When we asked chef and owner LeAnn Mueller to tell us what sets la Barbecue--the celebrated Austin BBQ restaurant that she owns and operates with her wife, Alison "Ali" Clem--apart from Central Texas' other barbecue destinations, she told us, "We're feminizing barbecue, one brisket at a time."
Although the Austin culinary scene has made tremendous strides in terms of inclusion and diversity, the barbecue world is still a boys' club in many ways, with cisgender White men hustling to declare themselves pitmasters--a term that both Mueller and Clem consider problematic. "That term started during slavery on plantations; the person at the plantation who would cook for the 'masters' was called the pitmaster. To me, it's degrading, and it's not who we are," Mueller says. "Also, to call yourself a 'master' of anything means that you've perfected everything. And that's not how we feel, because we're a team. I'm the chef, but I'm also the cook. And I want everybody to be treated as equals, because it takes every single person in that restaurant for us to open the door every day."
Both Mueller and Clem bring serious BBQ knowledge to la Barbecue; Clem trained with local BBQ experts to learn the ins and outs of seasoning, smoking, and serving. As for Mueller, her barbecue expertise is in the bloodline-- her grandfather founded the iconic Louie Mueller Barbecue in Taylor, Texas, and "I've been working in barbecue since I was eight years old," Mueller says.
That said, Mueller long resisted the push from family members to make a career in barbecue, instead opting to become a photographer and travel to California and New York to hone her skills and build her photography business. When she eventually decided to launch la Barbecue with Clem, "I said, if I'm gonna do it, I won't half-ass anything. I'm not using my family's last name, [but part of this pursuit is that] I'm also showing my brothers that I can do barbecue better as their little sister who never wanted to do barbecue."
While Mueller's history with her grandfather's and father's BBQ joint in Taylor informed her relationship with barbecue as both an occupation and as an art form, she also drew substantial inspiration from the women in her family. "My mom was an incredible chef. She used to throw dinner parties in Taylor, Texas serving stuff like escargot and homemade cannelloni in a small town. That's how we ate growing up. So I take [inspiration from] my mother's love for food and my dad having the barbecue pit and both of them running that together," Mueller says.
At la Barbecue, Mueller and Clem tap into a legacy of women spearheading culinary pursuits to feed their communities and to both honor traditions and bring in new influences and methods. 'I think that what everybody forgets is how much you used to go to your grandmother's house or your mother's house and eat their food. Barbecue isn't only about men being the ones to play with fire. If you go throughout history, it's both people playing with fire. All genders and all sexualities," Mueller insists. Even the venue's name speaks to this concept of egalitarianism and women claiming their rightful place as major barbecue forces: "It's 'la Barbecue'-'LA'' is a play on my name [LeAnn], but it's also 'la' with a lowercase "l" [like the French feminine article]."
Both Mueller and Clem acknowledge that female-run BBQ businesses are still rare enough in Central Texas that they need to be more present in the public eye than most of their male peers in the industry. "We're two women literally doing the financials, the cooking, the recipes. I mean, we're doing it all. But for a while, we were still getting overlooked. And then, some people would have a problem with the fact that we call ourselves a female-run business, but we had a guy back there [cooking] sometimes. And, well, duh. We have employees. We have to. But people were getting more focused on the male energy that was in our restaurant than the female energy that was in our restaurant," says Mueller.
These experiences helped Mueller realize that she'd need to take a more front-facing role than she had in the past, but she still felt hesitant until Chef Michael Symon came to la Barbecue to film a TV spot: "I didn't want to be on camera cause I prefer to be behind the camera, and he literally forced me to do it. And he was like, you need to take responsibility for this or else you're gonna get looked over and over and over again. So I went on camera and he made me cry and then I was like, okay, I can do this. I can keep moving forward."
In terms of the menu, Mueller and Clem do take pride in their "traditional items, like brisket, housemade sausage, and pork ribs. I keep the potato salad traditional; it's the German potato salad that my grandmother taught my mom." "That said, they also enjoy weaving international flavors into their repertoire, inspired by their travels around the country and around the world. "We make a chipotle slaw that's inspired by our trips to Mexico. And we like to experiment with our specials. We have a tri-tip because we still live in California [part-time], and because we go to Asia a lot, we season [the tri-tip] with Cambodian pepper and oyster sauce and fish sauce," says Mueller.
la Barbecue started off as a pop-up operation at the back of an East Austin corner store, but Mueller and Clem were recently able to change venues to their own standalone building in the same neighborhood. This gave the la Barbecue team the opportunity to develop a unique aesthetic for their business and to take their service model to the next level. "It's about giving somebody a beautiful experience through food, visuals, audio, and even smells. I want people to feel like they just hung out at my house and had a great time. We have some great cocktails now, we sell caviar, and we have really good Champagnes," Mueller explains. In terms of decor, "We got to design it all. We even have two art installations in the bathrooms-one's [inspired by] Studio 54, and one's a Houston trap house. The Houston trap house bathroom has Cardi B radio playing all the time, and the Studio 54 one has disco playing. It's just this interactive experience. When you go into la Barbecue, you just need to feel what it feels like to be us, and I'm really proud of our restaurant. I think that it's really beautiful."
To tie into the theme of a female-founded barbecue destination, la Barbecue also features visual tributes to iconic women in country music. According to Mueller, "We wanted Dolly Parton and Loretta Lynn and Patsy Cline out there because what they're women [showing their strength] through country music, and we want to show [our strength] through barbecue."