Andy Husbands is the owner of three Boston restaurants: Tremont647, which celebrated 21 years this year, the adjacent Sister Sorel (“the very cool and very hip younger sister to Tremont647"), and The Smoke Shop, his passion project inspired by his work with pitmasters and his award-winning barbecue team. He’s got two more Boston area restaurants in planning.
Husbands, who grew up in nearby Needham, Massachusetts, called his father an “entrepreneur” who was “always hustling.” It seems Husbands inherited a bit of that spirit. He grew into public consciousness as a cast member on the Fox reality show Hell’s Kitchen for the series' sixth season. He finished eighth, but is the only contestant with his own Wikipedia entry.
He’s the author of five cookbooks, including 2017’s Pitmaster: Recipes, Techniques, and Barbecue Wisdom. He’s been a semi-finalist for the James Beard Award twice and is involved with the childhood hunger charity Share Our Strength. We sat down at The Smoke Shop in Cambridge to talk Barbecue and beer.
Initially, Husbands tells me he’s “not much of a beer” guy, rather preferring wine, but then he pulls out two glasses and a 750 mL of Hill Farmstead Arthur.
“You can’t say you’re not a beer guy then pull out this beer and expect me to lend any credibility to your previous statement,” I tell him. This produced a mischievous grin from Husbands, who launched right into his background with beer.
Because I was a latchkey kid. I had to cook for myself.”
How did you get into beer?
I’m 18 or 19 and everyone is drinking beer and I’m thinking, ‘I think I like this, but I don’t necessarily love it.’ I remember in 1994 or 1996, there was this kind of this first group of breweries popping up. I remember drinking it and thinking, ‘I don’t get it.’ But I couldn’t really admit that. People would be like, ‘What are you not manly? You don’t like beer?’ From a business standpoint, it was different because the consumer didn’t want to pay for it. They didn’t understand how expensive it was to make a craft beer because they were so used to Miller Lite and Budweiser and how cheap that was because it has cheap ingredients and it’s cheaply made.
Fast forward to now, and there are some artisanal craft guys doing some really incredible stuff. Still a ton of it not for me. Those big double IPA, over-hopped. They taste like pennies to me. But I happened to be in Denver and I was going all around to these places and I thought, ‘You know, I don’t really want to be drinking that much beer’ and this person said to me, ‘Have you ever had a sour?’ and I was like ‘What the hell is a sour?’ and ever since then I drink anything I can get my hands on.
What do you sell most here?
People drink the hoppy stuff like crazy here. But it’s funny. People will start with something big and fancy – people love [Lord Hobo Brewing’s] Boom Sauce – but then their food will come and they’ll opt for something lighter like a Narragansett. After dinner is over, they’ll go for the bourbon.
Backing up, how did cooking come into your life?
Because I was a latchkey kid. I had to cook for myself. It was something that I just developed a passion for. I just enjoyed it.
I wonder if there are anymore of those – latchkey kids – left in America who are left to fend for themselves after school.
I hope so. You learn to do the things you need to do.
So then it was off to culinary school. Tell me a little bit about that.
I started off in a bakery in Needham. I was fortunate to always have employers who encouraged me and pushed in the directions I needed to go. I worked on Block Island in the summer, then I traveled Europe, came back, and started working at the East Coast Grill (under pitmaster Chris Scheslinger).
When I think barbecue, I think regional. Texas, North Carolina, and this fierce loyalty to a particular brand of barbecue. In what context does barbecue exist in a place like Cambridge?
Barbecue does exist everywhere. I like history. I would say that barbecue is about history and celebration of family and tradition. It’s good and bad. Bad is that I didn’t grow up in that tradition; Good is that I didn’t grow up in that tradition. And so I don’t necessarily have those rules and regulations placed upon me. Some of the stuff I do, if I served in North Carolina, people would be blown away; Other stuff, they’d be like, ‘This is not barbecue.’
Up here, I just want us to honor different regions. I would never say, ‘This is Texas barbecue,’ but I will say that this is my tribute to Texas barbecue. That came from reading a lot and from traveling a lot. I have been all over America and I’m on a very competitive barbecue team that was the first non-Southern team to win the World Championship of BBQ.
So if you opened up a barbecue place in, say, North Carolina, you’d almost be restricted by a certain set of regional norms. And that’s not the case here?
To some degree. We’re really in, and we talked about this with beer, we’re also seeing this with food is that the consumer is more educated than ever. They know what good food is. They know what it looks like. They know what it tastes like. But there are also chefs doing some really great and different things, so you see [BBQ] kind of morphing the way other cuisines have been able to do.
The thing about barbecue has always been its accessibility. You can do a complex meal with just simple ingredients: salt, pepper, wood.
That’s what barbecue is about. Historically these ingredients weren’t wanted. Ribs weren’t what people wanted. And they found ingenious ways to maximize what it was. It was really smart how it was done.
‘Drink what’s best for you.’ If you don’t like something, don’t drink it.”
What would be your signature, ‘Let’s blow their minds at Matt’s BBQ’ dish?
I’d definitely smoke some ribs, that’s always been kind of my go-to, but my brisket is pretty stellar. You’re a barbecue guy, so I might wanna make you a brisket and game you and show you how it’s really done. Anyone can make mediocre barbecue.
That’s the point, though, right? That anyone can do it. I can’t recreate a classic French dish, but I can smoke you up something when you come over and most people will be happy.
Yeah, they’ll be happy until I roll up next to you [laughs].
What kind of beers are you drinking lately?
I’m drinking anything by Aeronaut [Brewing in nearby Somerville], our neighbors Cambridge Brewing Co. are killing it. We have these unbelievable craft beers. Rotating sours, all that, but one of our best sellers is Coors Light.
Is that because it goes well with barbecue?
Barbecue transcends. So people seem to think that what they drink is the correct thing [to accompany a meal], but what they drink is the correct thing for them. People always ask me what to drink with this or that, and my response is typically, ‘Drink what’s best for you.’ If you don’t like something, don’t drink it. We also have 202 American whiskeys here. I drink a fair share of whiskey.
Where’s barbecue going?
We’re in a really special time right now. About food and beer and spirits. As I said, the consumer is more educated, they know what’s good, and they’re talking about it all the time. And people are into craft. What’s neat about it is that we’ve always thought about bourbon or wine as a craft, but people are really showing what a craft beer is. There’s a real good definition out there. [Gestures to the glass of Arthur] This is certainly one of the great examples.
Barbecue is the same thing now. People are looking at it differently. They were used to being served mediocre barbecue and accepting that as what’s good. Like beer, it’s not the case anymore.