Q&A with Amber McDaniel, pitmaster at Pit Boss BBQ

Editor’s note: In this periodic series, we chat with metro Atlanta restaurant workers. Is there a restaurant worker you want to nominate for Restaurant Insider? Do you have feedback about the series? Send your comments to ligaya.figueras@ajc.com.

Amber McDaniel has worked at Pit Boss BBQ, which has locations in Hapeville and Stockbridge, on and off for about a decade. She trained under Tracy McSwain, who owns Pit Boss with husband Wade.

How did you start working for Pit Boss?

I started working with Miss Tracy (at the original takeout-only Stockbridge location). At that point, we were a small store, so we would have to get our meat from our sister store in Hapeville, and we would do the sides. Gradually, I kept learning how they did it the Pit Boss way.

We started with a smaller grill, and then we upgraded to a pull-behind grill. Now, at the new Stockbridge location, we have the big, double-sided, eight-grated grill.

I felt comfortable doing the pitmaster work within the first year. I’m a camper, so the fire part is easy for me. I’m kind of a tomboy, so it doesn’t take me long to get my hands dirty with it.

ExploreGuide to barbecue around metro Atlanta

What’s your day-to-day like at work?

I usually start my day about 9 a.m. Of course, you have to get everything ready, prep your line. I’m in charge of prepping all the meat, getting the fire started, making sure the grill is scrubbed out, seasoning it and getting it on there.

You left the restaurant business for a few years to work as a teacher. How did you get back into it?

Tracy needed some help, because the pandemic just wiped out employees in the restaurant business, and a lot of restaurants were closing. ... So, I came back and started cooking again.

It was pretty easy (to get back into it). The only thing was that I used to have the recipes (memorized). But, I was still smoking meat at home on my off time, so it wasn’t hard.

How did the pandemic change your job?

You have to wear the mask, and you can’t keep sauces out. But, as far as the actual pitmaster part goes, it really hasn’t changed. You’re kind of separate, anyway. You’re by yourself doing the meat, then you’re out at the grill, so it’s open air.

But, customers and that interaction definitely has changed. When (the pandemic) first started, you couldn’t have the dine-in, so it was all takeout, and you didn’t have that one-on-one with people.

For people who never have been to Pit Boss before, what are some reasons to check it out?

Definitely the food. We have a lot of space, and the prices are good.

Do you ever eat barbecue out at other restaurants?

I really don’t. If I’m going to do barbecue, I’m going to cook it at home. I’ve never eaten at the other barbecue restaurants around here.

Are you able to get creative when you cook at the restaurant?

At home, I do, I use different techniques. Here, we use the dry rub, and, at home, I’ve tried basting and stuff like that, from watching “BBQ Pitmasters.” I always enjoy watching that and trying to do some of what they do.

Here, we’re pretty set on what we have to follow as far as their recipes.

What’s your favorite among the meats at Pit Boss?

The brisket. I like fat on my meat, so, with the brisket, it’s just got that good seasoning, and to leave the fat on and eat the brisket is really good.

You’re cooking outside in extreme heat during the summer. How do you keep cool?

A cold rag. When it’s 98 degrees and you’re standing next to a 200-degree grill or smoker, it does get pretty hot.

I like the heat, though; it’s the rain that bothers me the most, because I’ve gotta cover my wood up and make sure it stays dry. It does have a ledge over the pit, but you’re still going to get wet going back inside.

What advice would you give people interested in pursuing a career as a pitmaster?

Be prepared to get your hands dirty. I make a joke all the time: I go home and look like I work on cars all day. And, you have to be physically fit. Those grates are 50-80 pounds that you’re lifting in and out of there.

Pit Boss BBQ. 800 Doug Davis Drive, Hapeville. 404-768-0036; and 282 E. Atlanta Road, Stockbridge. 770-389-5125. pitboss-bbq.com

This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.

ExploreQ&A with Atlanta Breakfast Club’s maitre d’ and GM, Dionte Dillard
ExploreMeet these 26 smoking metro Atlanta pitmasters

Read more stories like this by liking Atlanta Restaurant Scene on Facebook, following @ATLDiningNews on Twitter and @ajcdining on Instagram.