Inspiration

What You Think You Become: What Chef Brad Mathews Taught Me

If you have friends you text random questions to with absolutely no surrounding context at random hours of the day, use that as your frame of reference when picturing Chef Brad Mathews.

I met Brad at a tapas bar in Santa Monica, had an awesome time eating his food at Fishing with Dynamite in Manhattan Beach, and now anxiously await the opening of Cadet, a new restaurant in Santa Monica where he will be throwing down with Kris Tominaga from Hart and the Hunter. (Who in turn, is partners with Jeff Weinstein, who opened The Counter. If you want more of the Kevin Bacon-like degrees of separation, just ask Google. Don’t worry, it’s easier to keep track of if you don’t try to talk it out.)

Seriously though, isn’t that the best restaurant name ever? It’s more magical than Harry Potter. When I go, I expect all of you to join me. And bring friends. Otherwise, we can’t be friends.

See you at Cadet!

This month’s attempt to put my spin on a chef’s food memories and associations garnered some fantastic results.

Brad ate eggs at his (Great-) Grandmother’s house in the morning before school, but mostly remembers receiving one dollar from her to spend at a doughnut shop next door to his middle school each day. With a 30-minute window between the shop’s opening and the school day beginning, he would buy a fresh doughnut for 50-cents. With the remaining 50-cents, he would either buy 50 Swedish Fish (at a cost of one penny each) or play video games (Street Fighters or Lethal Enforcers.)

I respect anyone with a love for Swedish Fish and who actually remembers playing Street Fighters in a doughnut shop, so I became curious about what he looks for in a good doughnut. Midway through the coffee we have used as an excuse for meeting, he relates his love for the eclairs and Boston Creams at Bob’s Donuts in San Francisco, where the line of drunk hungry people wraps around the building at 2:00 AM and the doughnuts go directly from the fryer into a glaze into the box. Served while hot enough to release steam when torn open, this memory incites a tangent discussion about the ridiculous nature of chocolate.

Brad has shared several early food memories with me, thanks to being patient with my constant stream of questions over the course of our friendship, including a vivid one of thinly shaved venison heart over toast. Our conversation turns to chicken gizzards and his Uncle “Fireball” Marty, who uses them to make a tomatoey “hillbilly menudo,” served with peppers on a bun.

Which is more wonderful to discover: The Uncle sharing a name with the most disgusting-hangover-inducing whiskey known to man, or the fact that he makes a version of a soup known for curing the worst morning-after headaches?

For comfort food after a difficult day, Brad turns to pork shanks manipulated into a smoked pork bolognese, with his version of capitelli pasta shaped into “pigs tails.” As I mentioned a couple of weeks ago, I have never associated pasta with comfort, but understand why people do. Still, his demeanor becomes more relaxed just by discussing pasta and the “good Italian” food he associates with date nights with his wife, so I make a mental note to try making some sort of pasta dish ASAP. (Not a bad excuse to carb-load.)

My inspiration increases when he discusses his desire to make “magic” food and describes brown butter as “something special.”

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The Way I See It #1: Pasta as Comfort Food – Shrimp, Corn, and Brown Butter Fettuccine

The culinary trends he hates to love revolve around menu items “everyone thinks they can do,” like crudo and pork belly. He pushes up his glasses and we share a bonding moment about our respective tendencies to be underwhelmed when we are served pork belly. “It’s supposed to be flavorful, salty, sweet, succulent, gelatinous, fatty, melt-in-your-mouth delicious,” he exclaims, going on to describe the ideal pork belly texture as being spoon-tender, with a caramelized top layer of fat after a day-long cure in sugar, salt, chili, garlic, and herbs and cooked on a low 250 until “ridiculously tender.”

When he’s sick, he eats pad thai and watches “Ghostbusters.”

Damn, I meant to ask him if he prefers the original or the sequel.

Occasionally, he’ll cure his colds with ramen, which he takes with pork, soft-boiled egg, green onions, and sambal. He mentions a dream from the previous night involving pork broth, flavored with ginger, garlic, and lemongrass after cooking the flavor out of a pig’s head and trotters (the hoof up to the knee, which he helpfully indicates on his tattoo.)

Always trust a man who is good with knives and willing to tattoo a pig on himself.

If you’re thinking a lot of my conversation with Brad was about pork, it’s because pork is an ingredient that makes him feel better, regardless of what has happened that day. (He says a whole roasted or grilled fish will also suffice.) Brad likes foods that require nurturing, and as such get mistaken for being finicky. Akin to a healthy relationship, he favors working with ingredients that require patience and skill to emphasize their versatility – think radishes, peas, fish (especially black bass), and stone fruit.

