Behind the Line with Matt Kelly

Published Wed, Dec 05, 2012 06:07 AM
Bookmark and Share
Chef Matt Kelly of Mateo in downtown Durham prepares food in the kitchen. Mateo is Kelly's first solo restaurant venture. Photo by Beth Mandel

Submitted by Melissa Howsam — Correspondent

For Matt Kelly — of Vin Rouge fame and, now, the conceptual and culinary chef and sole owner to the Bull City’s buzzed-about new Spanish small-plates spot, Mateo — the destination can be about misdirection. "Sometimes you need to live a little … and know what it’s for," he says of the youthful digressions that led him to discover his chefly station. "Making mistakes can have a long-lasting effect, but it can actually be in a very positive way."

After a collegiate landscape dotted with several stints across a host of cities and a string of jobs, it was an epiphany over a dish pit at the Red Onion Café in Boone at the age of 19 — his first restaurant job — that led to his utter culinary immersion. "In that moment, I just knew: This is it. There was no question," he said. "I realized: I can make a living doing this. I can enjoy this every day."

That — and a supportive cast. "For me, having my parents give me some time to do that was a really good thing," he added. "And once I knew, it became an addiction. My biweekly paycheck went to [essentials (like food)] and cookbooks, like [those of] Alice Waters."

That obsession translated into some top-toque training at NY’s Culinary Institute of America, followed by two years touring Hudson Valley farms (Old Chatham Sheepherding, Egg Farm Dairy and Coach Farm) — all fitting for a chef who is fascinated most in where the food is born. "I thought it was really important to see where things come from," he said. “And, to this day, we try to visit pretty much everyone we buy food from. I want to get to know a farmer. I don’t want to get to know a CEO."

So it shouldn’t surprise that his pair of Euro fare spots came via palatial parades through France and Spain. That’s that authentic taste in your mouth. That’s the so-real sense of place.

But beyond the authenticity there is raw fervor: It’s not the pedigree; it’s the passion. Humble to a T, the super-successful 36-year-old isn’t about the celebri-chef shenanigans and the farm-to-table trends. He puts farm-fresh food on the table because "that’s what you’re supposed to do," and he’s successful because he loves and immerses himself in what he does. That’s Mateo. That’s Matthew.


You’re pretty much food famous. What’s your secret?

I don’t really consider myself food famous. I think I’m pretty lucky that I get to do what I love to do every day with great people and buy stuff from really cool people, and it’s just really awesome to be able to do that.

Your legacy has been penned as "Southern, seasonal influenced classic cuisine," yet you co-own an authentic French bistro and have just opened a Spanish-inspired tapas resto. How do these play out your talents and vision?

I would say I’m definitely known for cooking French bistro fare. But we use a lot of local product—because that’s what you’re supposed to do. It’s not like a lot of people, who say ‘Oh, we buy this local or that local.’ Well, good, because that’s what you’re supposed to be doing. It’s nothing special. People have been doing it since the time of cuisine. It’s how people initially started eating. But I think in addition to French bistro fare, I’m known for cooking honest and genuine fare. And I’m definitely known for cooking heavily seasoned food—like aggressively seasoned food. Not spicy—but we’re not scared of salt, pepper, butter or lemon juice, or another type of acid. But cooking at the same restaurant for 10 years [Vin Rouge], you learn a lot. I’ve been able to make a lot of relationships with purveyors, craftsman and artisans, and, with Mateo, we don’t want to have a lot of rules.


For example, we’ve never served corn at Vin Rouge. We love it, but the French consider it fodder, and I had an experience with a relative that’s French who was like ‘Oh, this [corn] is for the pigs!’ (because we were eating corn-on-the-cob in the American meal). It was before I cooked French food, and that always had a profound effect on my thinking about the ingredients we use at Vin Rouge.

At Mateo, we wanna spread our wings a little bit. In Spain, in general, they’re very open to cuisine, and that’s why you see Spanish cuisine having moved forward so quickly. At Mateo, first of all, we have to find the ingredient and make sure we can get it on a consistent basis and make sure it comes with our values — which is really important. The raw product, for us, inspires us to come up with a dish and how we cook a dish, so that we do it properly. And it makes cooking more exciting, as a cook. Because when you do the same dishes over and over, it can be monotonous. Boring. But when you have this particular product and you have to take particular care for it, it changes that. It’s not turning and burning. Instead, it’s like: I want to cook this right because I know the flavor and the nuances that can come out of it, whether a cut of meat or this cheese or so forth.

You said when you pick the raw product, you want it to match your vision. What is that?

We find the product and then we want to find a way to showcase our product. At Mateo, I wanted to be more creative. Vin Rouge is not necessarily a creative restaurant. We try to honor past recipes. Essentially, Vin Rouge is more tradition-driven, and Mateo is more idea-driven. You have to come up with an idea, and then you actually make it. Say we’ve got some short ribs or some ham hocks… how are we going to incorporate this local product into something Spanish? Let’s smoke ‘em and put 'em in this dish called fabada, with chorizo, blood sausage and beans. Let’s start with this idea and see what evolves out of it. It’s a really fun process.

And we put everything on an equal surface — including the beverage program. It’s not just the food. Beverage, service and food ... we don’t treat them differently. We’re very sherry-focused. We’re in the top 3 selling sherry in the country. That’s pretty wild. Beverage to us is very significant. There’s a lot of education involved. We even sent Michael [Maller (beverage director and GM at Vin)] over to Spain [sherry region].

