1. Can you tell us about your background?
I'm 44 years old now. My family started in the catering business in Pittsburgh, PA. I grew up in that facet of food, not necessarily cooking, but I'd go to work with my father in the summers and do things like cleaning and washing dishes. I learned a serious hard work ethic in that way. Before my father had his catering business he had a sausage business. When his catering business started getting busy I was able to buy the sausage business from him. I was a 10th grader in high school and I'd come home and make sausage for hours, going through hundreds of pounds of pork butt. My father would sell the sausage for me the next day. It was kind of cool; I got a taste of business at an early age.
During high school, I also began to do a little cooking. My parent's food is very good, but it's also very casual and very high volume. It was not something I wanted to do all my life, so I decided to go off to culinary school at 18. My initial intent was to go back and work with my family to help build the business and elevate the quality of what they were doing. But once at culinary school I got a different taste of the industry and decided there was so much more out there. I really worked hard and was at the top of my class. The corporate chef of the Ritz-Carlton came to our school and I was fortunate to be one of two chosen for an externship at the Ritz-Carlton's flagship hotel in Buckhead. I worked in a restaurant called The Cafe. It's a glorious cafe, with a really high volume breakfast, lunch and dinner. One of the reasons I chose the Ritz-Carlton is that they had a Michelin starred chef, Guenter Seeger, who I admired greatly. He was the only 5-star, 5-diamond chef in the whole company at that time and he worked upstairs in the fine dining room. I was able to speak with him and he gave me permission to work for free, which was amazing! I'd work my whole shift in The Cafe, from 7am - 3pm, and I'd go right upstairs and work from 3pm - 11pm, for free. I did that for 5 or 6 months. I never cooked anything - Chef Seeger wouldn't allow me that. I don't blame him, he was probably the top chef in the country at the time. Although I didn't cook for Chef Seeger, I learned to respect food. Farm to table is popular today, but that's the only way I ever learned - even back in 1988 at the Ritz-Carlton. We had farmers showing up at our back door bringing pheasants with feathers on them, mushrooms that had just been harvested from the hills of Atlanta, and cheese made right there. I just never knew any other way to do it. I fell in love with that type of cooking, I really did. The menu was hand written every day, with whatever showed up at the back door. I learned to respect the food, to treat it well, and to keep it simple. In my whole career I've never covered up the true essence of a product. I always source out the highest quality local, organic, and sustainable food available. I treat it with integrity and try to make it shine on its own.
I worked at the Ritz-Carlton Buckhead for about a year's time when the Ritz-Carlton Amelia Island was about to open. They saw my drive and so they asked me to be their chef at the restaurant there. So, in one year I went from intern to chef! I was only 21 years old when I walked into the fine dining room. Guenter would come and visit me there - we had a really good relationship and he became a mentor of mine. Shortly after arriving I became the second 5-diamond restaurant in the Ritz-Carlton family. I spent about 6 years at Amelia Island.
2. What does it take to become a 5-diamond restaurant?
At the time we were the top restaurant in the state of Florida. 5-diamond is a AAA designation and it's representative of the highest standards of freshness, creativity, execution, and service in the dining room. Back in the 1990's 5-star and 5-diamond awards were a really big deal.
3. What attracted you to a career as a chef?
Honestly, it's all I knew. I grew up in it, I was good at it, and I like to eat. I really love food. I think I'm a servant by nature - I love feeding people and I love to make them happy with food. I love to enliven their senses and watch their faces light up. It was a lot of fun in the early years here at Matthew's when I was cooking in the kitchen every day and we had such a great time.
4. How did you go from Amelia Island to Jacksonville?
I spent 6 years at the Ritz-Carlton and felt that I had no more advancement available to me. I didn't want to go run a hotel. I was starting to get blackballed by the company because they would offer me Executive Chef of large hotels and I just didn't want it. I saw what my Executive Chef did - he did everything but cook! I really wanted to stay restaurant driven. I actually offered to try to raise money and buy the restaurant. In 1996 that wasn't fashionable yet, so they kind of laughed at me and I put my notice in.
