May 22, 2009 -- 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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Barbecue Magician: Meat and Heat
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.
Barbecue Magician: The Early Years
"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."
In retrospect, Daversa's cooking success seems foregone, but there was a detour along the way: the IT years. Daversa said he generally liked the work, at a company founded by his brother Paul, and that he had a hard time quitting. But in more than a decade in the industry, he felt the tug of something else, a different way forward. And he found himself spending more and more time in his kitchen and backyard, experimenting with sauces and techniques.
"You know, it's kind of a long road," Daversa said. "I was in technology for about 13 years and my passion was always barbeque. You know every day after work I'd go home, light the grill up, you know and sometimes it would be two or three in the morning before I was done and I realized s*** -- sorry -- I have to wake up at you know, six in the morning to go back to the office. And I realized after a while that what I was doing wasn't my passion. And I quit my job at 29, went to culinary school and, knowing that I wanted to get into barbeque, not be just a traditional chef, and through that, I basically saw an ad on Craigslist and took my chance and wound up here."
Barbecue Magician: 'I Had This Big Void'
Daversa credited his wife, Kristin, with helping him make the switch.
"I had this big void, and my wife saw it," he said. "And she said that you need to do something that you love and you love to cook. You come home every night, why don't you, why don't you go to culinary school? ... She pushed me through that void and actually ... she helped me do all of the paperwork and go through all of the research, and a large part of it is due to the fact that she pushed me."
Not only did his wife help lead him to cooking ... cooking helped lead him to his wife.
"I met my wife skiing in Vermont," he said. "I rented an apartment with a bunch, like 30 other guys, and she rented an apartment right underneath us, with like 3 or 4 of her girls. Well, I'm not going to tell you the real story. But I will tell you most of the real story. But it had been a late night and we were partying, and the next morning I woke up and there was so many people in my house, I just wanted to cook breakfast, and my roommates were like, dude, there's some hot girls downstairs, you should go check it out.
"So I brought a pan and some eggs and some bacon and I went downstairs and I knocked on their door and I was like 'Hey, do you mind if I cook some breakfast, you know, I'll cook it for you.' And they were like, 'Absolutely, come on in!' And so that was the first time I met my wife and we've actually been together ever since."
Now settled in Hoboken, N.J., the couple don't have kids but do keep a family pet.
"My dog loves my food," Daversa said. "She licks my feet every day when I come home. It's one of my favorite things when I walk in the door. She goes straight for the chef shoes and licks them clean."
Daversa said feeding people good food makes him happy, but ultimately he cooks for himself.
"I love it. I love it," he said. "I mean, one, I don't get offended. If you don't like my food, frankly I'm cooking for myself. When it comes to cooking the meat upstairs, I'm cooking for myself. If I try to cook for the crowd or the people, then I don't think I'm going to succeed. I gotta make the food that makes me happy. And doing what I'm doing now makes me incredibly happy. And I love watching the little kids just, they can barely eat but they've got this pork bone that they are just ripping to shreds and they've got sauce on their face and the grease, and the parents are the same way, and they are all caught up in the same carnal fest, and they are just eating away, and it's just ... it brings a smile to my face."
Barbecue Magician: The Father's Advice
The story of Daversa's life and career seems to benefit from lucky twists and happy intrusions of chance. But the most important driver of his personal plotline over the years, he said, has been advice his father gave him long ago.
"My dad always told me that if you do what you love, then you are actually going to succeed," he said. "And to this day ... one of the things that your dad tells you when you are a kid and you remember, that has just always kind of been in my blood and I've always remembered that. And it took me a long time to actually believe it because you know, I was in a different field for so long that you kind of get numb to what you may actually want to do in your life.
"It is, there's a very small percentage of people in the world that are actually doing exactly what they want to do and love to do and I definitely feel blessed that I was able to do exactly -- and not just in the same field, but exactly what I want to do."