2010 San Francisco Bay Area Rising Star Chef Matthew Accarrino of SPQR

2010 San Francisco Bay Area Rising Star Chef Matthew Accarrino of SPQR
June 2010

Like countless other young chefs, Matthew Accarrino paid his culinary dues washing dishes, prepping ingredients, and pitching in around kitchens at various local restaurants in his native New Jersey. From those modest beginnings, he built a career based on the premise that a chef never stops learning.

In 1998, Accarrino graduated with honors from The Culinary Institute of America, Hyde Park before earning a Bachelor of Arts in Hospitality Management from Fairleigh Dickinson University. After graduation, Accarrino traveled to Labico, Italy (near Rome) to work at the Michelin-starred Antonello Colonna. He visited farms and foraged for the restaurant’s ingredients on a daily basis.

Upon his return to the United States, Accarrino worked at Charlie Palmer’s Metrazur, Todd English’s Olives in New York, and Rick Moonen’s Oceana before opening Moonen’s RM as chef de cuisine. After two years, Accarrino was recruited as opening sous chef at Thomas Keller’s New York restaurant debut, Per Se. In December 2005, Accarrino landed an interview with Chef/Restaurateur Tom Colicchio, which led to positions at New York City’s Craft, Craftsteak, Craftbar, and Craft Los Angeles.

Now as executive chef at San Francisco’s SPQR, Accarrino’s menu reflects his personal culinary philosophy. Within the casual and comfortable environment of SPQR, his creativity and technique-driven ethos elevates the rustic, Roman-influenced cuisine that the restaurant is known for.

Interview with Chef Matthew Accarrino of SPQR – San Francisco, CA

Katherine Martinelli: What year did you start your culinary career? What inspired you to pursue cooking professionally?
Matthew Accarrino: I always liked to cook growing up. I actually broke my leg and was laid up for a while, so I read a lot of books, watched TV, and had a lot of time on my hands. Once I was able to get up and walk around I found my way into a kitchen and have never looked back.

KM: Where have you worked since that first kitchen?
MA: I started my career out in New Jersey when I was a kid. I was enthralled by New York and things like Emeril on TV. I bounced around to lots of spots for a brief amount of time and ended up at the Hilton in Short Hills in New Jersey, which was five-diamond, five-star hotel. That’s where I learned my way around the kitchen after culinary school. Then I went to New York where I ended up working for Charlie Palmer, Rick Moonen, Tom Colicchio, and Thomas Keller. With each successive restaurant, one job led to the next, and everything seemed a logical move. I’ve only ever used my resume once. It is an interesting way to go about it.
KM: Would you recommend culinary school to aspiring cooks?
MA: I think definitely. It gives you a frame of reference for what you’re entering into.
There are things I’ve done in culinary school that I’ve never done since, like [make] veal stock with roux. You’re exposed to ingredients, ideas, and classic techniques. Not to say you can’t cook without that and not also be informed. The number one thing I encourage young chefs to do is to read, read, read, and get your frame of reference for where you are. There are still times that I bring things here like fiddlehead ferns and people don’t know them. Being well versed is pretty essential to being successful.

KM: So what’s your philosophy on food and dining?
MA: My philosophy is that more than anything food has to taste good, no matter how it looks or how cool it sounds. If it doesn’t taste good, it doesn’t work. I like food that is creative but still has soul. Creative and intriguing, but you still feel satisfied at the end of the meal. I try to incorporate that into my cooking, but I don’t try to make rustic food.

KM: What goes into creating a new dish?
MA: One of the reasons why I wanted to be here, in California, is that I’m very visual person. I’m inspired by seeing something. For me, it’s really hard to sit back and look at an availability sheet—I’m always a glutton for ingredients. I’ll buy what’s really good first and ask questions later and figure out what to do with it. A lot of my best dishes have come out of that creative spontaneity. There’s nothing like a cooler full of ingredients and nothing made that forces you to be creative and do things you wouldn’t necessarily put together. I it’s right in front of your face. That’s one of the reasons why I’m here in San Francisco, the long growing season, lots of ingredients. My cuisine is ingredient-driven. It’s a given that we’ll look for the best ingredients that we can find. The question is what we’ll do with them.

KM: What ingredient that you like do you feel is under appreciated or under utilized?
MA: I think also part of my philosophy is to look at things that are byproducts. That doesn’t mean I want to cook every part of a pig. But sardines are the salt of the earth when it comes to fish. Anyone can get a filet mignon and sear it and it will be tender, that’s no challenge. There’s something I’ve dubbed “the transformative power of cooking.” If I hand you pig ears, it takes skill and cooking to transform that ingredient into something good to eat. I challenge myself to do that. In that vein, I work with a lot of lamb belly and lamb neck, trying to find interesting uses for it. I have skate cheeks on my menu. I’m always into whatever little things there are, like green almonds, little seasonal ingredients that aren’t mainstream and incorporating them into my food. There isn’t one thing that sticks out.

