Community Chef Matt Hill of Charlie Palmer Steak
Charlie Palmer Steak
101 Constitution Avenue Northwest
Washington, D.C. 20001
Chef Matt Hill wasn’t meant for a nine to five life. He spent a lot of time during his childhood at his grandparents’ cotton and soybean farm. They raised their own cattle, chickens and pigs so he was constantly surrounded by straight-from-the-farm ingredients.
In college, Hill studied business at the University of North Carolina in Asheville, but he had trouble seeing himself at a desk. He soon went to work at classic French Charlotte restaurant Etienne Jaulin’s Townhouse. Jaulin had worked as Michel Richard’s chef de cuisine at Citronelle, so he knew a thing or two about cooking; under Jaulin, Hill learned to appreciate food and the process of cooking while he learned basic techniques.
When Hill was 21 he enrolled in The Culinary Institute of America to learn the fundamentals of cooking. After graduating he moved to New York City and worked at a host of illustrious haunts, from Craft to Theo to Aureole. The latter would change his career.
He first met Charlie Palmer while working at Aureole. He spent the next few years under the legendary American chef’s wing; working in his restaurants, leading up to an opening chef job at Palmer’s seafood restaurant, Fin Fish in Reno, Nevada. Hill returned to lead the kitchen at Palmer's power-dining Washington, DC steakhouse, where he was previously on the opening team. Palmer’s modern American signature is evident here, but Hill inflects it with his own personal style. His cuisine is fun, playful, but always grounded in simply prepared ingredients, without the manipulation and hijinks.
Interview with Chef Matt Hill of Charlie Palmer Steak – Washington, DC
Francoise Villeneuve: What inspired you to pursue cooking professionally?
Matt Hill: I’ve done it since I was a kid. I grew up around food; I spent a lot of time at my grandparents’ farm. When I was a kid most of our ingredients came from the farm; we farmed cotton and soybeans. We raised our own cattle and chickens and pigs so I was always around it. I started working as a dishwasher when I was 14—it’s one of the few jobs you can have when you're young—and I kept at it. I went to business school at the University of North Carolina in Asheville and couldn’t see myself sitting at a desk all my life. During the summer I went back to work at Etienne Jaulin’s Townhouse and he had just taken over this restaurant in Charlotte, a really classical French food place but kind of inspired. He was Michel Richard’s chef de cuisine at Citronelle here with Jean-Louis Palladin. Then he bought a restaurant down in Charlotte and it was there that I started appreciating food and good cuisine. I learned a lot of techniques. This was when I was 17 or 18. When I was 21 I enrolled in The CIA.
FV: Do you recommend culinary school to aspiring cooks?
MH: I think it offers you a broad base and opens doors. I met people there that are great chefs that I still am in touch with. The proximity to New York helps. I'm from Charlotte, NC and there's not a big food scene there. It definitely pushed me to work in New York. It's not required but it's never going to hinder you. It's more education and more knowledge.
FV: What advice would you give to young chefs just getting started?
MH: Work hard. It's definitely not all about the paycheck when you're starting out. You need to go work for someone who's going to inspire you. You have to take it as a learning experience. Sometimes you have to make sacrifices to get where you want to be.
FV: What is your philosophy on food and dining?
MH: My philosophy? That's a broad question. I really like the way the trends are going. I grew up eating local and I think it's a good thing. It's affecting more than just fine dining restaurants now. People are starting to appreciate where their food comes from. I'm not old enough to remember this but for my father’s generation a lot of things came in cans. I think American diets are advancing and our cuisine and our whole dining culture is starting to come around. People are starting to appreciate more and more the art and craft. My theory is try to get the best quality ingredients and serve them the way they're meant to be served. I try not to over-manipulate food. Basically I want to enjoy what I'm eating. It's fun and playful to do things but over-analyzing food is not what I want to do.
FV: What goes into creating a dish?
MH: First, I'd have to see what ingredients are available. I can't sit down and think of a dish without knowing what I have to deal with. Vegetables are the start of it. Protein comes later. I brainstorm and write things down from that point. I’ll bring the ingredients in and use different techniques and see how the flavors are going to work together. I don't get too crazy with my flavor combos. The menu is definitely ingredient driven because that’s seasonality. To make a perfect dish it has to be based on what you can get, not what I can come up with.
FV: What’s the biggest challenge facing your restaurant right now?
MH: It's a very busy restaurant, [so my biggest challenge is] to make all the food great. It's an obvious answer but it's to be constantly sourcing. We’re lucky to be where we're located. The guys in New York have a hard time getting the stuff we get here. Things come in earlier down south then move up to Pennsylvania. The biggest challenge I have is sourcing because I make it challenging. I've run a restaurant in Reno, NV and Vegas. California is right there but it’s a whole different challenge. Here the challenge is balancing the volume with creating perfect food and being very, very busy.
FV: Which person in history would you most like to cook for?
MH: Thomas Jefferson. I think that'd be pretty interesting. He was a Francophile and into food and wine. Part of that has to do with my Virginia roots—I lived in Virginia for quite a while. He enjoyed wine and food and I think it'd be an amazing conversation.
FV: If you could have any chef cook for you, who would it be?
MH: Fernand Point, he's kind of the godfather and that'd be really special.
FV: What trends do you see emerging?
MH: Everyone is local and that's the way it's is, but [people are] moving towards smaller, more casual dining. People are opening more and more restaurants that people can eat in daily. People can't afford fine dining and they don't want to dine for five or six hours anymore. It’s more causal but still high end food. Casual food is getting better. Whereas before if you wanted to get a good morel you had to spend money and dine for hours. Now casual restaurants with that lower price point are getting better ingredients. Chefs are becoming accustomed to diners moving toward the more casual atmosphere. Ingredients are becoming more accessible, so that's helpful. There's a level of knowledge that's increasing every year of the culinary industry and food is just getting better. Especially in America
FV: What ingredients do you feel are under-appreciated?
MH: Beans and legumes in general, but I love all pod beans; Lima beans, black eyed peas, fresh cannellini beans, not dried. I think they're amazing and there’s not a big season for them. A lot of guys don't grow them unless they're going to dry them.
FV: What’s the toughest thing you’ve had to do in your job?
MH: Probably the first time I had to let somebody go. I was pretty young when I had to do it down in Charlotte. I was 20 years old; as a sous chef that was kind of tough to deal with.
FV: If you had one thing you could do over or do again, what would it be?
MH: I think I would've traveled more when I was younger. I would've worked in Europe. All over—maybe Denmark, maybe Spain. You name it, I'd love to work there. It's kind of tough at this point during your career to make that kind of move.
FV: If you weren’t a chef, what do you think you’d be doing?
MH: I would probably be broke because I'd be a financial analyst and have lost all my money. I studied finance in school. I'm still fascinated by it.
FV: What has been your proudest accomplishment in your career so far?
MH: I think running a successful restaurant here in DC. Opening this place and opening the restaurants in Reno for Charlie [Palmer].
FV: How do you define success?
MH: Happiness and being satisfied. Part of that is cooking great food, having a good time with it, and enjoying my life.