Matt Zdeb Executive Chef SumoMaya Mexican Asian Kitchen www.sumomaya.com
When local restaurant owner German Osio announced his plans to open an ambitious Mexican-Asian restaurant last summer, he immediately made SumoMaya one of 2014's most-anticipated dining spots. Then Osio stoked the fire even more by announcing celebrity-chef Herb Wilson would be heading up the kitchen.
Well, SumoMaya finally opened in June but after just two months Wilson jumped ship to go open another new restaurant in Florida. That left former executive sous chef Matt Zdeb holding the reins to one of Scottsdale's buzz-iest dining spots.
"This is more than I ever could have imagined when I sat down with German," Zdeb says.
Which isn't to say Zdeb wasn't qualified for the job. He and Wilson worked closely prior to the chef's departure and both had a hand in creating the original menu. Plus, he'd spent years running the kitchen at another Scottsdale restaurant.
Zdeb joined the SumoMaya team after spending eight years at the W Hotel and Sushi Roku. Prior to that Zdeb had been at The Boulders resort; it was that job that brought him to the Valley from Austin, Texas in 2006.
But the chef's passion for the culinary arts goes back much farther than that. Zdeb says he began to love cooking when he was just a kid helping his grandmother bake and cook in her kitchen. Back then she would only let him touch the dishes, but eventually he earned enough trust to help with basic kitchen tasks.
"Since I was 12 years old I knew this is what I was probably going to do," the chef says.
In addition to plenty of experience in the kitchen Zdeb holds a degree in Hospitality and Restaurant Management, a fact that greatly influences his view as a chef.
"I know it happens, but I don't want anyone to walk out of here unhappy," Zdeb says.
Stylistically, he considers his food to be "simple and direct," the kind of cuisine that uses minimal ingredients but lets each one pop. Thanks to his Texas upbringing, Zdeb says he's got a soft spot for the restaurant's wood-fired grill.
"Let's just say I'm not the new world chef who needs a whole gastronomy kit in his back pocket," he says.
Since Wilson's departure Zdeb has made small tweaks to a number of dishes on the menu, but he says the majority of the dishes are largely the same. Many of the changes were about putting his personal touch on the menu, he says.
Moving forward Zdeb says the restaurant will be offering seasonal menu items -- but since the menu has changed about a half dozen times in the few months since opening, he hopes to stick with the current edition for a while. For the most part the chef says the public response has been positive, though he admits it's sometimes hard to explain the concept to those who are skeptical of the fusion concept.
"I don't want food that's just okay," Zdeb says. "And I can't explain it any more than, just sit down and let the food speak for itself."
One thing you would want every one to understand about the restaurant: We are food-driven. It's not about the chef or any one person to make it taste great. It takes a team and a clear vision to produce the high caliber and quality food we do. If it isn't amazing or life-changing, we don't serve it!
What's your favorite dish on the menu right now: Pastor Pad Thai. It really takes two very different, very traditional foods from two difference parts of the world and shows how they react and meld so well together.
Your three favorite ingredients to cook with right now: Tamarind, yuzu, and of course, tequila! All have very bold flavors and can be sweet and sour. And when all else fails if you drink enough tequila everything else doesn't matter.
The biggest lesson you learned from working with chef Wilson: Chef Wilson is a great chef. The biggest thing I learned from him would have to be humbleness. He has bene all around the world, cooked with some of the greatest chefs there are and yet he is still approachable and eager to teach you all he knows. It was an honor to be able to work with him.
Name one change you made to an existing dish and why you made it: One change I made to the menu is our chicken tacos. I took it from being a very traditional-style tacos to a sesame-ginger taco that incorporates our Aztec-style grill to give it a nice smoky flavor.
One local chef you admire and why: Greg Wilson. His food is always changing and his style is always so innovative.
Your earliest food memory: Making cookies in my grandmother's kitchen and always asking to help. Her answer was always, "Yes, start with the dishes."
Favorite food smell: Easy, my wife's homemade lasagna.
One cookbook you think everyone should read and why: How to Cook Everything
Name your current obsession: Steam buns
The most underrated ingredient is...salt! Everyone is so afraid to use it these days.
One food trend you wish would go away: Distracted dining. People should come to a restaurant for the experience and be fully engulfed in it.
Your biggest pet peeve when you're in the kitchen: Having a customer ask for steak "medium rare plus."
Your biggest pet peeve when you're dining out: When the server sits down or puts a knee on the booth at your table to take your order.
Your drink of choice and where you like to get it: A nice cold Dos Equis back at my home on the couch.
The most memorable meal of your life so far: It's actually a dessert that was made by the Executive Chef of the White House, a raspberry chocolate mousse in a chocolate swan. I'm not a mousse person but the experience of getting to see him create it all from scratch, I will never forget.
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One national/international restaurant you'd like to eat at this year: Alinea in Chicago or French Laundry, of course.
Your favorite local spot for cheap eats: Evo always treats me right!
Check out our past Chef and Tell interviews with: Felicia Ruiz -- Lola Tapas Aaron Pool -- Gadzooks Enchiladas and Soup Patrick Karvis -- TapHouse Kitchen Marisa Lown -- Radical Cupcake Brian Konefal -- Coppa Cafe Kelly Fletcher -- The Revival Bob Tam -- Bitter and Twisted BJ Hernandez -- Havana Patio Cafe Matt Taylor -- Gertrude's at the Desert Botanical Garden Jennifer Russo-Fitzgerald -- The Market by Jennifer's Jared Lupin -- Umami Michael O'Dowd -- Urban Vine Dennis Delamater -- The Post Doc Brown -- Doc Brown's Artisan Ice Cream Josh Bracher -- Second Story Liquor Bar Chris McKinley -- The Local Chris Mayo -- Central Bistro James Fox -- Bootleggers Jay and Christine Wisniewski -- Caffe Boa Joe Absolor - Clever Koi Jason Grossmiller - Arizona Distilling Company Chris Collins - Grassroots Kitchen and Tap Perry Rea - Queen Creek Olive Mill Adam Brown - Noca Steve Kraus - Press Coffee Roastery Jason Raducha and Claudio Urciuoli - Noble Bread Sasha Raj - 24 Carrots Nick LaRosa - Nook Joey Maggiore - Cuttlefish Country Velador - Super Chunk Sweets and Treats James Porter - Petite Maison Cullen Campbell - Crudo Mel Mecinas - Four Seasons Scottsdale at Troon North Meagan Micozzi - Scarletta Bakes Tyson Holzheimer and Joe Strelnik - Snooze, an A.M. Eatery Paul McCabe - T. Cook's at the Royal Palms Eugenia Theodosopoulos - Essence Bakery Cafe Eddie Hantas - Hummus Xpress Jay Bogsinke - St. Francis Dustin Christofolo - Quiessence Blaise and DJ Aki - The Sushi Room Sacha Levine - Rancho Pinot and FnB Andrew Nienke - Cafe Monarch Kevin Lentz - French Grocery Aurore de Beauduy - Vogue Bistro Justin Olsen - Bink's Midtown Marco, Jinette, and Edmundo Meraz - Republica Empanada Brian Peterson - Cork Brian Webb - Hey Joe! Filipino Street Food Lester Gonzalez - Cowboy Ciao Renetto-Mario Etsitty - Tertio German Sega - Roka Akor Marco Bianco - Pizzeria Bianco Brad and Kat Moore - Short Leash Hot Dogs and Sit...Stay