Whether you’ve sampled a cheese plate, feasted on a slow roasted half duck, or snacked on the classic onion soup gratinee or perhaps the escargot, Chez Pascal is sure to please any avid Providence foodie. With it’s spin on classic French bistro cuisine, Chez Pascal mixes a more than comfortable bar with an intimate dining room. A cozy corner of the restaurant, The Wurst Kitchen, serves small dishes and sausages which are also available for take-out at The Wurst Window. With a chance to interview Matt, I was excited. A chance to shadow the kitchen on a Friday night? I couldn’t say no and I’m glad I didn’t. Matt has become a well-known chef in Providence and promotes buying local through his restaurant.
Matt cooks the delicious food along with a small crew of skilled chefs while his wife and business partner, Kristin, manages the front of the house making sure everyone is welcome. Below you can read an edited version of the 30 minute conversation Matt and I had (I also snapped the photos) covering Matt’s burger days, his inspiration, sausage making, the concept behind working with local farmers, and much, much more.
What inspired you to get into cooking?
Perhaps like you, I started watching the first cooking shows. It was a program on PBS and it was a show that would highlight different regions and it would go into restaurants and the chefs would do demonstrations. I remember trying to make a few of the recipes from what I saw on TV. It was called the Great Chef series. So I’d started watching that and, maybe like you, liked to cook but didn’t think it was a career choice.
And then when I was in high school, I worked at a place that a lot of high school kids worked at and it was called The Red Rooster, sort of a ’50s style drive-in where it was all short order and I worked the grill station; just burgers. It was a place that other high school kids worked at, and my friends worked at, too. It was just a place I’d go to, I got paid and I enjoyed it. It wasn’t like “Ugh, I gotta go to work today”. That’s what anytime I had worked in restaurants was like; I enjoyed it, so I continued with it. I went to URI for a little while and that just wasn’t the sorta place that suited me as far as what I wanted to learn and how I wanted to learn. So then I went to cooking school and once I decided to do that, I realized “Okay, this is what I’m gonna do and I’m gonna work really hard, and set goals for my self at that point”.
I then went to Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park New York and did a two year program there. I look at what we do [when cooking] as more of a trade, it’s to learn a skill much like people who are mechanics, electricians. It’s hands on and as far as how I learn it is by seeing it and doing it. You can read cookbooks, but if you don’t understand the basic techniques it doesn’t mean anything. It’s like if you read a book about plumbing, I don’t know what they’re talking about. You have to know the basics and have a good foundation. Luckily I had always cooked, so when I went to school I had a good basic foundation of cooking and decent knife skills, so then I could focus on other things I didn’t know about and not get bogged down by the basics in the school, because it was a quick program and it was pretty intense and at that point, I wasn’t there to goof around, I was there to get as much as I could out of it.
So each place I worked at, the skill level increased. Then, there was an opportunity to work at a place, pre-school, called The Stonehenge, in Ridgefield, CT, in ’92, their cuisine was very classic French and always had a great reputation. It’s different than what we do, because that style back then was more painted plates with different colored sauces. It’s not what we do, but it was there that I learned the basics of that style of cooking, that sauce making, stock making, really working from raw ingredients. All the other places I worked at were just line cooking, you just produced food. You never really saw where it came from, whereas this was the first place that I saw, this is how you make a sauce, this is how you make a soup, as opposed to other jobs, the soup was just already made and you went from there. It was a great opportunity because I was still young and I worked with older cooks and they saw this kid wants to work hard and they taught me as much as could, as much as I wanted. From there I went into school.
How many restaurants have you worked at?
Probably about 10. And they were in New York City, Oakland, CA, Holland for a little while, Westport, and Boston, so I got to move around, but tried to commit time in each place, so just going into a place for 6 months, you’re not going to learn anything, not enough.
How would you describe the style/cuisine that you cook at Chez Pascal?
So, as you may or may not know, we bought this place 12 years ago and it was Chez Pascal, so it had French influences. Pascal’s [the chef/owner] food was very classic and we knew coming in that this might not be the type of food and restaurant I wanted to open, but I was more interested in serving local food, utilizing what’s available at the time. So, whatever cuisine it is, that’s what I wanted to do. If you want fish form Japan, you can get that in 2 days now, but I think people are getting back to that there’s no point in doing that, even though we’re a French restaurant and there are sort of traditional.
We use the idea of French food as an influence. It’s like reading a book; you get ideas and then you go from those ideas and you alter them to suit what you have available and also time of year, seasonality, all that stuff; Knowing the people who grow the food and making relationships with them and then ordering food, based on what they have and making something out of it. As opposed to me saying, “This is what I want at this time of year, so I can do this dish”. Some people do that, but I like to just order food and then figure out what the heck I’m gonna do with it. You should go, see what’s available, what looks best, and try to come up with food based on that. The idea [behind Chez Pascal] is to give the customer something they could do, but might not have thought of doing that way, it gives them something to think about.
What are some of the local vendors you buy from?
Dianna from Arcadian Fields is primarily where we get our tomatoes. I like what she calls her “teenage” lettuce. We also get her cucumbers, sometimes. There are guys from White Barn Farm, out of Wrentham. Lang Water Farm, another farm a little bit north of here, in Easton. These are people I met through other farmers that have then broken off to open there own places. They’re young and they’re passionate about what they do, and they understand what we’re looking for and those are people that we like to do business with. There’s also Pat’s Pastured, we get his chickens. Schartner’s Farm, Shy Brothers…I mean there’s a huge, huge group of people that we buy from.
Is the majority of your ingredients bought locally?
