The fine-dining chef who’s smokin’

(Tracy A. Woodward/ THE WASHINGTON POST ) - “Barbecue plucks a primal chord in your brain, and when it is plucked just right, something you don’t even realize happens,” says chef Andrew Evans.

(Tracy A. Woodward/ THE WASHINGTON POST ) - “Barbecue plucks a primal chord in your brain, and when it is plucked just right, something you don’t even realize happens,” says chef Andrew Evans.

Andrew Evans is chopping smoked brisket on a midsummer Saturday afternoon. He’s in the open kitchen of the BBQ Joint, his airy yet cozy restaurant in Easton, Md. At 47, he looks a bit like Russell Crowe, dressed in a red T-shirt, jeans, apron and black baseball cap.

It is a far cry from his high-flying days as the chef-owner of one of the most highly touted restaurants in the mid­Atlantic, the Inn at Easton. Food enthusiasts made their way to his place on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, about 11 / 2 hours’ drive from Washington, to experience Evans’s adventurous cuisine.

In 2007, The Post’s Tom Sietsema awarded the restaurant three stars. In his last food piece before he died in 2006, the legendary New York Times writer and gourmand R.W. “Johnny” Apple Jr. wrote that the chef “works magic” with the inn’s Australia-meets-Asia-meets-Maryland menu.

Roasted kangaroo tenderloin, fried Chesapeake oysters and green Thai bouillabaisse existed, somehow harmoniously, on the roster of dishes — probably due to Evans’s training at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y., followed by an eight-year stint at an Asian restaurant in Australia.

Evans’s acclaim attracted the likes of top toques such as Eric Ziebold, Roberto Donna, Robert Wiedmaier and Cathal Armstrong to cook a dinner as part of his 2006 Guest Chef series.

But two years later, personal matters led Evans to close the inn; he sold it the next year. He moved to his current location and opened a Thai restaurant. “It was completely open, like a night-market stall,” he says, referring to stands in Southeast Asia. “That was my baby. It didn’t work, though.”

His woes were compounded by the recession. “I was on the ropes, financially,” he says. “I went to my biggest investor, my mom. You toe the line when you go to your mom. And I said, ‘I could try barbecue,’ and she said, ‘All right, give it a try.’ ”

Born in New York City and raised in Ohio and New Hampshire, Evans did not grow up around barbecue. He graduated from the University of Virginia in 1989 with a degree in religious studies (specializing in Zen Buddhism). He worked as a line cook at a Baltimore restaurant before attending the CIA. After graduation, he was sponsored to cook in Australia. He thought he would be there a year. He ended up staying for eight.

But Evans’s interest in barbecue had grown steadily since 2004, when he served as a judge at the prestigious Jack Daniels World Championship Invitational Barbecue in Lynchburg, Tenn.

“I don’t know why they asked me,” he says. “But it changed my perspective completely. Chefs think barbecue is redneck food and it’s beneath them. That’s how I used to think.”

When he returned from what is simply known as the Jack, Evans began experimenting with smoking meats and held backyard competitions. In 2008, he formed Walk the Swine, a competition team.

Evans had caught the barbecue bug. When the Thai restaurant didn’t work out, he saw barbecue not only as a viable business option but also as something to fulfill his relatively newfound love affair with the cuisine.

“I think barbecue plucks a primal chord in your brain and when it is plucked just right, something you don’t even realize happens, “ he says. “The crusty bark on the meat, the fire. It just goes . . . ping.”

He tore up the carpet in the Thai restaurant, installed two 250-pound Cookshack indoor electric smokers, and reopened the place in January 2010 as the BBQ Joint.

Rather than work all hours, as he did at the inn, Evans smokes the meats overnight and keeps them in a warmer until service. The method allows him to leave in the afternoon on most days to be at home with his daughters, ages 14 and 10, just three blocks away.

He volunteers at their schools, and he makes dinner for them, something he didn’t have time to do when he and his wife were running the inn. (The couple divorced in 2009.)

“Back then, my whole life was babysitter, babysitter, babysitter,” he says. The girls’ favorite family meals reflect their chef-dad’s pedigree: gnocchi; steamed artichokes with garlic and butter; and salmon glazed with a ginger chutney, served over sauteed bok choy with a side of jasmine rice.

