Chef Joshua Smith has a pretty full plate these days. For starters, he operates his five-year-old charcuterie hot spot in Waltham, Moody’s Delicatessen and Provisions. He’s expanding his restaurant adjacent to Moody’s, the Backroom, by adding an oyster bar, and he’s opening a taco-barbeque joint next door—a nod to his southern heritage. In December, he introduced a second Moody’s location in the heart of Back Bay, and by the end of this year, he’s hoping to open an outpost of the Backroom in Napa, California. Then there’s his 10,000-square-foot meat-processing plant, New England Charcuterie—which he fondly refers to as the Death Star—that supplies cured creations to restaurants across the city, from Townsman to Area Four.
His influence is everywhere, but don’t mistake Smith for a celebrity chef.
“I’ve said no to the Food Network more times than anything. They’ve asked for Top Chef, Beat Bobby Flay, Guy’s Grocery Games—I couldn’t care fucking less,” Smith says. “I don’t want it to be about me. I want it to be about my team.”
When it comes to his business and 90-plus staff members, Smith says there are no small parts. When someone calls in sick, he’ll step in to deliver the platters of sandwiches or repair the custom-made ovens.
“One day, I’m scrubbing toilets or taking out the trash or whatever, and the next day I’m sitting on the 55th floor of the Hancock Tower having a meeting about raising $3 million to do the next project. Nothing’s above or beneath me.”
Smith’s distaste of the Food Network is particularly ironic because family dinners—something he tries to make it home for at least three nights a week with his wife, Tracy, and 10-year-old son, Tyler—are essentially an episode of Chopped. During father-son grocery store runs, Tyler picks out random ingredients that he finds interesting, and Smith then attempts to create a cohesive meal with their haul.
Just like dad, Tyler’s a big meat-eater—steak or lamb are his top selections—and he’s also no stranger to how the sausage gets made, so to speak. “Tyler’s seen the farm where we raise our pigs, he’s seen them slaughtered and he eats the bacon that those pigs yielded. So he’s very familiar with the food chain.”
Smith’s first forays into the food industry took a much different path. At age 15, he was sweeping the floors of a McDonald’s in his hometown of Charlotte, North Carolina. He’d left home around that same time after his parents divorced, living on his own and working his way up the Golden Arches ladder to the egg station.
Instead of finishing high school, he washed dishes at a local restaurant before earning a spot on the prep line to cut chicken for tenders. “I identified with all the cooks, and it was this camaraderie that I just craved coming from a broken home,” Smith says. After dinner service ended, he would nap in the booths before meeting his friend, Crazy Steve, who’d pay him $50 to clean the kitchen’s hoods and stoves. Then he’d get ready for the morning shift.
At that time, any extra cash went toward Grateful Dead concert tickets. “We’d go to these shows and sell beers or grilled cheeses in the parking lot and make a few bucks and buy some weed or whatever.” (The Grateful Dead is Smith’s soundtrack of choice for the Backroom’s Sunday brunch service.)
His first taste of charcuterie came at age 19 when he was working at Dean & Deluca in North Carolina. “The butcher didn’t show up one day because he drank a lot, and [the chef] told me to go work in the butcher shop.” Even though he had only ever worked with chicken breasts, Smith immediately felt at home behind the gourmet meat counter. “The general manager of the store was a classic American butcher, so he showed me how Americans cut [their meat] and the French chef showed me how the French cut for their cuisine,” Smith says. “So I got a real OG lesson on how to set a beautiful butcher case, and how to manage it.”
And then just like his favorite jam band, Smith took his act across the country.
He hitchhiked his way to Seattle, ready to start slicing meats for the masses. “Taking the Greyhound bus, catching a ride, meeting someone, living on couches—I didn’t have anything; I had only what I could carry on my back.”
