Posted on September 09 2019
V&V friend and team member, Marcie Cohen Ferris, had a chat with award-winning Durham chef, Matt Kelly, who has become both a visionary and a leader in building the vibrant culinary landscape of downtown Durham. Read their conversation and then come hear more from Matt at the next Vert & Vogue Happy Hour event on Friday, September 20th, from 5:30 – 6:30pm. (and remember, September, an ‘r’ month, means it's time to eat oysters again!!)
Born in New York, Matt Kelly fell in love with cooking in college. After graduating from the Culinary Institute of America, Kelly worked at The Inn at Little Washington, one of Virginia’s most celebrated dining experiences. He relocated to the Triangle in 2002, working in some of the region’s best restaurants, such as Four Square and The Fearrington House.
Our State features editor, Louise Jarvis Flynn, has described Matt Kelly as the “Tastemaker of Durham.” She wrote, “named one of the best chefs in the Southeast (four times) by the James Beard Foundation, Kelly is known for putting North Carolina ingredients into foreign service: as Spanish tapas at his restaurant Mateo and as French classics at Vin Rouge; in New York deli spreads at Lucky’s and in regional Italian dishes at Mothers & Sons Trattoria. He says that Saint James, named for both the patron saint of shellfish and the hospital where his grandfather once worked, is his first American restaurant. To be more precise, though, most of the gilled and glorious critters on the menu come from North Carolina waters." In 2013, Mateo was nominated as a James Beard Foundation semi-finalist for “Best New Restaurant.” Resilience and the power of community has become Chef Kelly’s mantra after Hurricane Florence’s devastating impact on local fishers and farmers in the fall of 2018, and in April of 2019, the devastating gas explosion in Durham’s Brightleaf District that has temporarily closed St. James.
Matt, your restaurants are known for a delicious and skilled merging of European cuisine (Spain, Italy, France), regionally sourced ingredients, and southern flavors/preparations, yet your own culinary roots are grounded elsewhere. Fess up, please, about New York state and your Irish heritage.
Matt: I was born in Plattsburg, New York. My Dad was in the air force and my mom was a teacher. We’re Irish. Very Irish. We came from a town where you’re either Irish or Italian. When the RDU hub opened there were opportunities for my Dad and we moved to Raleigh in the 1980s. My parents still live in the same house. The South is my adopted land.
The women in your family, including your mother and grandmother, were your first teachers in the kitchen. One of your pivotal food memories stems from those experiences and involves Campbell’s Tomato Soup. Say more about that Proustian moment, and are you going to share your Grandma’s chex mix recipe?
Matt: There was a moment that had a pretty profound effect on how I taste and think about food. I'm sitting in the kitchen at my grandma's house and she's making tomato soup. It’s Campbell’s Tomato Soup and she takes a half a stick of butter and whisks it in, puts in some more salt, and then she adds fresh black pepper. I thought, “Mom doesn’t make her tomato soup like that!” I remember her taking it from the pot on the stove and putting it in my mouth and tasting how something so simple could be elevated. That moment had a significant impact on my life and decisions I would later make. And, my Grandma’s ChexMix? The whole world should have good recipes. Ask me at the V&V Happy Hour.
Your first restaurant eating experience in North Carolina. 1986. You’re ten years old.
Matt: We were moving to Raleigh in a station wagon packed to the gills with a cat and my sister and me arguing and fighting. We stopped at the Bojangles on 15-501. My Dad says, “You gotta try this fried chicken!” And I think, “THIS IS GREAT. What is THIS place next to it?! Chili’s? It looks really fancy!” Chicken and biscuits at Bojangles. It was rich, fatty, unique, delicious. I had never had anything like that before.
The map of your extensive culinary education includes washing dishes in Boone, North Carolina during college, learning the skills of the garde-manger (preparation of cold food items) in Raleigh’s burgeoning restaurant scene in the 1990s, a brief stint at the Fearrington House in Pittsboro, attending the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York, interning in the kitchen of the prestigious Inn at Little Washington in Virginia, and chef’ing at Vin Rouge in Durham. In each place and experience, you were always a very careful observer, as well as a driven do-er. Can you speak to the power of ‘seeing’ and learning an art like cuisine?
Matt: When you’re kind of obsessed with something, you don’t have a choice! Last night I was up until about 2:30 in the morning looking at Japanese pancake videos, Old Waterside Inn videos on youtube, and then I looked at the best grass for cows to eat, greenhouses, the USDA site on how to start a slaughterhouse, and how to buy a tractor. It’s a Patrick O’Connell thing [founding chef/owner of The Inn at Little Washington]—a complete, obsessive consuming passion. You don’t have a choice. It never stops---like reading a cookbook, going out to eat---you are always thinking about what influences you and how to turn that into value. I’m a giant dork. I get excited about learning about what I do. Having a canvas where I am able to do that---that’s amazing.