Now, yes. In the winter, it’s not as easy because there’s not as much availability, but right now, I mean a majority of the products are. The hardest items are still meats. Meats are the biggest challenge to continuously keep and the prices are astronomical for the local producers and what causes that is the high demand at the markets, so their retail value is high. So we have to source elsewhere in order to produce a product that’s still good, still a natural product, but within reason for what our price point should be.
What is your favorite ingredient to cook?
It’s gonna depend on the time of year. So as far as using seasonal food, through the winter we’re seeing nothing [locally] but root vegetables; turnips, parsnips, potatoes…the stuff that farmers can hold. Cabbages, rutabagas. So for us, as soon as we see asparagus, we’re so excited, so that’s our focus. As soon as we start to see other Spring vegetables we forget about asparagus, and we can’t wait to see strawberries and blueberries. All the brazing greens, like turnips, but then we can’t wait to see corn and tomatoes, which we’ve seen now, and then in the Fall, we’re gonna be so sick of tomatoes and corn, we want to see some of those hearty vegetables again. It cycles through, so there is no one thing in particular. We can’t wait to see Striped Bass and Bluefish, as far as seafood. Softshell crabs people get excited about, but they’re not local, they’re from Maryland, but that’s a good sign that we are into Spring and people do love them. Into the Fall, we’ll start to see some pheasants, but that’s all stuff coming out of Vermont, it’s something that’s available year round, since they raise birds year round. The food cycles through the seasons, so it definitely depends on what time of year it is and what we are looking to see.
Would you ever cook a menu that doesn’t change seasonally and is the same all year?
I would be completely bored. I think it’s boring for the customers and I understand that people think, “This dish is great!”, but there is other stuff people can try and like. We always have onion soup, and we always have escargot, because you have to think about it from a business point, too. If you are a customer and it’s something you like and enjoy, then what’s the big deal to leave it? And there are certain things like tomatoes, when tomatoes are done, they’re done and that’s too bad. Asparagus; we have it for one month and it’s gone. Yeah, you can get it from California, Peru, and Jersey, but that’s not the point. There are certain things that that’s it and people understand it. Our customers start to realize that understanding. We have regulars who come in all the time, they want different things, otherwise they get bored and then your cooks get bored. I’ll get bored. I’ve been back there for 11 years cooking, if I see the same thing, it’s not interesting.
What is one memory of cooking that you’ll never forget?
There’s a couple. I remember my grandmother eating asparagus on toast sandwiches with butter and we used to make fun of her because we thought it was gross. She had her own asparagus patch and made her own bread, so she would pick the asparagus. I look back, thinking, “She knew what she was doing,”. It doesn’t get any better than that.
One cooking memory which I don’t think I’ll forget was in California. It was a busy night and we were steaming fish, so when you work on the line, pretty much everyone is working together to put the food up together. And so I’m steaming this fish and I forgot to even check if there was water in the steamer, the water evaporated and the burners are full blast and wound up just totally toasting all the fish. There was smoke and the fish was horrible. I didn’t realize it until I went to go pick up this dish. It wasn’t one, it was like four going to different tables and it was ruined. It was a terrible mistake and the chef was freaking out. I created a huge problem, because not only did I make a mistake because I was careless and not paying attention, but I affected other cooks who had to redo all their dishes. Needless to say it was a rough night, but again the way we look at it here is, “It’s not the end of the world, we didn’t kill anyone, it’s just food, you made a mistake, and you’ll never do it again.” But I remember going home and the sous chef came by my apartment and told me “Don’t worry about it, it happens”. It was the coolest thing because he went out of his way knowing that I had a bad night. For the next year, the joke was “Who is going to run the steamer out?” because it had happened again, not to me, but other cooks would do it so then it became this continuous thing about who was going to mess up the steamer this time. So something like that you don’t forget.
What is a dish on the menu now that you can explain how you were inspired to make?
The easiest to explain is tomatoes. We’re pretty particular about them. I think we really want to let them speak for themselves, so we try to keep it as simple as possible, but not so simple that you’re like, “Oh, I could do this at home”. We think about different textures, different flavors. One dish that we do in the Wurst that we love is the Hot Link BLT. It’s our smoked pork sausage and the BLT part is a chopped BLT: chopped iceberg, our own bacon, tomatoes and we use aioli, which is garlic mayonnaise that gets mixed in a bowl, and put on top of the sausage. I had had that at a place my grandmother took me too, where the chef took a toasted pita and put bacon, lettuce, tomato, and mayo in the pita. I never would have thought to do a BLT that way, but if you think about it, in every bite you get a little bit of everything as opposed to a traditional BLT where you have sliced tomato, bacon, leaves of lettuce. But the pita caught all that mayonnaise, that tomato juice, and it was really good. So again, you want to think about different textures, flavors, what you can put on a spicy dish to help cool your mouth down, without having to drink water. The idea is how, if you eat everything together, it’s going to taste, as opposed to putting a silly carrot here and a thing there. So, if we’re doing a steak and we put the bacon jam on there, the idea is not that you eat the bacon jam all at once, it’s that the bacon jam will melt over it all and you get a little bit of bacon jam in each bite.
Let’s talk about the Wurst.
So we started with the cart, and that was where we were making condiments, chili, sauerkraut. But we bought the hot dogs because we really didn’t have the capability to make them. Then we had the truck, so we could do our sausages, meatloaf, pastrami, but at that point, we were still buying hot dogs. Once we started The Wurst Kitchen, we had a whole room where we make the sausages. We put a homemade smoker in the kitchen. We can do much larger volume and that’s the key, it has to be enough to support it, you can’t say you are making your own hotdogs, but constantly run out. We had to invest in stuff so we can make larger volume. So now for the past 2 years, we haven’t bought any hot dogs, everything is made here.
More about Chez Pascal in their website http://chez-pascal.com/