Matt Taylor Market Street Kitchen 20825 N. Pima Road, Scottsdale 480-278-7044, marketstreetkitchen.com
This is part one of my interview with Matt Taylor, executive chef at Market Street Kitchen. Come back tomorrow when Taylor dishes about John Besh, his experience with Michael Mina Group, and his favorite Southern restaurants.
Do you remember how great Metro Brasserie in Old Town was -- particularly in its first year? If you loved eating French bistro food with a Southern drawl, then you loved Matt Taylor (a 23-year-old at the time), who was put in charge of menu creation -- not to mention running the place -- by Metro owners Fred and Jennifer Unger. They were smart to do it. Young as he was, the kid had chops and showed loads of promise, despite the restrictions of the semi-classical, faintly Americanized fare he was asked to dish out. When Taylor left a year or so later for Vegas to work with Michael Mina Group ("the big boys" as he calls them), a few of us in the food community were crushed, feeling as if we'd lost the sort of up-and-comer our nascent food town would have benefited from keeping.
Taylor came back to Phoenix in 2011, spending a year at Noca before moving up to Market Street Kitchen to work with his friend and mentor Robert McGrath late last summer after taking a months-long hiatus to decide (in his words) "who I wanted to be when I grow up." Put in check by health issues, McGrath stepped down a month or so ago, and restaurant owners Keeler Hospitality Group put Taylor in charge. He's rolling out a new menu -- with plenty of subtle Southern inflection -- any day now, remembering the staid, crab cake-eating North Scottsdale audience he has to play to but sneaking in a few distinctly edgy dishes whenever he can. "We don't tell them it's boudin," Taylor says, "we just call it a sausage, and then they're fine with it." He's also slow-cooking whole animals on the outdoor rotisserie and doing all sorts of wild and wonderful things with them: making head cheese from goat's meat and tartar from lamb.
How did this former Canadian come to embrace Southern cooking so completely? His restaurant career started in high school, when Taylor became a dishwasher for Canadian-based Earl's, moving up the cooking ladder over the course of two summers. During his senior year, he moved to Scottsdale (where his mother lived) to finish high school at Saguaro, enrolling in the EVIT program in 2000. He worked under SCI grad and Mary Elaine's alum Suzanne Perrotto at Wrigley Mansion Club before moving to Mosaic to work with another talented, nationally recognized female chef Deborah Knight .
Taylor dreamed of going to Vegas to work with Alex Stratta, but Renoir was about to close and friends put him in touch with Brad Thompson, who was heading up the kitchen at Mary Elaine's at the time. Taylor went to work for him, starting as "low man on the totem pole" but hanging in for five years. "I felt in over my head and wanted to quit many times, and then one day, things started to click. I had more confidence," Taylor says.
When Mary Elaine's was about to close, Thompson asked Taylor to make a list of the 10 places he'd most like to work. One of them was John Besh's Restaurant August in New Orleans. Thompson knew Besh and set up a stage for Taylor. Two weeks later, the Canadian boy moved to Louisiana (a world unto itself), staying a year before making tentative plans to help Thompson open a restaurant in New York (which never happened). Taylor was back in Phoenix by then and in need of temporary work, so he called McGrath, who was operating Pischke's Blue Ribbon at the time, and asked, "Can I flip eggs for a while?" McGrath took him on, later offering him the executive chef position at REM when it opened. When that fell through (as so many things did that year), a friend hooked up Taylor with the Ungers, who knew they wanted something casual in the former FoodBar space as counterpoint to glitzy Canal and Estate House. Taylor started writing menus, the Ungers liked them and he was in.
After Metro and his two years in Vegas, Taylor was ready to get out of the hotel business and wondering, as he puts it, how to "have my name on something and strut my stuff." He called Eliot Wexler at Noca, who was looking for a chef after Chris Curtiss' departure. Wexler flew to Vegas, and the two went on a seven-hour, 10-restaurant binge, bonding over food. Wexler missed his plane home but found his new chef.
The two remain good friends to this day, and it's plain to see Taylor thinks the world of Robert McGrath as well. And Brad Thompson. And Michael Mina. And John Besh. He's that guy, the humble, hard-working one who honors his teachers and yet yearns to make his own mark in this world. And, trust me, he will.
Favorite food smell: Dark roux. It evokes a lot of emotion, and funny enough, reminds me of movie theaters that I would go to as a kid, greasy popcorn machines . . .
Ingredient you love to cook with: Ham hocks from Allan Benton. The depth of flavor that comes of them is amazing. Smoky, salty, sweet -- when we make gumbo or broths, they just aren't quite the same without them.