As Vert & Vogue’s neighbor in Durham’s historic Five Points, your restaurants---and many other excellent venues---are key to the revitalization of downtown’s economic and social landscape. In your opinion, what is needed NOW to further enhance this urban community and the quality of life for residents, business owners, and visitors?
Matt: Creativity. Creativity. Creativity. The things people go visit in Amsterdam, in Paris, in Barcelona, in Chicago! People are looking for experiences. It takes money and organization, but also creativity. Bringing people to an area to express who they are. Business owners need to follow through with hospitality and deliver what they say they’re going to deliver. Downtown growth should be focused less on money and how to curate experiences for visitors and locals—like parks. Parks are so awesome. People love parks. People love plazas. What do you do when you go to Spain and Italy? You sit in a plaza! When you’re walking in Paris? What are you looking at? Or Mexico CIty---a beautiful park! You go see these things! They inspire you. They make you smile, they make you laugh. They make you want to spend money. 100%. In a small town like this, it’s really important.
Matt, you’re part of a second generation of young chefs who have followed in the path of the founders of ‘new southern cuisine’ and the local food movement in the Piedmont such as Ben and Karen Barker, Bill Neal, Andrea Reusing, Bill Smith, and Scott Howell. Can you speak to the popularity of this regional cuisine today as an expressive ‘voice’ not only in the South, but nationally?
Matt: Those chefs took southern cuisine out of the kitchens they grew up in and that inspired them. They expressed those foodways and kept those traditions alive. When you are cooking, you are passing tradition down! You’re not just feeding people. For example, Ben Barker’s Brunswick stew. Do you know how much Brunswick stew that kid ate?! He’s making it haute couture. He’s looking at Brunswick stew in a way that Brunswick stew had never been looked at. And then he does another thing! He serves it with scallops! Are you kidding me! Who does that? That takes skill. People believe in the foodways of this region—its long history, the gastronomy, the conversation, the celebration of this cuisine. And it's delicious. Southerners are very excited about our food in the region. We love to share it. It’s about telling a story and finding an audience that appreciates it and wants to listen.
Chefs, line cooks, beverage managers, front-of-the-house staff, servers, public relations, and human resource professionals---determine the success of the best contemporary restaurants. Attracting skilled workers, building a strong team with staying power, providing a living wage, and confronting the grim immigration policies of our country today---you face these challenges in not one, but five venues. Advice for colleagues in the business?
Matt: We are at a crossroads. Employee shortages. Immigration is drastically influencing us, and hurting us on two fronts: 1. the lack of labor, and 2. the awesome people we’ve worked with for so long—the way they’re being mistreated and disrespected in this country. We as people---not as government---are foot soldiers on the ground in the kitchens letting our team know that they have our support, that we believe in them, and that there is opportunity. You don’t have to let one person peddle influence and tell you things that you are NOT, because they do not know you. It definitely changes the dynamic of your job when you’re coming to work and one of our people’s apartment complex has been raided by ICE. It’s disgusting.
How would you describe the taste of the North Carolina Piedmont?
Matt: The taste of the Piedmont in 2019 is really exciting because there are so many more flavors and influences from people who have come to settle and live here. There are new voices in Piedmont food that go beyond chicken and biscuits and barbecue and that is very, very exciting. At the same time, the older businesses, the individuals who have celebrated and practiced the traditional foods of the Piedmont—-they’re still up and doing it. The Chicken Hut in Durham, they’re still doing it. The Roast Grill in Raleigh—a hot dog place. You’ve got to go there. Your heart will melt. Angus Barn. I love Meat and Three cafes. Those old school fish camps. You have Current Cafeteria in Durham. It’s time to celebrate these businesses. It’s great accessible food that people love.
What do you most value about the North Carolina food community?
Matt: First and foremost, my relationships built over the years with colleagues, purveyors, farmers, and diners. I’m psyched about the endless opportunities that lie ahead.
And, as it is Happy Hour, tell us YOUR favorite sherry, and while we’re drinking ‘abroad,’ your choice of beverage in a French cafe and an Italian trattoria! And let’s not leave out the delicatessen---your preferred soft drink?
Matt: I love Oloroso sherry because it’s so versatile. I can have it with cheese or a dry-aged steak. My favorite French cafe drink---it’s a soda with a drop of Campari. And CHAMPAGNE. My answer to each of your questions would still be champagne! Champagne alone, no spritzers! Italian trattoria: it’s very similar, but I’ll go with a Lambrusco. Delicatessen: Dr. Brown’s Cel-Ray Soda. I just had one the other day. [celery-flavored soda--it’s DELICIOUS, people!!!]
WE HOPE YOU'LL JOIN US ON SEPTEMBER 20 TO VISIT WITH OUR SPECIAL GUEST, CHEF MATT KELLY, AND ENJOY A DRINK ON THE HOUSE!
P.S. We are excited to announce that the Forum for Scholars and Publics at Duke University will now be co-sponsoring our Happy Hour series! To learn more about FSP check them out here!