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.

6 thoughts on “The Human Part of It: Coffee and Community with Chef Brad Mathews

  1. Sam Brubaker says:

    Knowing Brad as both a student and a friend, I am not a bit surprised of the path that he follows and views of what is important to lead a fulfilling life.

  2. gramma says:

    im real proud of you.

  3. Daniel Weiser says:

    What a wonderfully complimentary article. Brad seems to be a very talented young man with great values. I can’t think of any three better traits to possess.

  4. Robin (mom) says:

    What a amazing article, your love/passion for food is wonderful!
    The smile on your face and those around you when you are cooking and talking about food is a inspiration.
    I am very proud of you and very proud to be your Mom.

  5. Neil Couch says:

    Well said! As a close friend, I can confirm that this article is spot on when it comes to describing Brad, his passion for cooking, and why it motivates him. Its great to see people follow their dreams while remaining true to their roots.

  6. Conster says:

    Your passion inspires me! You have not forgotten your roots and sense of community. So happy for your success.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *