Life on the Line Lets face it; making it in the restaurant business is a lot harder these days. Customers are savvier (hence, more demanding) than ever, and with the economy under the weather, theyre also spending a lot more time in their own kitchens. And forget about all the diet restrictions and calorie-‐counting going on—its a challenge for any chef to cook just the way he or she wants to. However, as Matt Pressler, chef-‐owner of Matador Restaurante in Wayne, PA has figured out, if youre willing to adapt a bit, chefs and customers can have it all: creative, health-‐conscious food; affordable prices, lick-‐your-‐lips libations and the pleasure of not having to do the dishes. Certainly, it helps if youre a fan of Spanish-‐Mexican cuisine, robust riojas, tempranillos and tequila, a culinary cocktail guaranteed to deliver a real pop to your palate. But, if youre not quite sure what makes this combination so special, its a safe bet that Chef Pressler will change your mind. So pour yourself one of the above, keep reading, and get to know a little bit about this pro-‐soccer player turned chef and his passion for cooking. What is your culinary background? Im one of those chefs that took a circuitous route to the kitchen. My first restaurant job was bartending, during college. One night, the kitchen was short on staff, and I was called in to help. I had cooked plenty of things as a kid—pancakes were my specialty, and also marinated chicken, seared then finished in the oven with a French-‐Italian dressing glaze—and had natural ability and interest. Management noticed, and decided to leave me in the kitchen. It was a complete departure from the pro-‐soccer and physical therapy path I had started walking down.
Who has influenced your cooking the most? For me, its less about having a culinary mentor, than about having "operations" mentors who taught me the ins and outs of actually running a kitchen. My passion for cooking is something that has always been stirred by ingredients first, rather than the final product. Traveling to Italy and Spain, and seeing the farms and the freshness of the produce and the meats… that has been my most powerful muse. I am going back to Spain at the end of this year and I cant wait. How would you describe the cuisine at Matador? Authentic Mexican-‐Spanish—both of these cuisines have an incredible range of of ingredients that can be paired in a number of combinations that make each dish taste totally new. For instance, simply switching out an ancho chili for a guajillo pepper makes an enormous difference. How do you explain the differences and similarities in the cuisine? Thats not too tough… both are similar due to the consistent presence of rice and beans, and garlic, along with overall earthy and smoky overtones. But the differences are more noticeable: Mexican uses all fresh meats, nothing cured; and more fresh peppers, rather than dried. Spanish dishes are richer and more subtle…theres no fast rush or sting of heat, but rather a rounder, more blended flavor. Plus, Spanish chefs enjoy using dried fruits, nuts and preserves. And, theres no cilantro in Spanish cuisine. What menu items best exemplify each cuisine? For the Mexican side of things, Id have to say the tequila-‐infused Jalapeño Relleno or Poblano Mole; definitely its the paella or octopus with potatoes, hot paprika on the Spanish offerings. How does what you serve differ from what you would serve if you werent worried about customers tastes and budgets? Id be more adventurous and playful with ingredients—Id juxtapose more things such as cherries and habeneros, coffee and rice. Or how about roasted garlic ice cream… Other lesser-‐used, hard to find/ pricier ingredients too, such as roe and eel, that I cant build into the budget now, based on our price point. Even our most "exotic" dishes are geared toward a more conservative, suburban palette. It has always surprised and
confused me, that Main Line customers are willing to try new things in the city, and pay more for them, than here in the suburbs. Which three cooking gadgets or tools are your favorites? I have lots of favorites, but the lava rock mortar and pestle, my chefs knife—a 6-‐inch hammered metal Shun—and my sous vide machine. Got to have that for our chicken... What are some of the essential characteristics of a chef who is going to shake up the world? I think No.1 is a strong imagination. It’s hard to be creative if you can’t imagine an ingredient’s flavor during preparation or even when you’re daydreaming about creating a dish. All chefs need to have a high respect for ingredients and an ability to maintain a food’s integrity (and flavor) through the storing and cooking process, but I think consistency is one of the greatest measures—anyone can make something good once. However, like any artist, it’s the passion (and skill) to stick to your ethics while translating your vision to the customer that pushes chefs to the top. Go-‐to reference: The Spanish Table by Steve Winston has a lot of history and authenticity. Most of the other cookbooks that I have, I read for brainstorming, not for recipes. They can inspire me to get out of a rut. What is your favorite music to play in the kitchen? Definitely mood dependent…it can range anywhere from classic rock to Frank Sinatra. I also have to share the music decision-‐making with the guys on the line, so it depends on their mood too. Which are the most over/underrated seasonings? Black pepper. Its a completely flat layer. Underrated would be adobo seasoning, which is great for adding flavor to meat, poultry and fish. Garlic is pretty overrated, only because it is used incorrectly too often...not roasted properly, not chopped properly, added to a dish at the wrong time. All of this can make a dish taste too bitter or too hot. Cardamom is underrated—its perfect for both sweet or savory dishes, with its earthy flavor and aroma.