A few days after this conversation, I text him a photo of pulled pork, which I have finally gussied up the patience to prepare.

The Way I See It #2: Pulled Pork from my Inner Nurturer

A Thank You Card, In 100 Words (Since chefs opening new restaurants hardly have time to breathe normally, let alone read my blog posts):

Dear Chef Brad,

Talking with you seems to simultaneously make my brain simplify and stop worrying while making my cooking times longer. Thank you for your advice and feedback without ego – there’s a reason why myself and several others look to you as a source of knowledge. You’ve helped remove some of my insecurities about cooking pork, which led to a new goal being set and achieved….With help from our conversation (and that pulled pork recipe), my family will be trying my food for the first time in November. I can’t freaking wait for Cadet to open.

-S

The Human Part of It: Coffee and Community with Chef Brad Mathews

Having coffee with Chef Brad Mathews is remarkably similar to putting one’s toes in the sand and hearing nothing but the sound of surf. That’s not an exaggeration. The man is so invested in those surrounding him, it’s hard to not feel at ease, valued, and respected. Our conversation doesn’t follow a linear structure, but moves me through different chunks of time. Shifts of seasons, types of cuisine, and people important to him are acknowledged, but everything revolves around his passion for generating feelings of inspiration and community.

Some of Brad’s earliest and most vivid food memories start in his great-grandmother’s garden. The feisty soul who cursed, drank beer, and liked good food has had a huge influence over Brad. A lunch lady who took care of him and his brother while his parents were working, he can only describe her garden as “awesome,” his descriptions transporting me to beds of heirloom tomatoes, corn, herbs, and flowers in small-town Watkins Glen, New York. “She showed me how good asparagus with just salt and butter is….it’s very good,” he says, grinning. “It was really simple food, focusing on freshness. Not playing with it too much. It took until I was doing what I’m doing and trying to figure out why I was moving into this career to answer how she had an impact.”

Then there’s his father, a butcher who worked in a family-owned grocery store as far back as Brad’s memory stretches. A simple and useful store for the small town consisting of a few aisles of produce and household goods, it managed to maintain a well-stocked meat counter for his father to work behind. He pauses to mention the quality of simple food made in small communities: the ability to grow vegetables and make better quality meals with the freshest possible ingredients; the satisfaction of knowing everything on a plate is the result of someone’s contribution. His father maintained this barn butcher shop for free for his friends, thinking nothing of sharing his abilities.

The circle of friends revolving around his father’s butcher counter led Brad to his first out-of-the-box (at the time) food experience. An early memory of waking up to his father breaking down a fresh deer in the garage pans to a friend’s mother braising the heart and serving it thinly shaved with olive oil on toasted bread remains with him. “There’s a sense of community and sense of person. It’s still very resonant to me. It’s cool for me to carry that on. I get the most satisfaction cooking for my friends and carrying that on in a different way.”

We pause so Brad can buy a coffee, and it gives me the opportunity to show him my gift for him – a shirt from Flavour Gallery with a quote by James Beard spaced around rows of pig screen prints: If I had to narrow my choice of meats down to one for the rest of my life, I am quite certain that meat would be pork. Maybe he’s thankful for the gift. Maybe the coffee is kicking in. He responds with renewed enthusiasm when I jump to his style of cooking on the line.

“Service is fast. It’s like being on a basketball court or part of a football team…you can’t do it with a six-inch voice. I’m the guy saying, ‘Push, push, push, go, go, go.’ Always positive, though.” He smiles sheepishly. “It’s loud in the kitchen. You have to have presence. You have to have a voice.”

It hits me that I’ve been trying to pick out subtleties in his voice. Brad has the ability to command attention without raising his voice. He mentions he is still trying to figure out his kitchen presence. He knows he doesn’t need to put others down to gain confidence, and mentions his desire to teach and coach those around him for nothing more than the satisfaction of watching them succeed.

This ability to exude respect for his craft led to his current job at Fishing with Dynamite with David LeFevre, who also owns Manhattan Beach Post. During what was supposed to be a first informal meeting, LeFevre and Brad had a three-hour conversation over biscuits, coffee, and a shared boyish excitement about food. Brad realized LeFevre  was the type of owner he eventually wants to be. Their conversation flowed around restaurant culture, good food, good music….a general desire to make the community surrounding a restaurant better. “It was the first time someone vocalized the human types of characteristics that make restaurants better. Not about prep and pushing on the line, but who you are.”

