The Dish Was Better for It: An Interview with Chef Matt Elias
Chef Matt Elias is the master in the kitchen out at Saltwater Oyster Depot in Inverness: a town that sits way out on the far side of Tomales bay. Looking at a map you’d swear it wasn’t a town at all, but just a freckle on Point Reyes National Seashore. If you’ve spent time hiking or swimming on the Point Reyes beaches, you know it’s one of the most special places on this earth.
So that’s where this interview takes place – in that lovely postage-stamp of a town, locked between the bay and the Pacific, in one of the two restaurants you’ll find there. This is Saltwater’s third season and business is growing steadily each year in spite of some intrinsic challenges: a small town winter slow-down, and a kitchen equipped with a great big pizza oven, but no stovetop. This has forced them to get creative and do some cool stuff in the oven – and that’s all about to change with a kitchen remodel funded by the community via Equity Eats.
Matt crafts his dishes with loving and personal attention to ingredients picked at the height of their season, sourced as locally as possible from skilled farmers, foragers and fishermen. They are supplied mainly by two small vegetable farms – Little Wing Farm and Table Top Farm – both which deliver right to the kitchen door on a weekly basis and stay in close communication about what’s growing. The result is some truly fresh and delicious food that authentically represents the restaurant’s surroundings. Matt is my favorite cook, a recent champion of the local flower scene and, full disclaimer, he’s also my boyfriend.
I managed to get Matt out of the kitchen for a few minutes to talk about food, farmers, and the love that makes food great.
Matt. Tell the folks at home a little bit about yourself. How did you get into food?
When I was a tiny kid I’d spend time cooking with my grandma, getting put on a milk crate and peeling apples for apple pie. I loved it. Every year we would jump in my grandpa’s truck and head to Winters to glean peaches, then tomatoes, and apples after the harvests. I didn’t know what gleaning was at the time but of course that’s what we were doing. Then we’d bring everything home and can it to last through the year. I thought that just what you did. I didn’t realize til later how unique it was. I miss those three things – the canned peaches the most. You would eat the peaches and then drink the sugary juice. Mmm.
I would also watch all the PBS cooking shows with my grandmother. We had Julia, then Jacque Pepin, then Yan Can Cook, and then Lydia Bastianich, the frugal gourmet. When I finally got my driver’s license my mom would send me to the store with $25 and tell me I could buy whatever I wanted to cook the family for dinner that night. It was great.
Did you know at the time that it was more than a hobby?
For sure. When I was 15 and it was time to get a summer job, somehow I got hired at First St Cafe in Benicia where I grew up, as a dishwasher and prep cook. I worked my way up to be just a prep cook, then one day the pantry cook didn’t show up. They figured I had been there long enough to know how to jump in, so I did, and I stayed there. By the time I was a senior I was hardly going to school because I just wanted to be cooking. I had a great boss – Mark. He eventually let me cook at the upstairs space where we had a little jazz club, and I got to experiment and try out different things, even write the menu eventually.
So after your reign you headed off to Arizona for cooking school. Is that where you started paying attention to ingredients that would have made your grandparents proud?
School itself didn’t teach me to be conscious about ingredients and where they came from. We didn’t learn anything about farms or sustainability. But being in that program opened the door to working in good restaurants in the area.
My first exposure to those concepts in a real restaurant was at a place called Quiescence, which had a farm attached to it. I’d have to go out and harvest at night with a headlamp if we ran out of something, and you could just tell right away the produce was so much better, and the dish was better for it. We’d go meet with the farmer every season and talk about what to plant. If the farmer succeeded, the kitchen succeeded, everyone won. I knew this approach resonated with me, but I don’t know that I fully appreciated this style until I moved home and got a job at Ecolo in Berkeley.
It was at Ecolo, with Chris Lee and Samin Nosrat, that I was fully introduced to the Chez Panisse style of farm to table cooking with an emphasis on good simple ingredients. The method is to source great ingredients and cook them in simple ways so as to draw out the natural flavors. You harvest the perfect artichoke and prepare it with respect, and that’s it. They worked closely with farms like Green String, Star Route, River Dog, and Full Belly, all of which were small, local farms at the time.
It was so inspiring to be part of such a great team that all had the same ideas about food. Chris taught us all a respect for tradition and for basic cooking techniques. And that’s still what I want to eat – the best vegetable of the season, simply blanched with a little salt. That’s the best meal.
When Ecolo closed, It was probably the saddest I’ve ever been.
So what did you do?
I moved on to work for another few restaurants and even opened a place with an old friend. That didn’t work out, and then I met Guido Frosini of True Grass Farms. I was burned out, and I wanted to take a break from cooking, but I wanted to learn the other side of it. Where my food comes from – cliché as it sounds. Up at True Grass, Guido was doing some cool stuff – getting pigs in addition to the cows, starting up some farm tours and dinners, and I wanted to do more butchering and charcuterie. It was perfect.
It was all the classic farm scenes – up at 6am to feed the pigs and the chickens, loading hay onto the back of a flatbed, sloughing it off into the pastures. Not the same as a restaurant schedule! It was great. I learned how to slaughter an animal, starting with a lot of false confidence. “Sure, I can slaughter a rabbit, why not,” – and then I’d just jump in and figure it out. It’s really not that different from cooking. It was the full circle for me.