Legend has it, you ate your way through France (48 sup spots in six days) to prep your palette for Vin Rouge. Did you make your way through Madrid for Mateo?

Yeah, I’ve been to Madrid, Barcelona, St. Sebastian, Galicia. I wanted to taste really good food and learn about what happens in Spain — what people cook, how they cook — across several consecutive visits, and the last one was in January [this year]. A lot of times in my travel I ate in a lot of people’s homes. And when you eat in homes, I think there’s a lot more authenticity then if you eat out in a restaurant.

But you know, when you do a restaurant, there’s food, but there’s also a sense of place. When you meet these people, they’re very vivacious. They love life. They’re very outgoing. And that is a big part of Mateo, too. We’ve got a large bar there that we want to be lively. Mateo is just a very vivacious place.

A lot of people come to Vin Rouge to dine. With Mateo, I really wanted people to just come and eat. Tapas bars in Spain are very small. Mateo is quite large. We can fit 90 people downstairs. When I designed it, I had to figure out how to keep it feeling small. And it does when people get there. It feels really small (laughs). Servers are dodging people. Some people think that’s a bad thing, and for us, that’s what I wanted. I wanted interaction. I wanted it to be tight. I wanted it to be a lively place to eat great food.

So you’ve covered France and Spain. Word is Durhamites would dig a good Italian spot. You in?

I’m not opening another restaurant any time soon (laughs). And, I mean, we’ve got some good Italian-inspired restaurants, I would say, already. But ... my other chef at Mateo is from Sicily, so you never know.

Current food trend that irks you?

I’m very supportive of farm-to-table, but I think if you’re a properly trained chef it’s just something you should do. It’s kind of a given. Hopefully, if you’ve made it this far, it’s what you’re doing. I’d say [the trendiness of that] is one. And I’ve never been big into microgreens as a garnish. If it’s done with a thoughtful reason, I like it, but just "microgreen salads," etc., I don’t like. Or hoppy beer. Overly hoppy beer. It’s too much. It’s kind of like when people make giant, giant wines, and it’s like, well, it’s really hard to pair food with that ... same thing with those really hoppy beers. You can do it, but it’s just like machismo, man. Settle down. Finesse.

If you were limited to one ingredient?

Besides clean water (laughs)? OK. Salt or really good olive oil. A respectable chef does not want to cook things that are not good. We get really good food and we say: Let’s feature it in this dish; here it is; this is a very good product; it’s very fresh. We might, for example, use on a particular item, olive oil and sea salt instead of cooking it in a sauce. So we don’t mask the nuances.

Your culinary muse or mentor?

Abroad would definitely be Paul Bocuse. I’ve never worked for him, but he laid a really strong foundation for nouvelle cuisine (and Fernand Point). I’m still trying to go to his restaurant in Lyon. He’s getting up there in age. He’s like the king of chefs.

Here, Alice Waters is a pretty big influence. She kind of changed everything. Then, Patrick O’Connell, George Perrier, Daniel Boulud. I worked for Patrick.

I’m usually inspired from the past. It’s not that I don’t like molecular gastronomy, but I’m still more focused on past cooking than I am new techniques. I like the basic braise, the sauté, roasting. I’m down with those. Those are cool enough for me. And I’m not that cool of a cook. I like the basic technique.

But I think one of the biggest influences — people always talk about restaurants and chefs, like who’s influenced your career [or] where have you eaten — for me, [is] my family. My grandparents on both sides, my aunts and my uncles, and particularly my mom and dad … I would say my parents are one of the biggest riding forces — just giving that unconditional, relentless love. It’s pretty powerful.

Your prowess has been — apart from your prestigious training and vast research — known to rest on your penchant for authenticity. Tell us how that translates in the kitchen.

It’s usually derived from a particular area or experience. Authenticity is really hard to define. When you travel you really learn this. Everyone says, oh, this is authentic. But you can eat at different people’s houses in the same village, and they have different ideas about what it can and can’t be. Other regions are way more stringent. In Spain, it’s like, yo, this just tastes good. That’s the one thing I’ve noticed. They’re much more open in Spain. So, at Mateo, I would say we focus on some regional dishes — like we’ll try to do the same technique, but it really comes down to the ingredient you’re using. That’s what’s gonna make it. And I think one thing that we do is make things authentically genuine. Maybe I’ll have the dish 10 times in an area, and maybe this is kind of my combination of 10 of the same dishes. It’s authentic in its variation. You have to recognize that.

If you’re out to eat in the Bull City (sans Vin Rouge or Mateo), where will we find you?

Oh, I’ve got a couple. Los Comales off Roxboro Road — I love that place. That’s my go-to. I usually eat there on Monday afternoons. I love J. Betski’s, Poole’s Diner, Bella Mia in Cary. I like to spread it out. One of the reasons I live here is because I’m close to different places. Not just Durham. But I love Nana’s. Missing Magnolia Grill for sure. And I’m not really the chef at Vin Rouge any more, so sometimes I’m craving oysters there, and steak frites, French onion soup. The simple, normal stuff. Oh, and King’s Sandwich Shop. And I like Scratch [Bakery] a lot. It’s really good. Bull McCabe’s. There are so many.

What’s your vision for the Durham eat scene?

I just hope people open really good restaurants in Durham. That’s what I want. I hope people open honest and genuine restaurants that get better the longer they’re open.

Mateo Tapas

109 West Chapel Hill Street

Durham, NC 27701



Find out the latest events happening today in your area.


Check for showtimes of the newest releases.


Search local eateries by location, price and cuisine.