He’s building a charcuterie empire one link at a time
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Joshua Smith is hunched over, nearly parallel to the concrete floor, which is covered in red blasts of spray paint. He gestures to show what is not yet here. Equipment, prep station, salt and spices, the cured meats for which he has become known. Right now the space is filled with drywall, dented and marked for imminent death.
This is the future site of a brand new meat-processing plant and tasting room Smith has just started building, scheduled to be up and running in 2017. It is located down the road in Waltham from Moody's Delicatessen & Provisions, the storefront he opened in 2013. There he sells his own sausages, pates, hams, and more, under the name New England Charcuterie. His was the first facility in the state licensed to make, cure, and sell aged meats. They have received much acclaim. (The late food writer and noted meat aficionado Joshua Ozersky once told Smith he made one of the top five best pastramis in the country. From "a Jew from Brooklyn, that's pretty big," Smith says with a laugh.)
In 2015, he opened the adjacent Backroom, a sit-down restaurant where many of the dishes showcase his products. His charcuterie is served all over town, from Cambridge pizzeria Area Four to the new Long Wharf restaurant State Street Provisions. And he recently teamed with the liquor store Gordon's, a Waltham neighbor, which opened a downtown Boston location housing a Moody's counter offering sandwiches, charcuterie, and more. "Both of our businesses are about putting product in people's mouths," says owner David Gordon.
But all this expansion is small potatoes compared with the upcoming facility. Located in a commercial park, it will consist of 10,000 square feet. Currently, New England Charcuterie is made in a space that measures just 770 square feet. The operation as it stands can produce 1,400 pounds of meat at a time. When the new plant is operational, that will increase to more than 55,000 pounds. "Where we have one oven that can cook 350 pounds at a time right now, I bought three ovens that can cook 1,000 pounds each," Smith says. "I have a cooler big enough to actually house this product, get it to temperature, a room to package it, and another three rooms big enough to hold and store everything."
In other words, he doesn't just want to make charcuterie. He wants to dominate the landscape. And he wants to do it right, in a way that honors the product about which he is so passionate.
"We are going to spend the time and effort to build out, make that front end really special, and have a beautiful table and slicers and meat," he says. "You come in, taste the [charcuterie], and you can get a glimpse of the operation. Then we can take you to Moody's for a sandwich or a dinner in the Backroom, which we have as an extension and amenity of what we do. The total package."
It is funny to think that someone so directed stumbled into this line of work by happenstance.
"I fell in love with charcuterie when I was 19 years old and worked at Dean & DeLuca" in his native Charlotte, N.C., he says. The butcher didn't show up at the gourmet food store one day, so the chef asked Smith to help out. Cutting steaks and pork chops generated scraps, and the chef, he says, "taught me, in a very French way, the standard of utilizing every piece of the meat."
He wanted more. He couldn't afford culinary school, so he hitchhiked his way across the country, determined to learn to cook in restaurants. "One of the chefs I worked for said, 'Find the biggest, meanest, nastiest place and get in there to learn.' So I worked for the Four Seasons Olympic hotel in Seattle," he says.
Everywhere he worked, he would put his meats on the menu. But when he began to tell people he didn't want to be a chef, he wanted to focus solely on charcuterie, they laughed.
"Everyone told me it was a dying art," Smith said.
Jamie Bissonnette, chef-owner of Coppa and Toro in Boston and New York, is the author of "The New Charcuterie Cookbook." "What Josh does is great, a lot of great stuff based on tradition," he says. "Ten years ago it was hard to find guys like [him]. You'd go to an Italian place that would boast 'authentic' prosciutto, and that was it. Now local is the new authentic."
By 2005, Smith was learning to make the perfect salami, working in the mountain air of California at a Jack Nicklaus Signature golf course near Lake Tahoe. There he met his wife and future Moody's partner, Tracy Jolles, a professional skier and Wellesley native. The two relocated to Boston. Smith fell back in with the Four Seasons, where chef Brooke Vosika — a former co-worker of Smith's from his Seattle days — created a position for him. Smith developed a dry-aged beef program there, and began to make "incredible amounts or charcuterie." He went on to work at Michael Schlow's Tico before focusing on charcuterie full-time.
So why not set up shop in Boston? Because it is a notoriously challenging town in which to make sausages and pates, he says. "Chefs get in trouble all the time," Smith says. "You read about them getting shut down" by the Boston Public Health Commission. "They're afraid of it because they don't understand how to police it. And that's why I'm doing it in Waltham and not in Boston."
Smith did his research, settling on Waltham after a cold call to the regional USDA office there and a four-hour meeting. The city was on board. "At one point, [the USDA] brought in their bosses' bosses to do tours here, pointing out how it's done right, saying it's possible," he says.
Smith "has proven you can do a quality job and have no issues," says Josh Turka, executive chef at Back Bay meat haven the Salty Pig. "It's unfortunate that Boston doesn't let the chefs [do] as much as they could. . . . The laws are really outdated. I think it's something that can be done safely and very easily with the right training. I think [the BPHC] is still playing catch up with the restaurant world, [and] I think that's pushing some business out of Boston."
New England Charcuterie now offers 90 different products, all of which are meticulously cataloged, inspected, temperature controlled, and monitored. All of the information is stored in the cloud; if anything occurs that might affect the products' safety, Smith, Jolles, or food scientist and consulting product manager David Viola will receive an instant alert. Everything New England Charcuterie makes can be traced back to its source, often animals raised or ingredients cultivated by the team's network of local farmers and producers.
Now it is time for Smith's next step. To get the new plant from idea to reality, he pitched the idea to the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth, to see if the MBA students would take it on as a school project. They were game. "We had a team of six brilliant people there do an analysis based on what we had learned and implemented and perfected at Moody's, to see if it was possible," he says. Smith and his team used the completed project as a roadmap, hiring Cambridge-based architects Prellwitz Chilinski Associates to bring the vision to life.
"It's going to be a game changer," says Viola. "Every time you turn around in [Moody's], you basically bump into something or someone." He adds: "Although, knowing Joshua, he'll fill the new spot up to the point it feels like here."
As ambitious as it is, the new plant is not the culmination of Smith's meaty dreams. He imagines a string of Moody's Delis opening throughout New England. "That's the secret little carrot for me," he says with a grin. He wants industry titan Boar's Head looking over its shoulder. "Nobody has ever taken a run at them," he says. "I want to nip at their heels."
But whatever happens — however big the empire grows — it is the product that ultimately makes Smith proud. "I love that people see we serve New England Charcuterie products from the signs, try it, and say, 'This is great. Where's that from?'
"I get to say: Right here. In the back."