What happened after the ranch? How did you get to Saltwater?
So for a stint I started a catering company, buying from friends in the area who were doing and growing cool stuff on their land. I did lots of events around Sonoma and Marin, some on farms, and some other local venues.
Saltwater had just opened and already had a reputation for sourcing locally, but when I started with them as a guest chef on Monday nights, I was creating such a small menu that I was able to buy exclusively from my friends and farmers I knew. The more I worked with Molly and Aaron (from Little Wing Farm and Table Top Farm, respectively) the more we started truly collaborating- we put together structure to be able to work together every week. It started with Molly’s Padron peppers – I said ‘Molly, if you grow a bunch of padrons, I’ll buy all of them’. And it took off from there. It helps me to know that you’re getting a great product, that it’s coming from a friend who grows with practices that I believe in, and it helps her to know that she has a definite sale. With Aaron it was the same thing with his tomatoes.
They’ve both expanded now. For the first two seasons I was one of their two main accounts. Now they’ve grown and sell to a bunch of other local restaurants too. They’re doing great.
So you’ve been able to grow together – that’s actually a really cool story and part of what makes your cooking unique. What would you say is the philosophy behind your cooking at Saltwater?
I want to use the best ingredients possible. So the first thing I’m going to do is go to local farmers that I know. Most of the time, that’s the best stuff. If for some reason it’s not, I’m going to look somewhere else for the quality I need. I might then go to a bigger box farm, but I’m always buying organic, always from California. A lot of those bigger operations are still within my ethics. If I can’t find anything that meets my standards, I just won’t use that particular ingredient.
How does this process and philosophy differ from other restaurants you’ve cooked in?
It’s a completely different model. I’m all about ingredients first. I order exciting stuff and then write a menu. Other kitchens will write a menu and then go out and look for the ingredients. Instead of planning a menu, it’s the other way around. It’s the ingredients that are inspiring the food. We can’t make good food without good ingredients.
Do people understand and care about seasonality? Or do they ask for pineapples in January?
Ha. Pineapples. No. But it’s a conversation you have to have with people. At Bar Jules, a restaurant I cooked at in San Francisco, we had a great burger. People wanted tomatoes with their burger, so we tried to start the conversation about seasonality. Just because someone wants that tomato, doesn’t mean you should give it to them. Have the conversation.
Let’s talk a little bit about farming in this area. How do you get to know farmers? I love following you around the Sunday farmer’s market in San Rafael. That’s kind of the place for chefs and farmers to mingle, right? Do you usually approach new farms to make connections, or do they reach out to you?
A little bit of both. Most of the time, the farms seek out the restaurants, and farmers markets are for sure where the connections happen. I’d say in this area, everyone who has been around pretty much already knows one another at this point. I feel lucky that we have a community like that.
Even if you’re not at someone’s stall at the market to buy something that day, you check in. What’s coming up? What’s happening next season? Oh, a new lettuce variety? Cool. They ask you too. Would you be interested in this x, y, or z – sure, I can take a case a week. And so on.
So on that note, what are some cool new crops you’re seeing in this area?
Ooh. I’m really excited about new European chicories, like Putarelle. And there are some people in the valley growing heirloom citrus. And then foraged things…it’s kind of the new (but old) frontier. Foraged greens like chickweed. I love chickweed. Other foraged things like nettles and of course mushrooms. The foragers are the ones doing the cool stuff these days.
And are the stories true? Are there dudes in capes banging on your back door trying to sell you weird mushrooms they found?
It’s almost that fun, but no, Lennie, no one is wearing capes. But yes, people definitely come knock on my door with mushrooms they’ve found. Someone came in last week and wanted to barter a dozen eggs for 5 pounds of chanterelles. Of course I did it. Easy trade. No brainer.
What crops do you think really shine in our area? Do you think they’re easy for folks to grow at home?
Tomatoes. Especially the tasty ones like Sungolds. You plant 6 plants at home and that’s enough to feed your house AND to sell to some restaurant. There’s also San Marzanos – you grow 3 plants and you’ve got enough to can for winter. People should definitely be growing more artichokes. They’re easy as landscaping plants, and don’t take much water.
Anything home-grown is great, really. The love and care that go into growing and picking that flat of Sungolds off of just six plants – those are going to taste better than 20 flats produced from some huge farm.
You’re telling me you can taste the love?
Yes! You can see it, too. It was grown and harvested with respect and that’s how I’m going to treat it while cooking and presenting it. You’re making the most out of that ingredient and providing someone with an essential needs, but going far beyond that.
And there you have it. A huge thanks to my honey Matt Elias for putting up with my questions, not to mention for supporting small farms and always being excited to buy my flowers and produce. And a shout-out to Saltwater’s owner, Luc Chamberland, for making it all happen.
Visit Saltwater and you won’t regret it! Find them at 12781 Sir Francis Drake Inverness, CA 94937, or give them a call at (415) 669 1244 to schedule your reservation now.
Don’t forget to check out their website for menus, hours, and special events: http://www.saltwateroysterdepot.com/