Chef Matt Greco Had to Come to NYC to Find His Inner Texan
[One of our first feature articles from December 2009, this piece profiled Matt Greco, who was then chef of Char No 4 in Brooklyn. Matt’s moved on to Wente Vineyards in Northern California, but the kitchen at Char—under the leadership of Chef Scott Damboise—remains as good as ever.]
At some level, menus are autobiographies. Scan a chef’s current offerings, and you’ll find clues about where he’s lived, who he’s worked for, and the road he took to get where he is today. Put another way: who chefs are on the plate reflects who they are in life.
Matt Greco has been the chef at Char No 4, the refined barbecue restaurant on Brooklyn, NY’s burgeoning Smith Street strip, since the joint opened in fall 2008. How he got there is a story of self-discovery that speaks to this fundamental truth.
Greco grew up living a double life in and around Houston, Texas, in the wildly different homes of his divorced parents. Living with his mother in the suburbs of Houston, in the affluent area near NASA, Greco discovered a Texas that non-Texans rarely key into, virtually indistinguishable from other American suburbs. In Greco’s community, the stereotypical Texan–the modern-day cowboy of pop culture and presidential politics–was a reviled stereotype. When comedian Jeff Foxworthy came on the scene, he and his friends all hated him on sight.
But on weekends with his dad, Greco lived that “other” Texas life. His father, a contractor by trade, was a weekend cowpoke who participated in small-circuit rodeos and pushed the same hobbies on his son, though young Matt didn’t talk about his adventures when Monday rolled around. “My friends would have made fun of me if they knew on my weekends I was riding horses or roping,” he says. Another point of distinction between Greco’s two homes: Where his mother was an accomplished home cook who favored sophisticated cookery (her apricot-glazed Cornish hen recipe was published in Martha Stewart Living), on Sundays, he and his dad built a big pit and barbecued.
(Interestingly, Greco’s paternal grandparents were Sicilian, but his father was raised to be an American. “I wanted him to be an American boy,” his grandmother would say of her decision not to teach him Italian. As a consequence, Greco hardly identifies himself as Italian or even Italian-American.)
Greco took up music in high school, becoming the bass player to a punk-influenced band (he describes it as “Green-Day-ish”) called Dynamite Boy. They were signed to a small record label, and Greco matriculated at University of Texas at Austin, with a declared major in Audio Production. But the more he observed about the music industry, the more he realized that most bands–even those with contracts–were destined to be washed up by thirty, with nothing to show for their moment of glory.
He didn’t know what else he might do, but a job on the retail floor of a local organic market provided direction. He would slice cheese, make coffee and sandwiches, and organize the display case that showed off the shop’s house-made prepared foods. He did an especially artistic job with the case, an extension of the respect for food he’d developed at his mother’s table. Sensing a kindred spirit, the kitchen guys invited him to work with them, and Greco took to it immediately. He didn’t have any idea he had started on a new career path, but as an avid eater, he was excited simply by the prospect of learning how to cook.
“Oh, wow, I’m going to learn how to make this,” Greco remembers thinking. “Even eggplant parmigiana or chicken salad.”
The fledgling cook showed some aptitude for the kitchen, and his new coworkers steered him to a local bistro, owned by the French chef who ran it. He took a job there, starting at garde manger (the station or cook charged with cold foods and salads), and gradually moved up the line to the restaurant’s equivalent of sous chef. Knowing talent when he saw it, the chef convinced him to apply to the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, NY.
Greco came east and attended cooking school, with no real end game in mind. He had no idea what he might eventually cook, though he imagined himself moving to San Francisco, which had long appealed to him, and where he felt certain he’d end up.
After school, Greco was offered a job at Cafe Boulud, Daniel Boulud’s restaurant on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, by chef de cuisine Andrew Carmellini (now of Locanda Verde) for whom he had externed. He ended up working there for four years. Though the restaurant went through what Greco calls “a couple of phases,” at first he found it a tough place to work. “It was really hard,” he remembers. “When I started there, there was really that older school New York City mentality: Everyone was out for themselves, there was not a lot of teamwork, not a lot of good vibes going on. There was a lot of ‘Fuck you,’ ‘You’re a piece of shit.’ Not from Andrew, but from the cooks. That being said, it made me who I am today. You had to grow tough skin, had to be fast. There’s multitasking and then there’s super-multitasking. Those guys were all about the super-multitasking. There was so much stuff going on at every station.”
Greco survived this early hazing-like period and moved up the line at Cafe Boulud. But there was a funny irony at work: as his fine-dining skills grew so did a completely opposite craving, for the barbecue of his youth. As an outlet, he began experimenting with barbecue in the backyard of his Williamsburg, Brooklyn, apartment, inviting his coworkers over for an annual cookout.
