Interview with Chef Matt Ridgway of Lacroix at the Rittenhouse – Philadelphia, PA

May , 2004

Pamela Lewy:Why did you start cooking? What or who inspired you to become a chef?
Matt Ridgway: : I grew up in a house with 4 acres of land and my parents had (and still have) a huge garden where we planted different vegetables and herbs. They actually grow over 57 varieties of heirloom tomatoes. I was always surrounded by fresh food and produce. My mom was a good cook and she always cooked dinner for the family. I started cooking at my cousin’s bakery when I was only 12 years old. I always loved to cook and its always been my passion but I never saw it as a career until my dad suggested I go to culinary school. I did and I loved it.

PL: What drew you to French food?

MR: I like the discipline, refinement and technique of French cooking. Technique is paramount.

PL: You received culinary degree from Johnson & Wales as well as a degree from Widener University in hospitality, business and management. What prompted you to go back for your second degree?

MR: I wanted a business degree because I had heard horror stories about people in this industry burning out and I didn’t want that to happen to me. Culinary school is great for cooking but it tends to focus less on academics. I wanted a more well rounded education.

PL: How has your business degree helped you in your career?

MR: Jean-Louis Palladin. He helped create the French/American food movement in the United States. Freddie Girardet cooks simple food but its so exact and precise… he’s definitely one of the masters. I admire Thomas Keller because he started with nothing and built his own empire. Charles Saunders, who I feel lucky to have mentored with is a great inspiration. All these chefs are ahead of their time. I also look up to David Myers and his wife from Sona in Los Angeles. I admire their talents and they’re doing great things.

PL: You’ve traveled across America tasting different cuisines. What cities do you like most for culinary travel?

MR: New York and San Francisco. New York is refined technically and San Francisco has some of the best products in the country. San Francisco also has great markets and everything is impeccably fresh. Both cities have a great food culture and great appreciation of food.

PL: What are your favorite food haunts in Philly?
Vietnam, Pif, and Morimoto.

PL: What is your most indispensable kitchen tool? Why?

MR: I can’t live without my French omelette pan. If you can’t make a good omlelette, then you can’t cook food like foie gras or beef. The first thing a chef should learn is how to make a proper omelette.

PL: What are your favorite spices? Why?

MR: Juniper berries are very versatile. I like to use them for fish, not just game, They also go well with shallots and you can combine them with many other spices and ingredients. I also like star anise because they have a strong flavor but not the same as licorice and fennel.

PL: Is there a culinary technique that you have either created or use in an unusual way?

MR: I poach meats in different mediums such as milk to give it more flavor and to keep the meat moist. I also sometimes poach eggs in salmis, a French game sauce.

PL: What is your favorite question to ask during an interview for a potential new line cook?

MR: I like to let them do most of the talking. I usually let them trail at first and let my cooks feel them out. After that I work with them on a second stage to get a better read on them and see how they work. I like to hear that they are well rounded and that they read other books than just culinary, like James Joyce or Tolstoy.

PL: What advice/tip do you have for culinary students just getting started?

MR: Marty Hamman once said this to me: “this business is eating a lot of crow,” meaning you have to discipline yourself and truly want it. Always keep an open mind. I’d rather have them start at the bottom of great restaurant than start at the top in a mediocre place.

PL: Where do you see yourself in 5 years? In 10 years?

MR: Good question. Eventually I’d like to own my restaurant. But right now I like doing what I’m doing. I love being close to the food.

MR: It helped me as far as business is concerned. I didn’t think I’d some of these skills, but they’ve given me greater perspective of the industry.

PL: Who are your mentors?

MR: Jean Marie Lacroix and Martin Hamman. I worked with Jean-Marie for years. He’s a great organizer. Martin Hamman taught me about refinement and looking at everything as the best product possible.

PL: What chef/s do you most admire? Why?