Interview With: Chef Matt Wick
One of the best chefs in the state, and perhaps also the most humble, Chef Matt Wick is the Chef de Cuisine at River Tavern in Chester, which has been focused on farm fresh cuisine long before it was trendy. You can follow Matt on Instagram for all his foraging and cooking adventures.
How did you get started in the hospitality industry?
I think my introduction to hospitality was throughout college, when I spent most Sunday mornings/afternoons cooking vegetarian food for those in need at the Waterbury chapter of Food Not Bombs, a non-religious organization utilizing donated food. I really enjoyed the camaraderie and gratification of cooking at a friend's house all morning, then bringing it down to the green to serve those who appreciated it more than you can imagine. When I realized I wasn’t going to make a career out of what I was studying in college, I became very depressed and disillusioned. The only thing that made me happy was cooking for people, so I pursued it, got an internship with Mark Shadle at It’s Only Natural Restaurant in Middletown, went to culinary school, quit playing music and that was that.
You were a vegetarian and a vegan at one point in your life. And you now break down whole animals in your kitchen. How did you get back into meat?
I think I started reconsidering the ethics of eating meat when I took a class on animal rights in college. The professor wrote a book about vegetarians who lapse, and made me open up to the idea of examining the reasons why people chose to eat or not eat meat, on an individual case by case basis. My reasons were almost entirely political, and I still abhor factory farming and inhumane raising practices, but the more and more I dove into food, cooking and cooking culture, the less the lifestyle made sense for me. It showed me that their were alternative ways of farming and raising animals, a more ethically responsible way of sourcing and eating meat. I felt limited and stifled by the lifestyle and decided to be a more open minded cook and try everything, and waste nothing.
You’ve been at River Tavern for almost 10 years, why have you not taken the “normal” path, which seems to be an ever changing location?
I guess I’m a creature of comfort. I like where I work, where I live, am treated well and am lucky to be where I am. I don’t take the opportunity to have almost 100% creative control and freedom for granted. I worked my way up there from a very green, not very good cook, to becoming very intuitive about food and cooking. I have to thank Jonathan Rapp, James Wayman and Chris Flahaven for instilling that intuition, and mentoring me into the cook I am today. I also have an incredible team that inspires me everyday. They show me the meaning of hard work and sacrifice all the time.
River Tavern is known as a place that serves locally sourced ingredients. Why do you have chips and guacamole on your menu?
It was there when I got there. It was something Jonathan and his father Tom Rapp started doing at Etats Unis in NYC ages ago and it just stuck. If I took it off the menu I would be beaten badly. Our guests freak out about it, so it stays. I try to use local ingredients as much as possible, but i’m not going to stop using ingredients I love just because they aren’t local. I won’t stop using citrus and imported Italian ingredients. I try to be as realistic as possible. Especially in the winter time. Will I have guacamole and chips on the menu at a restaurant I open some day? No.
What makes Connecticut so special in terms of the product that you use?
The fact that it's so small and intimate. We have an incredible group of farmers and fishermen throughout the state that care a great deal about what they do and what we do with it. Most of us know each other and get together and build relationships. My good friend Rich Garcia and I always agree that food tastes better and means more with a story behind it.
You love to forage and often document your foraging trips on social media. How protective are you over your foraging spots? And what is your favorite ingredient to forage?
Honestly, unless we're talking about wild mushrooms, I’m really not that protective. A lot of what I forage is all around us. Invasive even. The more people educate themselves about it the better, in my mind. As long as they are extremely careful. Mushroom spots on the other hand are sacred. We won’t talk about those! All kidding aside, it brings me great joy to share a walk in the woods with a good friend, letting them get the same child-like look on their face I get when they find a baby porcini or a carpet of chanterelles. Right before I kill them. My favorite foraged ingredients are porcini mushrooms in late summer and young spruce tips in spring.
You have a lot of interesting flavor combinations on the plates you serve. How do you conceive a dish?
It's like fishing. I go into the walk in, then into the dry storage, then back into the walk in, then I think of something I saw in a cookbook, or something I ate in Italy or New York, and it just builds from there. A lot of times it's an off the cuff, “how do I use this up?” thought process. Other times I just see a vegetable, and think of a way to make a dish using every single part of it. I like giving myself little exercises in creativity through limitation. I enjoy when a dish is the culmination of past experiences coming together with your desire to try something a little new.
What part of your day at work do you look forward to most?
Right when we open and all the stations are set up and ready, and we all hover over the first ticket coming out of the printer, seeing who gets hit first. Gets me every time. I adore cooking on the line.
What is the most cliche ingredient trending on menus right now?
Uni is on everything. But I love uni. Guess I’m cliche?
You spent some time in Italy a few years ago cooking at different restaurants. What did your time in Italy do for your career?
It kicked my ass that's what it did. That, and gave me an immense respect for food cultures that are much older than our very ADD riddled American restaurant culture. I learned a language and gained acceptance to a world different than the one I’ve always known. It taught me to slow down and enjoy every task and repetition in cooking and reminded me that cooking is all about nurturing others. It humbled me and at the same time made me more confident coming back into the States.
You’re known among your peers as a very humble chef, how did you get to be like this?
Maybe it's the way I was raised. I was always told there will always be someone better, stronger, faster out there, so I’ve made it a point to try and learn as much as I can from the people around me. There are so many ways of doing things and I’d rather learn and consider as many as I can than be stubborn and closed minded. The day I stop learning is the day I stop cooking and living.
Who is one person, can be anyone in the world, that you would love to cook alongside?
Nadia Santini at the 3 Michelin starred Dal Pescatore in Lombardy, Italy. I got to chat with her while she was attending an event at the hotel I was working at on the Amalfi coast. and she turned a very shitty day into the most memorable of my trip. So much wisdom and soul.
Later this month we’ll be showcasing a how-to video from you. What is the #1 piece of equipment you would tell home cooks to invest in?
A ridged gnocchi paddle or an old rough wooden cutting board for hand-shaping pasta.
What’s the weirdest thing in your fridge right now?
A very old pint of mole a friend brought back from Mexico City.
You’re cooking for a love interest for the first time, what do you make them?
Hand-rolled pici pasta with guanciale, ricotta, lemon, marjoram + pecorino
And last question, what is the most memorable meal you’ve ever had?
Definitely in Italy, with the proprietress of a seafood restaurant in Praiano. Her son had just rolled up in his boat with tiny fish that we scaled, filleted, tossed in flour and deep fried. We ate it standing up, while I tried to keep up with her in Italian, and she told me something I will hold onto forever. “In the kitchen, you need love and patience.” Rest in peace Donna Clelia.