What's your guilty pleasure?: I have several, but top of the list is chicken fried steak, liver and onions, fried chicken from Louisiana Famous Fried Chicken, and last, but definitely not least, Mai Tais.
Most overrated ingredient: I would never really call any ingredient overrated, maybe just overused or not given justice.
Most underrated ingredient: Heirloom grains. You can really taste the difference in quality rice, grits, grains, flours, peas, beans etc. It's nice to see many options (even locally) popping up all over.
Restaurant trend you like: The Southern trend, which is coming alive on this side of the country, is nice to see. Especially since so many ingredients that used to be indigenous to the South grow so well in Arizona.
Restaurant trend you hate: The Southern trend. When it's done well and respected, it's a beautiful thing. When it's not, it's underwhelming.
Name one favorite local restaurant and dish you love there: The chicken-fried steak or liver and onions from Texaz Grill are always on my mind. The "beef jerky" from Royal Thai Grill has also become a new obsession.
Name one national restaurant that has blown you away in the last year: Araxi in Whistler, British Columbia, was pretty darn awesome this past summer. Great local seafood, which is obviously in abundance, as well as some great game meat and local/wild vegetables. Top-notch service in a beautiful setting. Flour and Water in San Francisco is now one of my favorite restaurants. I have had some amazing pasta there.
Chef from whom you've learned the most: Bradford Thompson, hands down. So precise and technically spot on. Chef would never have to yell or raise his voice, even if you really screwed up. He just commands a certain respect that has me forever indebted to him.
Local chef you admire and why: Robert McGrath. He has been very kind, honest, and gracious to me over the years. Furthermore, I am always enamored with the time he spent with some of the greatest chefs ever. I personally know very few people who have cooked with the likes of Frédy Girardet, Paul Bocuse, and Bernard Loiseau. I'm a sucker for the old school and would hammer Chef with questions about that era at every opportunity.
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What did you all get right at Metro?: We were all a young group of guys and girls who were excited about the food and felt like we had something special but understood we weren't breaking the mold, either. When you get people like that, they have no choice but to shine through on the plate, whether it is a hamburger or a well-executed torchon.
Why did the French/Southern thing work?: It just made sense. The traditions of Deep South cooking and French cooking are very similar. It's merely the ingredients that separate them.
Enjoy this Chef Salad? Check out Nikki's previous interviews with: Helen Yung of Sweet Republic Helen Yung of Sweet Republic Jacques Qualin of J&G Steakhouse Claudio Urciuoli of Noca Claudio Urciuoli of Noca Matt Pool of Matt's Big Breakfast Jared Porter of The Parlor Charleen Badman of FnB Tony Abou-Ganim & Adam Seger Charlotte Voisey of Best American Brands Ambassador Steve Olson of Valley Ho Dough Robson of Gallo Blanco Edward Farrow of The Cafe at MIM Greg LaPrad of Quiessence & Morning Glory Cafe Joshua Johnson of Kai Joshua Johnson of Kai Todd Sicolo of T.Cooks Josh Riesner of Pig & Pickle Lester Gonzalez of Cowboy Ciao M.J. Coe of Federal Pizza Steven "Chops" Smith of Searsucker Aaron Chamberlin of St. Francis Michael Rusconi of Rusconi's American Kitchen Chrysa Robertson of Rancho Pinot Lynn Rossetto of The Splendid Table Cullen Campbell of Crudo DJ Monti Carlo Pete DeRuvo of Davanti Enoteca Chuck Wiley of Cafe ZuZu Justin Beckett of Beckett's Table Bryan Dooley of Bryan's Black Mountain Barbecue Silvana Salcido Esparza of Barrio Cafe Jeff Kraus of Crepe Bar Bernie Kantak of Citizen Public House James Porter of Petite Maison Johnny Chu of SoChu House Neo Asian + Martini Bar Stephen Jones of Blue Hound Kitchen & Cocktails Chris Gross of Christopher's Restaurant and Crush Lounge Chris Curtiss of NoRTH Arcadia Payton Curry of Brat Haus Mark Tarbell of Tarbell's Josh Hebert of Posh Kevin Binkley of Binkley's Restaurant Lori Hashimoto of Hana Japanese Eatery Larry White, Jr. Lo-Lo's Fried Chicken & Waffles Chris Bianco, Pizzeria Bianco, Bar Bianco, Pane Bianco and Trattoria Bianco Ehren Litzenberger, BLD