I have to say that the job at the Ritz-Carlton was a really great job. It was a beautiful restaurant that paid me a good salary and provided stable work. It let me shop the world's market. It really was a cush job. I went from the cocoon of that into a business that I'd never run solely myself in an industry with one of the highest failure rates. It was nerve racking and I woke up more than once thinking "I'm not going to do this." I chose Jacksonville because I'd seen so many people driving from Jacksonville to Amelia Island to eat at the Ritz-Carlton. I knew we'd have a local fan base of hundreds. That was comforting to me, to know that the day we opened we'd be busy. So I took a year off to build Matthew's in San Marco and we opened in 1997. We were only a 50 seat restaurant and the first day we opened we did 50 covers. The second day we did 70 covers. The third day we did 90 covers. Then we maxed out on and off for about 3 years. It was amazing. We paid the restaurant off in 3 years. It was ultra successful. Everyone was telling us not to do it. They said Jacksonville was just a barbecue town. They're never going to like our food. That kind of fueled me to take on the challenge.
5. What's the overall concept behind Matthew's?
Matthew's is culinary driven. All the decisions come from the kitchen. It's a place that duplicates all the things I learned at the Ritz-Carlton in Buckhead. I brought all the relationships I'd made. I received food at the back door by Federal Express, UPS and local people harvesting vegetables and so on. My brother and I would sit down and make the menu for the night. It changed daily.
6. How do you divide the responsibilities between yourself and your brother David?
David and I have always been partners. He worked at the Ritz-Carlton on Amelia Island with me. He had been in college going to golf school and I visited him one day on campus and I said you need to go. So, in my 3rd or 4th year into being at Amelia Island he agreed to come work for me. He was totally taught on the line. He was all hands-on. He's an incredible chef now. We left together and opened Matthew's in 1997. We've always been such a great team. We bring different things to the table. A lot of times family can't work together but we've just found a way to do it.
7. Who's the audience for Matthew's?
It's a small audience. We have a lot of repeat guests, but we don't have a ton of them. We do see new faces, and some become fans while others decide it's not for them. Matthew's is that place where some people really buy into it and love what we do and other people just think it's over priced and small portions. I don't know where that perception comes from. Maybe it's the larger chains who give you enough food that you can eat it for the next two days. I don't know. We just don't do that. We pay a lot of money for our products. I just brought in a halibut yesterday, from Nova Scotia. It was a $300 fish. I think people appreciate the quality but not a lot of people realize what goes into achieving it. I could have a lesser quality product for half that.
8. What would you recommend to a new customer to give them a sense of what Matthew's is all about?
Matthew's has always been known for its tasting menu. We started it on our first day and we still do it. We do a 6 course tasting menu called the Chef's Adventure. It changes every day. That's the creative outlet for our chefs. We use whatever is fresh that day. We'll get an email from a purveyor saying they've got an incredible rabbit available, so we'll take it. Or we'll get a call from our farmer in Ocala saying he has a purple ruffle basil that's in perfect form today, so we'll tell him to send it. A lot of times things will just show up at our back door. We have that sort of relationship with many of our suppliers. If they know something is exceptional we trust them to just send it to us. When we see what's available for the day we'll get creative with it. You get 6 items plus a little starter course. We pair it with wine for you. It's just a nice experience. It's a 2 1/2 hour experience that guest's really enjoy. I would recommend that.
Our times are changing too and we tend to re-invent ourselves. We've added items that we can put out at a reasonable price because people just don't have the discretionary spending they used to have. We're working hard to put more value on the plate. So, for example, we've come out with 8 new pastas. We hadn't done much with pasta and I thought it would be a great way to shine. I love cooking pasta. I wanted to do something that's really unique so I went and bought this machine that's a pasta extruder. Every day we make 8 different pastas by hand. As you know, that's not very expensive, it's just an art. So, we're able to put these pastas on the menu for a reasonable price and people enjoy them.
