Brunswick’s oldest barbecue restaurant may have one of the youngest head cooks.
Twin Oaks BBQ has been in business under the leafy trees that give it its name for 78 years. Tim Thomas, 24, became the head cook when he was 19.
He was already an employee at Twin Oaks when he got a call early one morning, well before his shift as a dishwasher began. Twin Oaks starts serving at noon, and there wasn’t anything to wash yet.
“She asked me if I wanted to cook,’’ he said of Darlene Waters, the owner for the past 24 years. “I said, ‘Yes.’’’
The problem was, he had never cooked before. But he showed up for work on time every day, was a little shy and brought no drama to the kitchen, and that has made for a solid head barbecue cook, Waters said.
Thomas said it was on the job training.
“They taught me everything I know,’’ he said.
He includes a couple of uncles who cooked in their backyards as among the “they.”
At Twin Oaks, the smoke hits your nose when you open the door and your tongue when you take the first bite of the chopped pork. Every cook has his own secret ingredient, but the secret to the taste in Thomas’ smoked Boston butts is one you won’t find on the spice rack. It comes from quereus virginiana, the southern live oak.
It’s as simple as that: he puts Boston butts by the case on the rotating racks in the big gas smoker and lets them cook eight hours at 250 to 275 degrees in the smoke of smoldering oak.
It doesn’t matter if it’s a big smoker with a fire box, an electric smoker or a gas or charcoal smoker, it’s combination of smoke, the right amount of heat and time that makes it work, Thomas said.
Pork has to reach 190 degrees to break down the collagen giving it that fall-off-the-bone tenderness.
But Waters said Thomas has brought new ideas and tastes to the restaurant and with it a new demand for ribs that aren’t cooked as simply as the Boston butts.
“I’ve got my own seasoning on the ribs,’’ he said.
For the present, it’s lemon juice, brown sugar, black pepper, Montreal Steak Seasoning and some seasoned salt.
Asked about the grocery shelf Montreal Steak Seasoning, Thomas gives a half shrug and says, “It’s a good flavor. You can’t beat it.”
Once he started cooking ribs, he made a few other changes based on family taste tests.
“I took my uncle a plate of ribs one day. He told me they were too salty, to put in some brown sugar to cut the salt,’’ Thomas said.
He tried his uncle Perry Short’s suggestion, and brown sugar became part of the rub as did mustard at the urging of another uncle, Claude Short, to add some tang.
Thomas said when he rubs in his seasoning, he uses a light hand but does repeated rubs to make sure it sticks and doesn’t cook off.
Backyard and patio barbecue cooks can do what he did with his ribs, he said, keep experimenting until they get it right.
“I got better. I pretty much got it now. I think I got it in a headlock,’’ he said.
“Everybody brags on his cooking. Everything comes out perfect,’’ she said.
Ribs, an entree that few customers ordered, “are selling like crazy,’’ Waters said.
As for side dishes, the battered French fries are still the most popular, and that recipe remains simple and unchanged. It’s not as simple, however, as dicing potatoes and dumping them in a deep fryer, she said.
“You cut up fresh potatoes, soak them in milk, dip them in flour and then fry them,’’ Waters said.
Waters noted that other restaurant owners sometimes get take-out orders, perhaps to copy them but not the fries.
“Those don’t get copied. It’s too much work,’’ she said.
Some dishes require a lot of work, but Thomas said the most popular, the chopped pork, require restraint that even the home barbecue cook can use.
“I don’t do anything to it. I let it cook by itself,’’ he said.