KM: What’s on your menu right now?
MA: Right now I’m working with a lot of uni, so there’s sea urchin panna cotta. We’re doing a ramp tagliatelle with sea urchin and crab. You’ll have these runs where you have an abundance of an ingredient then it’s something else. When you’re cooking, you’re constantly able to have that instant gratification, making a dish and serving it and seeing it go out. It’s a much more immediate gratification than working on a project. For you to see an event be successful it takes a lot longer than for me to make a dish. The other thing that’s great about cooking is corn comes every year—it’s like having old friends come back. The corn and tomatoes are essentially the same; it’s that you change year to year and you apply a different mindset to that ingredient and as you grow in your career, you apply different stuff to the same ingredients; it’s an evolution of cuisine. There’s so much that’s gratifying about what we do.

KM: If there was one thing you could do over again in your career what would it be?
MA: I was running a restaurant called RMfor Rick Moonen in 2003 and I had talked to
Thomas [Keller] and those guys about going to The French Laundry or part of Per Seand the timing was never right. Then all of a sudden the opportunity came again, closer to when they were going to open. I knew that I had the opportunity to be a part of something extraordinary and I took that opportunity. And I learned a tremendous amount in the two years that I was there about professionalism, cooking, saucing, and working in a kitchen environment that you cannot replicate. How many times will you have a chance in your career to work in a restaurant environment like that, with such a great group of people?

KM>: Was it an easy decision?
MA: It was a tough choice to make, but I am thrilled I had the guts to make it. It’s one of the things that changed my career. You can always find humility. You never get on top of it, you’re never in a position where you can stop learning and if you think you are, well…. The best people in the industry are always trying to learn and adapt and progress. I’ll have cooks come to me and say I’ve learned everything I can learn, and it’s like “Wow, what is it like to be in that place mentally, and actually think that?” I still learn stuff every day whether I want to or not. One of my freezers broke the other day and I think I’ll end up leasing a freezer and I’ll learn how to do that this week.

KM: What has been your proudest accomplishment?
MA: I think it’s a hard one to say. Being here at SPQR and being able to make this restaurant work and seeing so much positive feedback here at the age that I am, 32. I feel like what I’m doing now is the culmination of a lot of learning, a lot of experience, and it’s all really paying off for me. Even getting the award you guys are giving me and starting to get that recognition. It’s very hard to go to work every day, and everyone in this restaurant looks to me for inspiration; I can’t have a bad day. No matter what happens outside work, you can’t bring it with you. Everyone feeds their energy after you. The fact that I’m able to do that every day, this is my proudest moment is where I’m at right now and having the opportunity to do what I do every day. Having people like you guys come in and recognize that and see that it’s from the heart makes me really proud that I’m able to convey that.

KM: How are you involved in your local culinary community?
EM: I’m always willing to let young cooks stage. There are a lot of people when I was starting out who let me in their kitchen and looking back, I see how graceful those people were, to let me come in for a few days to learn something. I try to go to the farmers market when I can. It’s about looking at projects. Beyond being involved in certain charities, like Meals-On-Wheels and Share Our Strength, in general I try to run a good, positive business in my neighborhood and be positive to my immediate neighbors. And keep our sidewalk clean, which goes a long way. Here, in the lower Pacific Heights, I want this neighborhood to be happy and proud this business is here. I’m one of those guys where I’m super supportive of everything everyone else is doing.

KM: So you don’t see restaurant openings as competition?
MA: Every restaurant that opens is a blessing; it adds another voice to the culinary community. And it moves things forward. When I came to town here everyone was so supportive of me and coming here and I try to reciprocate that. Nobody is perfect all the time and nobody’s restaurant runs perfectly all the time. I try to just be a good chef in my community. And be supportive of other people in my community. No matter what they’re doing, as long as they are passionate.

KM: What does success mean for you? What will it look like for you?
MA: I’m having a great time here! I’m enjoying it here and I’m hopeful that this will play out into some other opportunities, but I don’t know what that is yet. Maybe to have a slightly bigger restaurant someday. For right now, I want to keep my eye on the ball. When the right opportunity comes along that’s when you take it. It’s not a matter of looking for opportunities, it’s a matter of being ready when they come. So I’m always trying to prepare myself for what’s next, so when it does come you’re ready for it. It’s also about preparing the people who work for you and teaching them what you know. Without a team behind you, you go nowhere fast. Even getting this award, it’s as much an award for the people that work for me, because without them I can’t do anything. I am teaching and mentoring them and moving them forward so they’ll have successful careers. I’m trying to teach them all how to be chefs. It’s important to me because it’s what a lot of people did for me.