9. Is the Chef's Adventure like a Chef's Table where you need special reservations?
No. We have a separate 4-seat Chef's Table. It's very popular. It allows you to sit at a special table and interact with the kitchen. You can order the Chef's Adventure from any table.
10. What would you recommend for someone who's been a few times and is looking for something a little different?
We have a few esoteric menu items that are a little different and very interesting. We have a red wine braised octopus with bone marrow. It's served with a home made radiatori pasta. People look at that and think "oh my god, I'm not going to eat that!" What I had to do was to get people to taste it. When they were at the Chef's Table I'd give them a little to try. Or I'd send it out to a table to get them to sample it. Once people taste it they'll love it, but it took a while to get them to try that first taste. We've had it on the menu since the early part of the year so it's pretty popular now, but it stretches people a little too.
Another item that can challenge some people is foie gras. We do it really well and we sell a lot of it between Matthew's and Restaurant Medure. If we took it off our menu we'd lose 10% of our customers.
11. Are there hidden gems on the menu that you really like but that don't get the attention they deserve?
We started doing some Crudos, which are like an Italian sashimi. They didn't go over really well but I thought they were some hidden gems. We would get really fresh fish and when we were filleting that fish we were taking the first, beautiful cuts of the fish, and before cooking it we were making these cool Crudos. Back in February we had 7 or 8 different Crudos. I think it was a miss though. People didn't react to it. So now we just offer a single option, which changes based on whatever's the ultimate in freshness. From my perspective I'd love to go to a restaurant that served Crudos, so that's why I created that option.
12. Have there been things that took off on the menu and surprised you by their popularity?
Yes, escargots! It's not a personal favorite but we found a great preparation and guests just love it. The preparation we do is with prosiutto, garlic, fresh herbs, a little bit of milk and parmesan. It's been on the menu for a long time because guests get upset if they come and it's not available. There are some items that have become our specialities, what we're known for. The foie gras, escargots and soufflés are all items that are staples of the menu that we could never take away.
13. Do you have a signature dish that defines your personal style of cooking?
That's a hard one for me because I don't have a personal favorite. My style is around the idea that the simplicity becomes the sophistication. I really love to braise items. I love to take items that are hard to eat and not usually very good and make them great.
14. What's an example of that?
Pork belly, pork shanks and veal shanks are all examples. Rabbit leg, duck leg too. A lot of times those types of items are hard to make taste good. That's part of the challenge I love. We do a really great duck breast, which is hard to make taste good. Guests have started associating Matthew's and Restaurant Medure with duck breast.
15. What's the relationship between Matthew's and Restaurant Medure?
Matthew's was open for 3 years. The manager and David, my sous chef, were just doing phenomenal so we decided to open another restaurant. We built Restaurant Medure and I sent the manager and David there. There's only so much a little restaurant can provide you with and these guys were doing so well that it was a way to let them get to their next level in terms of challenge and giving them an outlet for their passion. Restaurant Medure was twice as big and had a full bar, whereas Matthew's didn't have a full liquor license at the time. We set out to make Restaurant Medure a little more casual. The principles of Matthew's and Medure's are the same and customers will come to both but we do try to keep Medure's more casual.
16. Do you share recipes between the restaurants or are they evolving in their own ways?
Oh sure, absolutely. The recipes are cross utilized, sometimes in a more rustic manner. One thing David is really good at is trusting his chefs to use their creativity. There are things that have hit our menu that have been created by our chefs that are really good. Restaurant Medure is very seasonal. The top left corner of the menu changes monthly. There are seasonal themes, such as Summer Chill, which utilizes all the fun melons of the summer, along with tomatoes and other things. Because things change monthly it creates a level of excitement with the guests as to what's coming next. We've featured truffles, shellfish, Thai, wild mushrooms, and all sorts of interesting things.
