The marine corps isn’t the usual path to becoming a chef, but it just may have taught Matthew Hamilton the key to surviving New York’s cutthroat dining scene. Matthew spent his childhood picking vegetables from the garden for dinner, so it’s no wonder he was a bit ahead of these market-driven times. Luckily, he fell into a position at San Francisco’s celebrated Zuni Cafe, where he learned how to important it was to make ingredients in house. He took an eccentric sabbatical in Tuscany on olive farm, returning to work at Noho’s Five Points.
After experiencing the hardships of opening (and closing) his own restaurant, Uovo, Hamilton seems content to be back in somoeone else’s kitchen. At Belcourt, Hamilton not only makes his own boudin blancs (pork sausages,) but also the bread, mustard and sauerkraut that accompany them out of the kitchen.
What did you want to be when you grew up?
A marine. I knew that if I met that challenge I could do anything.
What was your first job in food?
Cooking breakfast in Japan at a marine corps base. On weekends I worked at bars and random restaurants frying food. After that, I went to culinary school for three months, but it wasn’t for me.
How did you end up working with Judy Rogers at Zuni Café?
I was working at a place called Fisherman Bar & Grill and a consultant recommended me to Judy at Zuni Cafe. It was amazing. The woman’s brilliant. At Zuni, we were making brandied cherries, homemade sausage and our own fontina. This was back in ’95 and farmers were knocking on the door and asking us to use their fresh, organic produce back then.
What propelled you to go to Tuscany?
I was supposed to go Nice and then I read an article in Saveur magazine about a female professor, who made olive oil on a Tuscan farm. I ended up working at her farm for a year. I was fascinated by the way she lived her life; Everything she raised she ate. I was waking up, feeding the animals, picking my vegetables and then eating it all for lunch.
How did you end up back in NYC at Five Points?
I had a friend working at Five Points, and then I moved to Prune. Gabrielle Hamilton is incredible. I’ve learned more about cooking from women. Women have a way with food that men don’t have – their ability to nurture it. I’ve learned how women respect ingredients. My grandfather just cooked.
What was it like opening your own restaurant with Uovo?
That was hard. I think we did really good food there. We didn’t get the business that I wanted. The city isn’t kind to small businesses. I ended up not making as much food because the pipes were always leaking, or the awning fell down.
How did Belcourt come about for you?
I did something at Public for a couple of months. Then Mehanni (the owner) called me up and said he was opening up Belcourt and wanted me. I walked in and saw the French antiques and the authenticity of the space. It’s beautiful.
Did he give you free reign with the menu?
Yes, he wanted me to do Mediterranean. It’s Mediterranean-based with all of my favorite influences, ideals, things I’v tasted and seen.
At Belcourt you make nearly everything in house…
I make green tomato jam to serve with cheeses. I cure my own anchovies, make my own flatbreads, and ricotta. Pretty much everything on the boudin blanc is homemade from the sausage to the bun to the sauerkraut.
What’s your favorite dish on the menu right now?…
I didn’t want to serve chicken, but I’m using an organic chicken that I
panroast. It’s just so soft and good. I also love the butternut squash
What’s your least favorite dish (and yes, you must pick one)?
The chicken. And maybe the lamb because it’s hard to maintain the right temperature on it.
What is your junk food of choice?
Fried green peas.
Other than your own, what’s your favorite restaurant in NYC?
What culinary trend do you most embrace?
Market to table, but I respect them all.
What trend do you wish would die already?
I wish the term market-driven would go away. Restaurants misuse
it. They say they’re market-driven, but they’ve never been to a
market. They just get it all from purveyors.
What’s next on the horizon for you? Any new ventures or restaurants in the works? Spill the beans…
I want to make Belcourt a success and spend time with my baby girl.
I would also love to do a cookbook with lots of writing about my
personal journeys mixed in.
Photo Credit: Metromix.com
Until we eat again,
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