Salt on the tables, yes or no? NO. Also, it would be good for diners to know that when a chef, well at least this one, puts a lemon on the plate, it is meant to be used. The combination of salt and saliva helps circulate a foods flavor over your tongue. This is another reason why you should try all the components of a dish together. It will give you the chefs whole vision, which is especially in ethnic dishes, is about texture, flavor AND color. Is there a guilty secret—something canned, something wholly unsophisticated—in your arsenal of ingredients? Well...yes. Canned corn fungus; its too hard to get in fresh, and Uncle Bens long-‐grain rice. A medium grain is more authentic, so it IS kind of a culinary sin. We do at least crack the grains though. I dont use in our paella though. For that we use calasparra rice, or bomba. These suck about 2/3 more liquid in, which builds more flavor.) Which item in your home fridge would you least like to cop to? SpaghettiOs Is there a food you can’t bring yourself to eat? Well, theres so many great foods I havent tried yet, Im pretty certain that I dont need to eat flesh or live bugs. Youve got 30 minutes to cook a nice meal; what would you cook? Hmmm, how does rack of lamb with lobster-‐loaded rice, drizzled with beet, melon and guajillo pepper reduction sound? The bright, pinkish-‐red will add visual interest and the juicy, sweet-‐tart juices and the fruit will cut through fatty flavors of the lamb as well as pull out the lobsters sweet-‐salty essence. How has being a chef-‐owner changed the way you cook? There is a lot more stress and pressure to perform when youre anxious about selling and not wasting what you prepare. It takes a bit of the spontaneity and innovation out of planning a special. You really have to be conservative in choosing ingredients. However, this has helped me become more focused. My mindset is always, "Every dish matters."
What ingredient/s cant you live without? Onions, guajillo peppers and garlic When entertaining with family and friends, are you a "group" participant or do you start to take control? I generally aim to be in the background and not hover around the food as its being prepared. Its important for me to not be a chef when Im out. Its not about food at that point; its about the people preparing the food and creating a social experience. What has been your greatest culinary conquest? Matador—the combination of running the restaurant and being behind the line. What would you be your fantasy restaurant? A restaurant right on the beach where you could build ground ovens to bake fish and cook paellas all day on driftwood. People are more humble at the beach, more in relation to the earth and the larger world around them. This makes them more appreciative about what theyre eating. Name three things in your refrigerator right now... Skim milk, pizzelles, Chiuahua cheese, bell peppers, (a variety of) fig jam and some questionable leftovers. … in your summer garden? Tomatoes and hot peppers Worst kitchen disaster? One of my guys had the large cheese grater attachment on a 60-‐qt Hobart floor mixer, and he put his hand in to get the last bit of cheese out while the mixer was still on high. His finger was no match for the blades. What motto or advice do you live by whether in the kitchen or out? Do it right the first time, preparation is everything, and haste makes waste. Matador Restaurante, 110 N. Wayne Ave., Wayne, PA 19087; (610) 688-‐6282, www.matadorrestaurante.com, Facebook