The Making of a Pitmaster
Drew Abruzzese is a relentless chef. So when a smoker landed in his lap, he, naturally, dove down the rabbit hole.
By Mike Madaio
“I can’t sit still,” Drew Abruzzese says. “I’m always looking for my next big thing.”
Abruzzese is the executive chef at The Pineville Tavern, which is owned by his family. It’s a position he’s held since 2010 at a restaurant he’s helped out at in one way or another since he was a kid. So that hyperactivity may be rooted in a restlessness. But Abruzzese is also someone who’s keenly conscious of his evolution as a chef, perhaps because he realized early on that if he didn’t challenge himself, no one was likely to.
So when his mother-in-law gifted him a home charcoal smoker, it was an impetus. The kindling was already arranged. “Salty, crispy, crusty meats are maybe my favorite thing on the planet—besides my wife, of course,” he says. Overnight, he became consumed with barbequing. Soon after, he and a friend went in together on a 55-gallon drum smoker. Abruzzese christened it with a dozen chickens.
He spent the ensuing summer studying the nuances imparted by slight adjustments in temperature and different kinds of smoke, consuming book after book, experimenting as he went along. All the while, it was purely about mastery—until it became evident that it wasn’t.
“When we pulled that smoker open and met this amazing meat, that was the beginning of Big Q BBQ right there,” Abruzzese says. “That was when we said, we can do something with this.”
Big Q BBQ is the fast-casual restaurant Abruzzese opened last summer in Levittown. Earlier this summer, he opened a takeout-only offshoot at the tavern. But before it was either of those things, it was a massive smoker (his second upgrade) that Abruzzese carted between the tavern, where he served barbeque on the patio during the weekends, and the Wrightstown Farmers Market down the road on Saturday mornings. The latter became a testament to his latest progression. He arrived confident in his barbeque, dying to share it. But who wants to eat barbeque at 9 a.m.? Abruzzese adapted, quickly and creatively.
“I started putting pulled pork on an egg-and-cheese,” he says. “Which turned into brisket, egg and cheese and, eventually, The Ultimate: pulled pork, brisket, bacon and cheese.”
Once word of mouth started to catch on, he was making 50, 60 Ultimates on a given Saturday morning.
In spite of his rapid spiral down the rabbit hole, Abruzzese seems to have emerged with an appreciation for barbeque’s simplicity.
“It’s easy to get nerdy about it, but you shouldn’t overcomplicate it,” he says.
Then you won’t mind sharing how you go about making yours?
“It’s hard to explain, other than to say, well, it’s proprietary.”
The Big Q BBQ site, at least, dissects the process, but only in broad strokes: “traditional, time-honored methods,” “dry-rubbing our meat cuts,” “our secret blend of awesome seasonings and spices,” “slow-smoke it in our authentic, custom-designed smoker,” “our own blend of aged and seasoned hardwoods,” “smooth, slightly tangy smoke,” “literally hours and hours for the smoke to cook, tenderize and flavorize the meat.”
“You can use the same rub, smoke over the same wood for the same time and yours isn’t going to taste like mine,” Abruzzese says. “That doesn’t mean mine is better or yours is better, just that every single one is different. It’s important to do your own thing.”
Read: He spent more nights than he cares to remember breathing in thick smoke, learning and then perfecting the oldest—and maybe most elusive—culinary technique there is, cooking meat over coals. So, yeah, we’re on our own.
Abruzzese’s eyeing up additional Big Q BBQ locations—with one eye, at least. The other, true to his nature, is scoping out a potential new frontier.
“There just happens to be an H Mart across the street from the restaurant,” he says, “so now I’m all over Vietnamese cooking and Korean barbeque.”