Pit master Chris Sussman began his journey toward barbecue enlightenment early.

His father owned steakhouses in the Washington, D.C., area, and Sussman worked in them as a busboy, line cook, server and more throughout his adolescence. Regular visits to relatives included frequent stops at Pierce’s Pit BBQ in Williamsburg, Virginia, where pulled pork sandwiches were topped with house-made coleslaw and accompanied by ice cold bottles of Dr. Pepper.

Back home, Sussman and his dad mixed brands of sauce, trying to replicate Pierce’s unique flavors. “Much like the ‘Karate Kid,’ you’ve got to go through the motions before you can have clarity,” he says.

The 54-year-old northern Virginia native continues to experiment, learn and cook award-winning dishes, with a preference for Snake River Farms American Wagyu New York strip steaks and Big Green Egg grills.

Follow his quest to break free from the tyranny of recipes and find grilling Nirvana.

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The BBQ Buddha’s Origin Story

In college, Sussman studied philosophy and fell in love with Eastern schools of thought, especially Buddhism. Throughout the stages of his life — marriage, fatherhood, a first career in IT, his long exploration of offset smoke grilling — he carried the principles of Buddhism with him. But one was a recurrent stumbling block.

“I just can’t commit to being a vegetarian,” he says. “It’s a hard line for me because I love barbecue so much.”

His wife, Debbie, cut through his struggle with pragmatism: “She said, ‘there’s no rules in life, just be both.’”

With that loving permission, he humbly accepted his moniker as the BBQ Buddha.

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The Why, the Wood and the Way

During his corporate years, Sussman relieved weekday stress with weekend grilling. He treated food like an engineering project, keeping meticulous journals of his failures and obsessing over the rules of each recipe. After years of research, he had an epiphany.

“I started seeing the story between the recipes,” he says.

He began to see that he was relying too heavily on prescribed steps that pertained to only one cook’s specific environment, cut of meat, type of grill. As he learned to trust his own five senses, he picked up on nuances that indicated how different types of wood affected flavor, how various environs produced heat, how meat reacted to temperature, time, technique.

These insights revealed Sussman’s way of “Grilling by Feel,” which has become his true Buddhist path.

“If you want to learn how to cook great things over live fire, I’m the Buddha to lead you to the way,” he says.

The Fundamentals of Fearlessness

Sussman’s book, “The Four Fundamentals of Smoking,” lays out the basic elements you need to know how to control to master your grilling universe. Get your autographed copy on Sussman’s website. Here’s a teaser of those four principles to pique your appetite:

  1. Combustion and Fuel Source: Explore live wood vs. dead wood, wood as fuel source vs. what wood does to your food. “White, billowing smoke is just the show, the beginning,” Sussman says. “You don’t want that acrid flavor on your food.”

  2. Humidity: “Smoky flavor comes from the gases released through combustion, and the way those gases are absorbed in the meat is through proper humidity in your cooking environment.” This section discusses the cues to manage that.

  3. Temperature Control: What is the linear effect of temperature to time? Why is barbecue between 225 and 250 degrees? “Temp and time are just numbers, but it’s not a one-for-one relationship,” Sussman says. “Mastering those variables breaks you open as a cook, especially on live fire.”

  4. How to Know When It’s Done: “This trips everyone up. I go into the visual and touch cues, in addition to time and internal temp, to master knowing that this meat is finished.”

The Buddha’s Bottom-Line Advice:

“Don’t be afraid to fail, even with that super expensive piece of Snake River Farms beef,” Sussman counsels. “You bought it for a reason, now go out there and learn how to do it.”

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