Chef Matt Spector
JoLē | Napa
Matt Spector prides himself on cooking honest, creative food with fresh ingredients—the same fare he offers at his Contemporary American restaurant JoLē, and the same food he grew up eating with his Eastern European Jewish family. Even after starting a successful culinary career and opening two celebrated restaurants, Spector claims the one meal he’d like to eat more than anything would be his grandfather’s Sunday onion and egg breakfast—“real food,” in his words.
It’s this perspective that took Spector from his first job as a deli boy in his uncle’s meat market through the kitchens of some of Philadelphia’s best restaurants, eventually landing him in the quaint town of Calistoga, where he and his wife opened JoLē in 2008. Taking full advantage of locally farmed ingredients, Spector serves elaborate small plates that reflect the various cultures and ethnicities he considers the backbone of modern American cuisine. His menu exudes sophistication and bold flavors, featuring dishes such as Smoked Veal Sweetbreads with Split Pea Soup and Citrus Marinated Octopus Salad.
Spector’s first restaurant, Matyson, which he also ran with his wife, was hailed by critics as one of Philadelphia’s hottest new eateries before the couple sold it to move out West in 2007. Before striking out on his own, Spector worked at Jake’s Restaurant, Georges Perrier's French restaurant, Brasserie Perrier, and Bruce Cooper's Novelty, all in Philadelphia. The Cherry Hill, NJ-native says every stop along the way contributed to making him the chef he is today.
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Antoinette Bruno: What inspired you to pursue cooking professionally?
MS: I fell into the job. I worked for my uncle's deli and butcher shop, Penn Center Prime Meats, and progressed from there. That store was ahead of its time. It was a small place and we had so much cool stuff in there. It was neat to see when I was in high school. It was one of the last places in Philly to have hanging meat. We still get whole lambs in. I went from being a deli boy to doing pizzas to fine dining.
AB: Do you recommend culinary school to aspiring chefs? Do you hire chefs with and without a culinary school background?
MS: I'm a proud drop out. I was going to the Restaurant School of Philadelphia while working at Wild Orchid with Glenn Feller, where I learned a ton. When I went to school, they gave me a hard time about a spot on my jacket so I decided to put all of my efforts into working.
Katherine Martinelli: What advice would you give to young chefs just getting started?
MS: You’ve got to work for as many different people as you can. When you’re not working, you have to go to restaurants. I would go to a bookstore and get some books and magazines, then go to a bar, have a drink and read. When I had time, I would go up to New York for a day and put myself in it. Schools are good, I think, if you have no vocabulary. Once you get that vocabulary, you have to be hands-on.
KM: What has been the most valuable experience you’ve had in your culinary career?
MS: I don’t know if there has been just one. I think there have been lots of highlights and lots of really rough times, too. I mean, I’m a Rising Star chef and it took 16 years to be that. There are ups and downs, but I never stopped. I worked at this one place called Jake’s for a long time, and that’s probably where I got most of my experience. We were all the same age and we pushed each other.
AB: How are you involved in your local culinary community?
MS: We are new here and are just getting started. Back in Philly we participated in “Book for the Cook” and also in “Slow Foods.” Here we support local wineries and also local purveyors.
AB: What is your philosophy on food and dining?
MS: Dining should be fun; it’s why you go out. It’s not about picking through every little thing. I want my diners to leave thinking they had a great experience. Our food is soulful—it comes from my experiences and from somewhere in my head; it’s not stuff that’s manufactured. Here it’s about enjoyment.
AB: What goes into creating a dish?
MS: A dish starts with what’s on hand, what’s available. Purveyors here are much more involved in the process. Even diners bring us things from their gardens.
AB: What is the biggest challenge facing your restaurant?
MS: The economy and labor have both been tough. We opened a restaurant at the worst possible time. Regarding labor, the challenge is finding people who show up, work hard and are dependable. I work the line and scrub it down with everyone else.
KM: Why did you and your wife, Sonjia, decide to move from Philadelphia to Napa Valley?
MS: Sonjia had already worked out here [in California] before she moved East. Any time we would come visit her folks, we would stop here and we always knew we would end up here. My kids are five and two years old; we wanted to make the move and try something new, and open a restaurant. We’re kind of wacky like that. People thought we were crazy. We had a really successful business [in Philadelphia] and people thought we were nuts. I like the challenge of it.
AB: What’s the toughest thing you’ve had to do in your job?
MS: The single toughest has been having self-confidence. The toughest combination of things is staying committed to the business and having a family. I leave early in the morning and don't see my family until the next morning. Last night we did an event even though it was my night off.
KM: What does success mean for you?
MS: I know the limits of the restaurant I had and the one I have. It’s a successful place if it makes a little bit of dough and gives my kids a good life—that’s success. I like the fact that we’re here and already we have a pretty good following. People like our place, they get it. That’s great; I like it. We’ll see what happens down the line. We’re building something and I feel like it’s starting to snowball. If I could do this and set myself and my family up, that’s pretty good.
AB: If there were one thing you could do over, what would it be?
MS: I would have liked to travel abroad or staged for a month or two.
AB: What trends do you see emerging?
MS: One trend I see is couples opening restaurants together. Another trend is people getting more deeply involved in local produce and sustainability.
AB: How do you keep abreast of the latest trends and developments in the culinary world?
MS: I read a lot of magazines and cookbooks. I also look at other chefs’ menus online.
AB: Which person in history would you most like to cook for?
MS: My grandfather—we used to make the most incredible breakfasts from our garden.
AB: What is your proudest accomplishment in your career to date?
MS: My proudest accomplishment has been opening this restaurant in Napa Valley.
AB: What’s next for you? Where will you be in five years?
MS: I have no idea. Five years ago, I had no idea I’d have a restaurant in Napa. We just don’t plan that far ahead. In five years, the sky is the limit.
AB: If you weren’t a chef, what do you think you’d be doing?
MS: I’d probably be a physical therapist or trainer for a college team.
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