When he got to Washington, he discovered that charcuterie was old news. “Everywhere I went, I talked about charcuterie and every chef laughed at me because they were like, ‘That’s a dying art, nobody does that anymore.’ ”
Smith didn’t care. He cooked for 1,200-person banquets at the Four Seasons Olympic Hotel, catered parties at Bill Gates’ house and worked the cheese and charcuterie counter at a Thriftway.
California came next, where Smith worked at two local golf courses, whipping up more than 200 pastrami sandwiches a day. His take on the Katz’s specialty? Instead of steaming the meat, he fries it to render all the fat. He then worked as chef de cuisine for a group of restaurants in the Lake Tahoe area. That’s where he met his wife, World Cup skier Tracy Jolles, and they eventually moved to her home state of Massachusetts, where Smith found work at the Four Seasons in Boston.
In November 2012, Smith finally got to open his own deli dreamland, Moody’s, where salami and pork legs dangle from the rafters like chandeliers and the butcher cases are stocked with pate, premium cold cuts and spicy sausages.
But to Smith, Moody’s is about more than just the meat, though there is plenty of that. It’s about the neighborhood hangout spot that a deli environment fosters.
“People are very habitual about their breakfast and lunch. They get into their routine and that’s what makes them comfortable and happy,” Smith says. “For me, that’s so special. To have a place where you can see the same people over and over again, and have an impact on your community. That was all I really ever wanted.”
When Smith gets his hair cut nearby on Moody Street, he brings lunch to the salon. If the deli’s power goes out (thanks to the main street’s antiquated power lines), the pub across the way has offered to store Moody’s perishables in its fridges. The Backroom mostly serves domestic wines, since there’s an Italian restaurant down the street that already has a comprehensive European wine list. And every morning, Smith has a proper sit-down meal—a mix of eggs, smoked salmon, avocado, jalapeños and the occasional dollop of caviar—with his “Breakfast Club,” a crew of local plumbers, electricians and landscapers that chat about last night’s game over eggs. The Gino, a breakfast wrap on the menu that consists of ham, scrambled eggs, American cheese and spicy ketchup, was created after the eatery’s electrician, Gino, regularly ordered the combo.
“When I started, I didn’t think Moody’s was going to be as big as it got. It was only supposed to be this small little deli where we made charcuterie in the back and we sold it in the front,” Smith says. “It totally took on a life of its own.”
So how does he cope with the craziness of running his own burgeoning restaurant empire?
Cappuccinos help. As do Boulder and Brady, Smith’s two golden retrievers who accompany him on delivery runs and have a dog bed and toys at his New England Charcuterie office. And when he really needs to get away from work for a bit, he and a fellow “geeky” co-worker have a steak dinner, split a bottle of wine and go catch a superhero movie. “My days are so slammed that it’s nice to escape and retreat into some alternate place for a few hours,” says Smith, who buys the movie tickets a month ahead of time, usually for the Thursday night advanced screenings.
Smith finds a lot of comfort in planning ahead. Before he seriously sliced into the charcuterie game, he had already decided on his retirement arrangements by the time he turned 20. The plan includes a lot of pigs, unsurprisingly, and a place in Chamonix, France, where he can walk to the charming town center to share plates of prosciutto with friends and shop for small-batch groceries.
“I’d hang out with the guy who makes the cheese, and I’d be guy who makes the meat, and then there’s the guy who makes the bread—just that real communal love for food and family. The town would get together and everyone would eat food together.”
Aside from the whole French chateau element, Smith already has the trimmings of his lifelong goal. He’s building his own version of a town center right in Moody’s, constantly chatting with the locals who meander in for their morning coffee. The restaurant’s chef and baker, Luke Fetbroth, is the guy who makes the bread and some of the cheese (as well as the chocolate-frosted and bacon-topped doughnuts). The community comes together to dine on simple, classic dishes that serve up a sense of nostalgia, nestled between two slices of rye.
And most importantly, Joshua Smith is the man who makes the meat. ◆