Listening to Jeff Schmidt talk about making brisket is like listening to a writer struggling to find the right word, or an artist obsessing over shades of color.
The pitmaster and owner of Waterbury’s Hindsight BBQ starts with quality meat. He only uses prime beef — the grade with the most marbling — never choice or select. He then trims the meat to enhance flavors during the slow-cook process. He gets to work at 4 a.m. to start the 12- to 14-hour, brisket-smoking process. During that long cook, there is so much that can go wrong and so many variables to consider, Schmidt says. “The weather is a factor,” he says. “If it’s raining or it’s sunny, or it’s hot, it’s cold, when the wind blows a certain way — when you’re cooking with live fire, they’re factors.
“I make great brisket,” he adds, “but I still think I can make it better every time. I’m still looking for that perfect cook.”
Schmidt’s quest — and it is indeed that — for barbecue perfection has resulted in some of the best barbecue the state has to offer. Located just off Route 8 and within striking distance of I-84, Hindsight should be a spot on barbecue fans’ bucket lists. Opened last October, the restaurant serves what Schmidt calls “new school barbecue” which doesn’t pick a regional style and instead owes its allegiance to flavor alone.
I discovered the strengths of this style during a recent trip. That signature beef brisket was tender and juicy with the cut-with-a-spoon goodness you want. It came as part of an assorted meat platter that was as beautiful a plate of barbecue as I’ve ever seen, and also featured pulled pork, burnt ends and ribs, and was accented by pickles, watermelon and pickled onions. “People eat with their eyes,” Schmidt says of how he designed the plate. “The different colors and everything play together. It’s an experience in itself when that hits the table.”
The fruit and pickles also serve as excellent palate cleansers.
Other offerings include housemade sausage, sticky pork ribs, chicken wings and an assortment of sandwiches, and all are available for eat-in and takeout. Though the food lends itself well to takeout, there are plenty of reasons to stay. The restaurant occupies a former diner and has a comfortable interior. But the true star is the outdoor space, featuring a picture-perfect, beer-garden feel with picnic tables, games such as cornhole and a wooden bar.
Speaking of drinks, the restaurant’s beer list is another strength. Schmidt has long been a craft beer connoisseur, and that shows in the restaurant’s well-curated selection from Connecticut breweries. Hindsight BBQ frequently hosts mobile events at breweries and smoked the spelt malt for Kent Falls Brewing Co.’s limited-release lager, Besmoke. “Beer and barbecue is something that goes well together,” Schmidt says.
Beyond the meats, the sides and vegetables at Hindsight stand out. “If you really look up the definition of barbecue, it just means being cooked with fire; that’s the raw definition of barbecue,” Schmidt says. “You can smoke vegetables, you can smoke fruits, you can smoke anything you want.” So you’ll find dishes like burnt end cauliflower and other barbecued vegetables. Sides such as coleslaw, mac and cheese and potato salad are also winners.
Schmidt’s passion for barbecue has been burning for about six years now. The restaurant industry veteran — his mother owns @ the Corner in Litchfield and Black Rock Tavern in Thomaston — started barbecuing as a hobby, but cooking with fire soon grew into an obsession. He replaced his initial backyard smoker with a bigger, more professional unit that in turn was replaced by a still bigger and better smoker. He took trips down South to take classes and sample famed barbecue spots. Eventually, he found he was spending too much time barbecuing not to go pro. “If it’s something you want to do all the time, you obviously have to commit to it; you can’t really have another job and do that,” he says. “So eventually I was like, ‘I need to make a decision whether I want to make this my life or not.’ ”
Schmidt opted to make barbecue his life but he warns a pitmaster’s life is not for everyone. After starting to cook the brisket at 4 a.m. he sometimes doesn’t leave the restaurant until midnight. The fire that fuels the smoker never goes out, and the money isn’t what people think it is.
“I’ve heard many times over the years and I believe it to be true that if you want to get rich, don’t open a restaurant. It has the ability to make a rich man poor if not done properly,” he says. But he adds that constantly striving for barbecue perfection is something you can’t put a price tag on. “What makes it worthwhile to me is that I get to smoke things every day and I get to do it for my profession, which is basically what everyone strives to do: find something you enjoy and make it your life.”
1503 Thomaston Ave., Waterbury
Hours: Lunch and dinner Wed.–Sun.
Not wheelchair accessible