A new pitmaster has been making the rounds and selling out of brisket left and right, quickly making a name for himself. Russ Nockerts, owner of Steel Belly Barbecue, has found success turning his longtime passion into a career and turning new customers into regulars who seek him out wherever he goes - which seems to be everywhere from markets to wineries to pop-up events. It’s hard to pass the enticing smell of barbecue without stopping for a tray piled high with brisket and sides.
Nockerts specializes in Central Texas barbecue which means the cooking process and quality of the meat are fundamental, with prime cuts cooked over 100% oak, pit-style. The flavor of the meat itself is the star, which is why Nockerts and other pitmasters have the mantra “barbecue is not a sauce,” and why the sauce is served on the side for optional dipping. Typically following a counter service model, this style of barbecue is sliced-to-order and served on trays by the pound, accompanied by plenty of sides and desserts, which Nockerts and his wife, Kim, make themselves.
Though the meat is the focal point, the Nockerts’ scratch-made sides hold their own. Classic dishes are revamped with special touches, such as their award-winning elote casserole with a fiery finish, mac and cheese loaded with pulled pork, three-day coconut cake, and pinquito beans brought in weekly from California and slow cooked with bacon and chiles.
Originally from Southern California, Nockerts brings West Coast influence to his cooking. Special dishes like the Santa Maria tri-tip with chimichurri and pinquito beans pay homage to his home state, where Central Texas barbecue is also wildly popular.
Nockerts is always experimenting with new techniques and different ingredients. “I just never stop learning, I want to learn every style,” he says of the different regions’ takes on barbecue, hoping to take a field trip to the Carolinas soon for some hands-on education on their unique methods.
He has been a barbecue enthusiast his entire life but wasn’t always the expert. When he had his first bite of proper brisket was when his life changed - what he calls “the oh wow moment.” He dove deeper into the craft and began reading, researching, and hosting frequent backyard barbecues, quickly earning Kim and himself the names “Mr. and Mrs. Barbecue.”
Eventually word of his talent spread, and his hobby escalated to dinner parties and catering gigs, though he was still working his day job as a career welder. It wasn’t until his dad passed away last year that he seriously considered pursuing his culinary career. Steel Belly Barbecue was born, and its rapid growth allowed both Nockerts and his wife to quit their jobs to work for the business full time this spring.
The food truck was the natural next step, which has morphed into a life of its own. Nockerts says it was a “necessary evil” to keep up with their growth, as he prefers being on the ground interacting with customers rather than serving from up in the truck.
The summer was full of food truck stops and farmers markets, and Nockerts is already booking up with live fire table events, personal pitmaster experiences, cooking classes, and wine and cider pairings.
These events along with the interaction and educational opportunities that they bring is what really excites him. Whether he’s teaching a bachelor party how to smoke a brisket or cooking in front of a crowd at a private dinner party, Nockerts thrives when he has an audience.
He dreams of opening a brick and mortar restaurant one day where live fire is the centerpoint, drawing guests in as chefs trim and cook the meat in front of them over flames. He wants to entrance diners the way he once was, immersed in that life-changing “wow” bite.
The process of building the fire, taking the time, letting coals build up, and seasoning, trimming, and cooking meat correctly is what drives Russ. The powerful raw form of cooking over fire and coals ignited a fire within and inspired him to pursue this craft to the next level. It’s what gets him out of bed at night, waking him every hour to stoke the flames that are smoking tomorrow’s brisket. It’s a labor of love, but the end result is what turns new customers into regulars.
To find where Steel Belly Barbecue will be serving next and to get a behind-the-scenes look at how a proper brisket is cooked, follow their updates on Instagram and Facebook.