimate. We were all exhausted from the idea of trying to get a large number of people in a big field. Because I’ve done that for 10 years. So we just started talking about blending music and the quirkiness of what we did in music with the quirkiness of what Aaron does in food. It wasn’t an economic endeavor, but strictly a creative one.
Has it grown into what you envisioned?
JM: It seems to be on track for that idea. If you’re going to do something that’s an annual event, you have to commit mentally to doing it for a few years to understand what it’ll be. The customers will tell you what it is, or should or shouldn’t be. They’ll tell you which ideas are good and bad. And you’ve gotta give yourself time to react to that and create something that fits.
What’s your favorite part about the weekend?
JM: Personally, it’s that it’s just us. There are no investors. There’s no board of directors. So when we have a goofy idea, we don’t need approval. We just do it. That’s what the early days of Fun Fun Fun Fest were like, before it got really big. I also like the high-low nature of what we do, which a lot of Austinites identify with. Especially people who have been here a while. Austin is not just about all the new stuff — it’s about these heart-and-soul places.
AF: Every time I get excited about something, I get excited about something else. So I think I’m just kind of excited about the whole thing. It’s a way more cohesive package than in the previous years.
How do the tickets work?
AF: Our goal was to appeal to everybody. There’s a pretty big sliding scale on affordability. We have the All-in Whole Enchilada Pass [$550], and that gets you into some things that you can’t buy separately, but it also gets you into everything. That’s the best bargain out there — you get into all the shows and all the main events. Of course, for people who don’t want to spend that much money, you can buy tickets to music and food events à la carte.
Why do you think the format works so well?
AF: People just want to have a good time, and that’s working. Just being who we are, being true to ourselves and being true to our city. It doesn’t have to be a pristine event. It can be a little funky and rough around the edges. We all kind of enjoy being in that gray area. [Pauses.] I mean, Franklin Barbecue is pretty clean and perfect, but, you know, otherwise …
In a booming town like Austin, how do you preserve that?
JM: That’s the best part. You don’t have to grow. If you can keep it small, and small is the magic, then you never sacrifice the magic.
AF: We don’t look to make it much bigger than it is as far as attendance, but we look to do more things throughout the year and would gradually like to make it a year-round thing where we could do stuff outside of Austin. Really, at the end of the day our goal is just to have fun. We just want people to have a good time.
What is y’all’s approach to the food?
JM: Aaron is a brilliant chef. Not only does he just know everything that needs to happen from a food perspective, but our whole arrangement with chefs is that we tell them to leave their chef coats at home and to wear the T-shirt that they wear underneath the chef coat. And they come, and they cook whatever the hell they want, in whatever way they want. We could have a Michelin-starred chef come out and cook hot dogs if they want.
AF: Most people get invited in person or via text or email. It’s not a PR company that’s blanketing all the hot chefs. And I really kind of think about it all year-round. It’s more based on — instead of who’s hot in the industry — who is really, really awesome. We have a lot of chefs who don’t really do festivals, so it’s kind of special. Austin is a community that takes care of itself, and the chef thing is like that, too.
Do you have that same approach to booking the music?
JM: So, different people can customize and schedule a good time based off what they’re into. So you’ll be able to look at the bill and go, “All right. I’m going to eat all this stuff till I’m uncomfortably full. Then I’m going to go hear some music that’s for me.” So we’ll have options for you: blues, soul, country, rock and roll, punk, garage. We’ll have all that available. Then you can choose your own adventure. So, hopefully, by the end of the weekend, people will have different paths to the same result.
But really, why should we go?
JM: There was something that happened in food about, I don’t know, four or five years ago, where this ridiculous term “foodie” came up. And it created some barrier between people around food. And it made some people feel like food wasn’t for them. Which is ridiculous. So this is the appreciation of food for everyone. The chefs leave their chef’s coats at home. There’s this beautiful high-low nature to it. What if you could go to your favorite tailgate, but it was run by chefs who are running some of the best restaurants in the world?