Dan Catinella: What inspired you to pursue cooking professionally?
Matt Dawes: Well, I went to a college called Warren Wilson, which is a pretty liberal small farm school. I majored in anthropology, went to Southeast Asia and was in India and Sri Lanka doing field work before returning. I honestly had no clue what I was going to do with my degree, but I was cooking all the time. I guess I had always cooked, but it took me a long time to realize it was something I could get paid for.
I was literally spending all day thinking about what I was going to cook for dinner during whatever job I had, and it just sort took over. So I went to Johnson & Wales about four years after graduating college. I’d been working for a company that imports cheese and after I was working for Whole Foods as a produce buyer, and certainly learning about products and things like that. It even helped me get wholesale access to the foods I wanted.
DC: Where did you go next?
MD: I went to work for Shane Ingram at Four Square and I was there for about eight months. I left and went to Cornucopia. I eventually moved backed to Asheville, and I was co-chef of Table for eight years. I basically had no experience at that point. After leaving there it took me two years to get this place opened with my partner who has another restaurant called the Admiral and that’s it. It’s a 10 year cooking career but basically at only one or two places.
DC: Would you recommend culinary school to aspiring chefs?
MD: Johnson & Wales was informative but more just about vernacular and things like that. You know? I don’t discourage it, but I do know young cooks who started in restaurants at a young age have gone on to work with more and more interesting people. It’s probably the better way to do it. There isn’t just one path, though. I don’t think culinary school is something to be discouraged; you just need to look at your situation and decide whether you’ll be in a position to pay off those loans if you’re taking it all on your own shoulders. There’s going to be a series of years where you’re not going to be making a lot of money.
DC: Who's your mentor and what did you learn from him or her?
MD: For me, it’s not about mentors; its more about books. Elizabeth David, Patience Gray, those are my heroes. But I definitely have respect for Ashley Christensen. We had conversations for long periods of time about doing Table, and she was pretty encouraging. Even when I was setting up and didn’t know what I was doing, I would call her and ask.
DC: What advice would you offer young chefs just getting started?
MD: Just jump in. For those years I wasn’t cooking professionally, I thought it was almost unattainable. It was like I needed so much skill that no one would take me on, but just knock on doors until someone lets you in.
DC: What’s your philosophy on food and dining?
MD: I don’t really know. I’m really bad at that. Opening this restaurant for two years I couldn’t even describe what kind of food it was going to be. I tend to lean heavily on classic techniques. We don’t use vacuum machines or immersion circulators or anything like that and that probably comes from being self-taught and learning mostly from books. There’s not a lot of fancy plating, not that I don’t want it to have an aesthetic, it’s just that I like things to look as if there was not a lot time spent with tweezers putting things on the plate. I want things to look beautiful.
DC: Which person in history would you most like to cook for? What would you serve?
MD: I would love to have lunch with Patience Gray. If she were to come, I would probably serve oysters on the half shell, wood-grilled bluefish with a salsa verde, and a salad of foraged bitter greens. Loire wines. As much as we could drink.
DC: What does success mean for you? What will it look like for you?
MD: I feel pretty good right now. I’m at a place where I think Jacob [Sessoms of Table] and I pushed to reexamine what a nice dinner was. But now I don’t have to do that anymore, and there are so many other people in the area that are of like minds. Here’s to put it simply: I want my menu and ideally every plate to go out so I am happy with it and I feel it speaks to what I am. I just want to keep cooking so I can do what I believe in, and if someone doesn’t get it, then I let that sort of roll off my back. It took years of sort of thickening the skin because, if you listen too heavily to criticism when someone suggests things should be a certain way, then your own personality doesn’t have the chance to come through. And your restaurant should have a personality. That’s the most important thing. I just hope to be able to continue to do that.