I’m clutching a chef’s knife, poised to puncture a fleshy mountain of brisket. I whack it with the finely honed technique of a clumsy child at T-ball practice. The brisket jiggles in protest. But with one more stab, the meat falls onto the counter in slick pink sheets.
Fortunately, I have a patient teacher. Chef Andy Husbands is behind the line with me, taking a pause during opening night at the Seaport’s Smoke Shop barbecue joint to walk me through the finer points of carving. We’re attacking brisket and ribs, both signature dishes. Husbands is an expert pit master, having won several Jack Daniel’s world barbecue competitions. He’s also written cookbooks like “Wicked Good Barbecue” and “Grill to Perfection.”
Husbands is also camera-ready, having appeared on “Chopped” and “Hell’s Kitchen.” Therefore, he has agreed to slice and dice for a Globe video crew, despite the fact that his restaurant opened mere hours earlier. He is not new to this racket. Husbands worked under Chris Schlesinger at the East Coast Grill in the early 1990s, and Schlesinger put him to work at his Jake and Earl’s Dixie barbecue for training. Husbands longed to be a “fancy chef” in those days; Schlesinger brought him down to earth.
“He’s my mentor. He knew better than me. And he still does — just ask him,” Husbands says with a chuckle.
Husbands went on to open happy neighborhood hangout Tremont 647 in the South End, which is still in business after two decades. He also began competing in barbecue competitions in 1997 with his cookbook coauthor, Chris Hart. Now there’s the Smoke Shop in Kendall Square and the brand-new Seaport version. More Smoke Shops are in the works.
One gets the sense that Husbands, 48, is ready to settle comfortably into a role as Boston meat maven. He commutes from Stoneham, where he lives with his wife. (He’s originally from Needham, though, and he says he wouldn’t completely mind moving back.) He’s up at 5:45 a.m. and in bed around 11:30 — downright civilized for a chef. He has a team in place, notably Will Salazar, chef de cuisine at both locations, and co-owners Brian Lesser and Ian Dov Grossman, to help his shops run smoothly.
Last year, when Husbands opened his first Smoke Shop in Cambridge, the heat was on. Now, things are mellower, he says.
“I have Will, and a couple of other people who have been with me, and they all know what to do. I didn’t have to come in until like 9 this morning. I got six or seven hours of sleep last night. It makes a difference. The pressure is less. . . . Now my job is to see into the future and guide and teach,” Husbands says.
Being a business visionary is important — expansion plans, bottom lines, you know — but possibly ambitious when you’re staring down a craggy slab of brisket (Husbands estimates that the restaurant will go through 500 pounds of meat today) and a rapidly filling dining room. A restaurant’s success is often foreshadowed on opening night. Yelp-happy crowds aren’t always forgiving.
“I’ll tell you a story,” Husbands says. “I won’t tell you the restaurant’s name, but this was in the South End. A chef friend said to the owner during a soft opening, ‘If you open with this menu, you will fail.’ This was an older chef talking to a younger chef, and he’s still open today. It was wild. They went from Americana to another type of restaurant,” he recalls.
Husbands, however, seems firmly on brand this evening. (When I text him later to ask how he’d classify his barbecue, he quickly responds: “We highlight the best BBQ in America.”) People pour in from the cold — millennials with backpacks; hardy souls with strollers. At 5 p.m., the room is nearly empty. By 6:30, it’s packed, and Husbands is clearly pleased. Hard to think of a big barbecue restaurant here a few years ago, in this not-quite-the-Seaport stretch of Fort Point. Like Kendall Square, home to Husbands’s other branch, this is a neighborhood that has changed. So has Andy Husbands. No longer a “fancy chef,” Husbands aspires to be a man of the people.
“Barbecue is, to me, America’s cuisine. Cooking over fire is inherent to humans. No other animal does that. It’s primal,” Husbands says. Barbecue is an equalizer, and that’s why he loves it so: “It’s plumbers, and doctors, and engineers, and everything in between.”
And these days, it’s about pleasing all of them.
“My number-one thing is to treat everyone like grandma. If grandma wants an avocado, you should say, ‘If I have a ripe one? Absolutely.’ ”
In the Seaport, Husbands seems to have a ripe avocado. Not too many grandmas, though. The crowd here is youngish. Sean and Dani McGrail are early arrivals. Sean moved to the neighborhood seven years ago.
“I was single then. I moved to be close to Lucky’s Lounge,” he says with a grin. Now he and his wife have more culinary choices and a baby.
“There’s nothing else like this in the neighborhood,” he says. His daughter appears content in a stroller.
The opening has also attracted Husbands fans, folks who have followed his barbecue exploits and cookbooks. People like Brian Del Vecchio, a director of software engineering at Digital Lumens down the block. He recruited a posse of co-workers to check out opening night with him.
“I met Andy at a book-signing three years ago,” he says. “I told him that I’d learn to love to cook.”
Instead of giving the fan a cookbook and sending him on his way, Husbands invited the aspiring griller to compete with him at a local barbecue event.
“It was just me, him, and 50 racks of ribs,” Del Vecchio says with a tinge of awe. “He is my sensei.”
And then there are those industry watchers eager to scope out the scene, like Justin Alpert, a restaurant architect. (Right now, he’s impressed by the design at Lolita, a new Mexican spot down the block.)
This room is big and inviting — cafeteria a la Americana — with big-screen TVs, cow and pig diagrams (for those who don’t know a flank from a shank), and blaring Southern rock. But Alpert is also here to eat pulled pork. His wife, Lindsay, will opt for burnt ends.
Many people go for his brisket or ribs, and it’s easy to understand why. A 10- to 11-pound brisket is smoked for 18 hours until it jiggles (yes, jiggling is actually a good sign). It’s rubbed with a mixture of salt, pepper, and a “few other secret things,” Husbands says with a wink. The fleshier, marbled point is used for burnt ends and plates; the leaner flat is used for sandwiches.
After attacking the brisket, we move on to a rack of St. Louis pork ribs. They are roughly 3 pounds, smoked for four to six hours over oak and cherry. We glaze them with a swipe of his sugary-spicy “sweet victory” barbecue sauce and dust them with that salt-and-pepper rub.
They’re almost done, but not quite. With one eye on the dining room and one on the plate, he plucks a stray brush bristle from the top of a rib before sending it on its way.Kara Baskin can be reached at email@example.com.