17. How do you come up with your recipes?
I don't know if it's the right way or not but we don't really do recipes. We focus more on technique and we ask everyone to stay within our styles and then get creative. We don't have recipes floating around the kitchen. If you came and tried to put a chocolate sauce on a halibut we'd throw you out of the kitchen! Our style is to cook things light, using olive oils, fresh herbs and a light broth. As long as the accompaniments are light, aromatic and colorful like fiddlehead ferns, fresh corn, and English peas then you're right inside our world. Our style is simple and clean. One of our signature dishes at Restaurant Medure is Tuna Tartare. We keep it so simple, but what makes it so great is that we fly it in 3 times a week from Hawaii. You cannot beat the quality. We keep it very simple and flavor it with a light curry oil, fresh cilantro and a pinch of salt, and people think there's a hundred ingredients in there.
18. Are there any trends to how you prepare or deliver your food?
We're always playing with plate presentation. We serve our food on different things, unconventional things, as well as on just a basic plate. We have fun with it. We have a lot of different serving vessels we can get creative with. Some things we cook right in the vessel. A beautiful white, tomato mousse might come out in a ramekin with a little caviar on top. To me that's just heavenly. We do play with the presentations.
As far as trends go I don't subscribe to them very often. We stay pretty steady on how we do things. We're not into the molecular thing whatsoever. I think that stuff is interesting but I also think you lose some quality. One of our standards has been to make things beautiful but don't ever sacrifice flavor for presentation.
19. You have an extensive wine list at both Matthew's and Restaurant Medure that's been recognized by Wine Spectator. Do you select the wines?
On and off. I run the business now so I'm not in the kitchen as often as I was anymore. And in the early days I was much more involved with selecting the wines and setting the standard. At this point I only get involved for higher cost items.
Our cellar tends to be pretty well rounded. I think we're a little bit light on the French. We have some real gems but overall it's not as much of an emphasis for us. We're heavier on California, Washington, Oregon, Spain and some of the older world wines. Some of the Alsatian wines go well with our first courses so we have a good selection there as well. We try to bring in things like Rieslings that go well with our food. The list does change. I like to hire wine stewards and let them do their thing. Depending on who's running things it can go really heavy in one area.
20. Can you tell us about the lounge you put into Matthew's?
I've rebuilt this place 4 times. I think I have ADD. Every 3 years I rebuild the place. I just did it again - I put in new lights, art, carpet, chairs, tables, and kitchen. People are telling me to just put the money in the bank. I just like to see it fresh.
After 10 years being here we were finally able to get a liquor license. It had been tough because we are right next to a church. We'd been really good neighbors so they finally said that if we keep things in our name they wouldn't fight our application. So, then it was "boom," and I was able to to change one of our rooms into a lounge. Then I put a 65 person private dining room in the back and that made the restaurant well rounded.
21. Do a lot of people come to the lounge prior to dinner, or do they use it on its own?
We don't have a waiting area so my original thought was that people could come and relax in the lounge before dinner. But mostly it's been people who come in and hang out in the lounge itself. They'll eat and drink in the lounge itself. For the bar, we have the best bartender, Quentin, he's so good. He's one of the best mixologists I've ever seen. He really makes incredible drinks. Guests will come and sit and watch his wizardry.
22. Are you ever tempted to get back into the kitchen to take a break from running the restaurant?
You know, I am. I really do cook a lot still, but more on the catering side. We do a lot of catering and until I can find someone who can run that side of the business well I'll handle it myself. Our catering is high quality and it's hard to do for 300 people. We do a lot of weddings and corporate business. We stay pretty busy on the catering side. I would love to be in the kitchen every day at the restaurant. I think it's my true craft. That's where I started and it's what I do best. I just can't seem to get in there right now - we're pretty busy running the businesses and we're in the process of building a new M Shack.
23. Can you tell us about M Shack? What attracted you to a burger restaurant after doing Matthew's and Restaurant Medure?
