by Hannah J. Phillips
Photograph by Aaron Pinkston
Aaron Franklin and Tyson Cole
In Austin, where there’s smoke, there’s Aaron Franklin, and where there’s fish, there’s Tyson Cole. Now, at Loro, two of the biggest names in Austin food have blessedly come together. And while an Asian smokehouse might not seem the most likely coupling, my conversation with these two food titans left me less surprised by the concept than by the fact it hadn’t happened sooner.
Loro’s general manager, Zach Knight, forewarned me: “They’re the same person — both geniuses, different specialties.” When Franklin arrives, he gives Loro’s chef de cuisine John Gross a low five and a “Whassup?” before checking in with the rest of the staff. Outside, Cole has secured a patio table under a canopy of towering oaks, and as Franklin walks out, no one seems fazed by the celebrity chefs, dressed in button-downs and sneakers and drinking ginger beer.
At times, chatting with the two felt more like watching brothers banter than witnessing two masters exchange the secrets of their craft. When a stray acorn dive-bombs the table, Franklin quips: “Acorned if you do, acorned if you don’t!” Later, Cole calls Franklin a “culinary Voltron,” referencing a Japanese anime show I had to look up. It’s hard to imagine Austin’s current culinary climate without the two men on either side of this picnic table.
In 2003 Cole opened the game-changing sushi restaurant Uchi and in 2010 introduced Uchiko ( Japanese for “child of Uchi”) to the Austin food landscape. The chef took home a James Beard nod in 2011, bringing Uchi to Houston less than nine months later, followed by Dallas in 2015 and Denver earlier this year.
Meanwhile, in 2009, Franklin opened his eponymous food trailer on the East Side, which was followed two years later by his move to a brickand-mortar and Bon Appétit’s recognition of Franklin’s as the best barbecue in the country. By 2015, he had turned his meat-smoking manifesto into a New York Times best-seller and was crowned Best Chef in the Southwest by the James Beard Foundation.
While the two had known each other for a while, and run in similar circles, it was a private dinner in Dallas, a few years back, that sparked the idea to collaborate. Cole had long been thinking about a smokehouse, having experimented with smoking different meats with Uchiko’s opening.
“We knew we wanted smoke,” says Cole, “to take advantage of those flavor profiles. Once we knew we were going to do it, we told Aaron — at first just to pick his brain.”
Franklin remembers meeting up after that dinner: “We both thought, ‘That was fun!’” he says with a smile. “And the courting ensued.” Fostering a partnership sounds a lot like tending brisket when he describes it from there: “You can’t force things. You can guide, but you can’t force.”
Both chefs were ready for something new, though neither predicted the success Loro has seen since launching in April. Cole attributes that to the timing of their careers, the quality and talent behind the food (he indicates Franklin), and to Austin: “Austin is a place to create and innovate. There’s just something in the water.”
When asked what they most enjoy about working together, both noted the relationships built in the process — and a mutual respect for each other’s craft.
“The best part is getting that glimpse inside what Aaron does,” says Cole. “Besides his book and what he’s doing at Franklin’s — not just as a pitmaster, but as a business owner and chef — Aaron is a genius.” Franklin chuckles in protest.
“He is!” Cole insists. “Aaron has this commitment to becoming the master that he is, this tenacity I recognize in myself. I smell like fish, he smells like smoke.”
Franklin redirects the spotlight. If there is any competition between them, it’s in their effort to out-compliment. “I’d say the same about Tyson, but with that added attention to detail — down to the way he looks at one little herb stem. I play with fire and finesse, but Tyson is more measured. How I look at beef parallels how he looks at fish.”
Combining culinary kingdoms revealed the similarities of their separate realms: Cole shares a photo that, in his mind, captures the whole concept at Loro. The picture shows their knives displayed side by side at a private event; the caption reads “When two worlds collide!” Franklin identifies his $15 bread knife and a $25 boning knife next to Cole’s $700 Masamoto knife.
Thankfully for Austin, these two sets of knives now work under the same roof.