A position was centered around Brad’s needs: a love of cooking, but a desire to refocus on his marriage and helping his wife’s dreams come true, in addition to his own. His role at Fishing with Dynamite is an executive one, but from a different angle than his previous jobs. He uses his hands when he talks for the first time, expressing a renaissance of inspiration and feeling of being pushed out of a former comfort zone.

“I always loved restaurants. I loved the cast of characters. I loved them, wanted to get one, and didn’t know how…..I still don’t know how. But I always knew this is what I want to do.”

We deter from chef talk to romance, and I hear the story of how he met his wife, Kelly, after filling a 1999 V.W. Jetta with clothing and guitars and leaving Watkins Glen for Orlando, Florida. He developed an infatuation for a bartender in the restaurant he worked in. One evening in her apartment after work, a friend he is still close with told the two of them to cut the crap and admit their feelings for one another.

He doesn’t hesitate when citing his most important inspirations: his wife Kelly, Sarah – the friend who introduced him, and his best friend Steven. “I wouldn’t be where I am now without them. More so than anything, I’m focused on managing my state of mind. These people love, influence, and inspire me….if I were a single guy, I’d work seven days a week, twenty hours a day without batting an eyelash.” His current search for balance factors in: being a supportive husband, harnessing his creativity at Fishing with Dynamite, cultivating talent within team members, and maintaining friendships with farmers and others he has promised to surround himself with for the rest of his career.

Brad’s exposure to the importance of maintaining relationships with farmers started at a restaurant called Just a Taste in Ithaca, New York, a twenty-four-table tapas bar with a continuously changing menu. Jen Irwin, the owner, has had the restaurant for more than twenty years. Sustainable not for trendiness, but for necessity, this was the biggest job Brad had before relocating to Los Angeles. He loved the forward-thinking about local and sustainable food and the concept of no menu restrictions, believing it should (and will) keep customers excited and coming back for more.

Another pause to acknowledge the importance of seasonality in cooking, then more tangents about his love for “market day” and how right now is the perfect time to eat tomatoes, since the middle of summer is when they contain the perfect amount of sugar.

“I want Wednesday off because that’s market day. That’s where my inspiration comes from….The best time is before the sun comes up. Cruising my bike down Arizona and seeing the farmers setting up….Going home and making a great lunch or dinner based on what we got that day. Inviting friends over for what we call ‘family meal.’ My way to give back to my friends is getting them wasted and feeding them to the gills.”

Brad can’t talk about the Santa Monica Farmers Market without talking about Chef David Plonowski from Bar Pintxo. “I credit all my success at this point to David, because he’s the one who gave me a shot…..He takes people who have talent, finds a way to harbor their vision, and helps it happen.”

His first time at the farmers market in Los Angeles was with Plonowski. He had just taken a job at Bar Pintxo and was learning about the market and seasonal qualities unique to California. They explored together, getting to know the farmers, local chefs, and industry players. He has been going every week for over two years, vacation the only temporary exception for his absence. The market community, including Alex Wieser, Chefs Kris and Brian from The Heart and the Hunter, and newest influence David LeFevre is one he happily supports and gives back to. “The human side of things is important. If you….look deeper, it’s the real reason why we do this….it’s infectious. It’s so infectious. The human experience – the give and take is what I really cherish.”

The most passion comes to his voice when he shares food memories at random: watching friends eat octopus for the first time, happiness that his mother now eats bone marrow, the intangible and hard-to-capture joy of watching people he cares about eat. Brad has spent our entire conversation selflessly talking about taking inspiration and to try making lives of people around him easier. He believes this mentality is key for finding his place in the world.

“I don’t ever get emotional about the food. The thing that touches me most is the response – the human part of it. We all do different things, but the process and appreciation ties us all together….It’s about finding a way to take this thing that I’m so rich in, and sharing with others to make them happy.”

Brad’s coffee mug is empty, and our conversation is slowing down for the first time in two hours. We discuss our respective school experiences and reactions. I selfishly prod him for help about an upcoming recipe experiment. We compare notes about favorite Rolling Stones songs. He expresses his surprise at my having filled up fourteen pages of notes with his words.

It’s been one week since we’ve talked, and I’ve spent most of my mornings before work smiling over his no-nonsense, open desire to build community. The following quarter page of notes has ten stars and a bunch of smiley-faces drawn around it:

“I don’t know my path or how it’s going to transpire. It’s just so unusual, ever-changing, and ever-evolving. It’s about the people. People are so strange and awesome. All that means more than James Beard or Michelin….I never want to compromise integrity and jeopardize everything. I just want to be happy with the things I do and make.”

 Happiness is the goal. Community is the key. It’s a universal truth of food, life, and Chef Brad.