By Pete Daversa's telling, the road to becoming a grandmaster of barbecue was unusually long. It started before he left a career in information technology to enroll in cooking school. It began even earlier than his first childhood experiences in the kitchen, peeling potatoes for family Thanksgiving feasts under his mother's watchful eye.
As Daversa tells it, it started before he was born, in the early chapters of human history itself, on hunting grounds where pre-civilized man cooked meat on spits over open flame.
"I think it's primeval," Daversa said in a recent interview at Hill Country Barbecue Market in New York City, where he reigns as pitmaster and chef de cuisine. "I mean, it's like you are dealing with raw hunks of meat and it's, I don't know what it is, I really think it's in my DNA to really feel like just handling the meat. And like it almost brings me back to a primitive state, where I'm out in the fields and I'm like killing the game and bringing it back to the house. I think that's really what it is. I can't explain it. I'm just drawn to it."
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By responding to the age-old call of barbecue, Daversa has climbed into a job that untold ranks of weekend grill-out warriors would give a rib to snag. After graduating from the Culinary Arts program at the Institute of Culinary Education in New York, Daversa hooked up with Danny Meyer's Blue Smoke, one of the crop of restaurants that drove the city's barbecue renaissance in the early 2000s. Two years later, in June 2007, he joined the newly opened Hill Country, where he was quickly promoted to the top of the kitchen.
Daversa's relatively quick transformation from tech guy to top chef was made possible by years of informal training. In his early days as a backyard cook, before the Internet made an infinite trove of recipes universally available, Daversa discovered new flavor combinations through the time-honored technique of trial and error. He cooked for family and friends whenever he could. He cooked on vacation. He cooked anywhere there was meat and heat.
"When I started cooking myself and kind of moved out of my parents' house when I was younger," he said, "barbecue was the only thing that I kept being pulled toward, or gravitating towards. I don't know, it was just the only thing that I would cook. You know after school I'd invite all of my buddies over, and after baseball or football we'd all go back to my house and I'd start grilling and cooking burgers and ribs, and it's really where I started focusing just on barbecue."
Some of the skills Daversa brought to the grill were developed in his mother's kitchen at the family home in Niantic, Conn., a small town on the southeastern shore. His Italian father, the founder of a local chain of salons, and his Cuban mother always hosted big meals for the holidays, and Daversa was often drafted for cooking duty.
"I come from a big family, and my household was a household everybody went to, kind of, you know, 30, 40 people went over for Thanksgiving, and watching my mom you know, cook, just hoards and hoards of food, just, I don't know how she did it. She was all by herself, and she is this little Cuban woman that just ran the kitchen and just cooked so much food."