His formal training has benefited his barbecue, he says. “I have the advantage of being a chef, which helps me accelerate my knowledge,” nodding toward the beans on a visitor’s plate. “We use four different beans and about 18 ingredients in those — measured to the gram.”

The BBQ Joint serves all-natural meats that Evans brines in salt, vinegar, sugar and water. The savory-rubbed (cayenne, thyme, garlic powder, onion powder, paprika, a trace of sugar) bone-in Heritage Acres Duroc Boston butt is smoked for about six hours over hickory. The mustard-slathered brisket receives a hearty salt-and-crushed-red-pepper rub, then is smoked between eight and 10 hours over mesquite.

With a more complex rub that includes brown sugar, the hickory-and-applewood-smoked St. Louis-cut spareribs get a sweeter treatment. The free-range chicken, coated in a rub similar to the ribs’ but less peppery, is also smoked over hickory and applewood.

Evans offers four house-made sauces, all tomato-based: spicy, sweet, medium and a sweet-and-spicy concoction he calls “swicy.” “It took seven years to get those sauces right,” he says.

On Wednesdays, he serves what has become a customer favorite: smoked meatloaf, a mixture of ground beef, his own brisket rub, onion and tomatoes, glazed with his medium-heat sauce.

“I tried to take it off the menu at one point, but I had a visceral response from my customers,” Evans says. “To prevent abuse from my staff, I put it back on.”

Patrons would do well to order the Redneck Nachos, a fresh (both meanings) take on the often gloppy appetizer, with its corn tortilla triangles lightly fried, mixed with onions and fresh shaved jalapenos, and drizzled with chipotle cream. The plump smoked chicken wings are tossed in unsalted butter and dusted with a zingy rub that melts into the meat.

The sides include creamy mac ’n’ cheese sprinkled with chipotle Tabasco sauce, and collard greens flavored with rendered brisket fat, vinegar, onion, salt and crushed red pepper flakes. For dessert, the Hillbilly Pie is not to be missed. It gets its name not from any single type of pie (say, a peach or pecan), but from the deep cast-iron skillet in which it is baked.

Beer options include standards to craft brews such as Butternuts Porkslap. As befits the onetime fine-dining chef, Evans provides a small selection of wines as well.

The business, which is closed on Sundays, is doing well. Last spring, Food & Wine magazine named the BBQ Joint one of America’s best new barbecue restaurants. Earlier this year, Evans expanded to open a food truck on Thursdays through Saturdays. (He closed it in August for the season.) As of press time, he was in negotiations to open a second BBQ Joint.

Colleagues continue to find their way to Evans’s food. He notes with pride that Polly Wiedmaier, wife of his chef pal, Robert, just stopped in to pick up barbecue for a meal back home.

Starting this month, Evans is adding a “What’s Andrew Smoking” dinner on Monday nights. As the name suggests, Evans will smoke whatever comes to mind: pork hocks, veal cheeks, veal or beef short ribs, perhaps game. “I want to keep it fun,” he says.

As the summery Saturday afternoon begins sliding toward evening, Evans gets antsy to go home and see his family. In between overseeing the kitchen and bantering with patrons, he has been tweaking a competition recipe, checking from time to time on a rack of ribs smoldering in a kamado-style Primo cooker on the restaurant’s patio. The sienna-hued meat glistens with a last-minute lacquer of sauce, and the bones all but faint when he clutches their midsection with a set of tongs.

“Done,” he says, and starts to shut down.

“The food is all great and awesome,” he says without sounding arrogrant. “But the real victory for me is being able to raise the girls. Be there. One thing barbecue has allowed me to do is be a dad.”

RECIPES:

Low- and Slow-Smoked Meatloaf

Hillbilly Blueberry Pie

BBQ Chicken Wings

The BBQ Joint is at 216 E. Dover St., Easton, Md. 410-690-3641. www.andrewevansbbqjoint.com. Shahin will join today’s Free Range chat at noon: live.washingtonpost.com. Follow him on Twitter: @jimshahin.

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