I started M Shack as a hobby. I was on an airplane once and was thinking about how cool it would be to have a place that was high quality but not in the same way as our other places. Then one day I was driving to One Ocean to do a James Beard dinner. I was driving through Atlantic Beach. You never see a vacant storefront there, ever. Those people are there for 18-20 years at a time. Then I saw it - it was the old Book Nook. So I stopped, wrote the number down in the window and just called. They said "we're sorry, there's about 10 people in front of you." I figured that would be the case. They asked to hear our concept so, I told them what we wanted to do and they loved it. We then went out to make the best burger we could. We ate more ground beef than you can imagine. We had one goal. Our barometer was to be able to eat a burger and then want another one right away. You can get a greasy, good burger but then not want to go back for another month. We eventually found our burger. We got the right mix, the right fat, and a beautiful meat that we grind every day. That's our foundation. We found a way to patty it to where it doesn't get stringy but has a great mouth feel and breaks up like a steak. This hobby has turned into a big business. It's a lot of work!
24. The M Shack menu is pretty small. Is that intentional or is your goal to grow it over time?
We're adding about a dozen items when we open at the Town Center. We'll have something called Melts, which are these cool little things made with fresh ingredients on a tortilla or ciabatta. We're adding a pretty extensive french fry menu. Right now we offer a few types of fries. We offer Tater Tots, Truffle Fries and Queso Fries. We're going to start doing things with fries where you use them more as a platform. Think about how many things you can put on a pizza crust. We're going to start dressing and garnishing the fries with different ingredients to make them lovely. They'll be shareable, or maybe even a main course. We're still playing with it. We're adding some new burgers. We'll also have a full bar with a liquor license. We'll do adult shakes. The shakes are going crazy. I never thought we'd sell so many. But we use a high quality ice cream and people love them. We're going to offer them adult style using different liquors and alcohols in them.
25. Is your foie gras burger popular?
People who order it love it, but we don't sell a ton of them. We might sell 30-40 per month.
26. What's your most popular burger at M Shack?
Our workhorse it the M Burger, which is what we want. We created the M Burger as the basic American burger and it's done very well.
27. Do you think M Shack will grow either as a franchise or beyond the Jacksonville area?
I don't know. I'm in charge of the development side of the business - developing the menu and spaces. I do have a third location picked out and want to have that solidified before the end of the year. We'd like to have about 5 in the area, then we'll see. We may stop there. If we don't stop there we'll have to bring in a whole slew of infrastructure.
When we started we didn't think of M Shack as a franchise. We thought we'd do one little neighborhood shop that would be a nice addition to Atlantic Beach. I love the area. Some days we have over 500 guests at M Shack. It's something else.
28. What is M Hospitality?
It's our re-branding. We wanted a way to tie our company together. One of my mentors joined on with us about a year ago. The guy I opened the Ritz-Carlton with, Stephen Schaeffer. He was my chef at the Ritz-Carlton in Buckhead. He came to Amelia Island as the Executive Chef and I came with him as the restaurant chef. We had this long time relationship together. I left in 1996 and he left about the same time, just before the Mariott bought the Ritz-Carlton. He went off to run some big operations. He's just a quality guy - chef trained, but he went into the managing side of the hotels. We've always stayed in touch and we re-connected about a year ago and now he's a partner with my brother and I. So, we decided to create a platform we can grow on together - that's what M Hospitality is. It will be a platform, an organization that will encompass anything we do in the future in the way of growth. We may come up with more concepts that have an M in them. I'm not sure what they are yet but we have a couple of ideas.
We just launched our new website. It'll show the synergy and personality of the company. We're in the growing stages of re-branding so it's still on the newer side for all of us. But I know it's the way to go and feel good about having a brand that when people think of it 5 years from now they'll think of quality, innovation, and a chef driven operation.
29. Where do you see Matthew's and Medure's going?
I think they'll continue doing what they're doing. They're our first loves and hopefully they continue to prosper and do well. I don't want to see them go anywhere. I want them to be around forever. I think we've been good at changing with the times and re-branding. As long as we keep doing that we should be okay. I would love to see some key employees grow into managing partners or chef partners. I think we can offer that growth. It's a win-win. It takes some responsibility and stress off our shoulders but it also gives a new challenge to a guy who's been a chef for 5 years. He can become a chef and become invested. Same with the managers. I think that's the way you grow. That's going to be M Hospitality too. An excellent way is when you can bring great people onto the team and give them something to be proud of.