In time, he moved on from Cafe Boulud to join the opening team of Cafe Gray, Gray Kunz’s restaurant at the Time Warner Center at Columbus Circle. But he continued to throw the same party, and every year he’d up the ante, cooking more food over longer time. “One year, I prepared for two weeks,” he remembers. “I went crazy. There was brisket, ribs, smoked chile. People still talk about it. At that one there was the crew from Cafe Gray, the crew from Cafe Boulud, Gray was there, Andrew was there…”
Greco left Cafe Gray in 2006 to join Carmellini in opening A Voce, an Italian restaurant in the Madison Park area. But even as he mastered the items on Carmellini’s menu, Greco was beginning to understand who he was as a cook, and maybe could be as a chef in his own right. He wasn’t made for fine dining, simply because he didn’t really enjoy it. And, while he could cook French food, or pasta, just fine, it had nothing to do with him. He wasn’t French. He wasn’t Italian-American, not in any real snese of the phrase. He was an American boy, and he loved cooking, and eating, barbecue.
Greco started talking to Carmellini, who had emerged as something of a mentor, about what he was realizing he really wanted to do. “I wanted to do barbecue, but nice, with nice sides, seasonal things.” The barbecue scene was exploding in New York, with restaurants like RUB (Righteous Urban Barbecue) and Dinosaur earning tons of press and standing-room-only crowds, and Carmellini expressed some interest in working with Greco to hone his concept and to help him get a restaurant open.
And then, tragedy struck. Greco’s mother was felled by cancer. He made his apologies to Carmellini, and moved to Virginia, where he ultimately spent nine months helping to care for his mother in her last months. He would often spend the night in her hospital room, even though she was unconscious. It was a potent time for reflection, not only on his crossroads in the New York restaruant world, but also on his entire life.
After his mom passed away, Greco–then 31-years old–returned to New York like a man possessed. He began honing his concept and reading up on how to write a business plan. He also thought about blowing town, going back to the west coast that had always beckoned to him, specifically to San Francisco. The restaurant he had in mind would be called Bay Area Burning, with a rock and roll vibe and Greco’s own nascent form of refined barbecue on the menu. He was so motivated that a friend in the advertising business was creating possible logos for him to choose from.
While all of this was going on, to pay the rent, Greco had returend to Cafe Gray,but the restaurant was in the unmistakable throes of death. One night after service, chef de cuisine Larry Finn gathered the sous chefs and told them that he didn’t think the ship was going to be able to stay afloat. “If you can find a job, take it,” he advised them.
Greco put some feelers out to his friends, one of whom, Amorette Casaus (now of Ardesia, but then of El Quinto Pino, the sister restaurant to Chelsea’s popular Tia Pol) told him that one of her bosses’ husbands, Sean Josephs, was opening a new restaurant and looking for a chef.
Greco met up with Josephs, who, along with partner Michael Tsoumpas, was planning a restaurant at which the dining room would flow from the bar in more ways than one: the restaurant would feature one of the most extensive collections of American whiskey in the country, and Josephs and Tsoumpas were seeking somebody who could create a whiskey-friendly menu. They had a vague notion that the menu would be Southern in style, but weren’t sure how that would be manifested. Josephs showed Greco a mock-up of the menu the owners had created, which skewed towards New Orleans with po boys and such.
“We’re looking for somebody who can do their own thing,” Josephs told him. “You don’t have do to this,but if what you do matches the concept…”
Greco couldn’t believe the serendipity of the situation. They didn’t know it yet, but Josephs and Tsoumpas were looking for him. An audition tasting was planned and Greco unleashed with all those ideas that had been pent up inside, all those cravings and concepts that had been brewing in his subconscious: clam chowder, pork-crusted fried oysters, and dishes based on those backyard cookouts that had become the outlet for his inner Texan since he’d come to Manhattan.
The rest, as they say, is history. Greco got the gig, and created a full menu that brings the finesse earned at the Culinary Institute, Cafe Boulud, A Voce, and Cafe Gray to dishes with unmistakable down-home roots: delicate shavings of house-cured lamb pastrami are adorned with coriander aioli and served with a rye-carraway toast; Brussels sprouts and bacon–usually spotted stewed together–are reimagined with gently cooked, still-vibrant leaves as a bed for a slab of house-smoked bacon; a chopped pork sandwich is a study in balance, served with housemade pickled onions, pickled peppers, and the only side that makes sense: baked beans. The restaurant also serves a killer brunch, and currently offers whole, smoked game birds that require special, advanced ordering, another mix of the two influences–fine-dining and barbecue–that have wrestled for Greco’s culinary soul since childhood, until he discovered that they could peacefully, successfully co-exist.
As they’ve worked together, Greco has also realized that he has a dining soul mate in Josephs, who had gone through his own process of self-discovery working in restaurants like Chanterelle and Per Se before opening Char No 4.
“I really lucked out meeting up with Sean,” says Greco. “We agree on a lot of the same stuff. Have the same view about restaurants. Certain people, especially in New York, are very judgmental. In New York, there’s a need to constantly impress. Sean and I, neither of us needs to eat something we’ve never seen before, and we don’t want to be charged an arm and a leg for it. At the end of the day, we like to sit down in a little restaurant, and have some tasty food.”
That’s a simple concept. But in life, as in cooking, the simplest conclusions can be the hardest ones to get to.