Our Second in a Series of Interviews with Bocuse d’Or USA Team Members as They Prepare for the International Culinary Competition
[Ed. Note: Periodically throughout 2016, we’ll check in with key figures from the Bocuse d’Or USA team that will compete in Lyon in January 2017. The team operates under the auspices and support of Ment’or BKB, the foundation led by Thomas Keller, Daniel Boulud, and Jérôme Bocuse.]
Chef Mathew Peters has had a front-row seat to the highs and lows of the US efforts at the Bocuse d’Or since the direction of the American squad was taken over by Thomas Keller, Daniel Boulud, and Jérôme Bocuse in 2008. A longtime member of the Thomas Keller Restaurant Group (he has toggled back and forth between Per Se and The French Laundry) Peters threw his toque in the ring for the 2017 team and won the honor of competing in a tryout event in Las Vegas last December. We recently spoke to Matt to check in and see how the early phase of his preparations is going.
[Note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.]
Tell me a little about yourself. Where were you cooking before Per Se and how long have you been there?
I started at Le Cordon Blue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. I worked at a few places in Pittsburgh. A friend of mine had the opportunity to go down to Naples, Florida, and reached out to me. I did some research and found out about The Dining Room at the Ritz-Carlton. I moved everything to Naples, and worked in the hotel, which had a Greenbrier-esque training program. I had the chance to to work in The Dining Room for Franck Steigerwald from Maestro restaurant [just outside] DC. When they started closing The Dining Room down, I decided to move to New York City to further my education, then found my way to Adour Alain Ducasse at the St. Regis. After about a year and a half, I applied to Per Se and was hired. After three years, I was promoted to sous chef, then Chef [Keller] reached out to me and asked me if I’d come out to The French Laundry. I worked there for two years with Tim Hollingsworth, then Chef [David] Breeden, who was executive sous chef at Per Se, then I was asked to come back to New York City.
There’s often a story about how chefs and commis connect for this event. Anything good there about you and your commis, Harrison Turone?
Harrison and I had never met before the competition. I struggled trying to find somebody who’d be of age. [Ed. Note: Bocuse d’Or rules dictate that the commis can be no older than 22 at the time of the competition.] At a Michelin-caliber place [in the United States] you don’t get anybody under the age of twenty or twenty-one, so I missed a few people by a month or two. Every single person I went to, one after another … one kid was just a week over the limit. Then I started reaching out to other chefs in the area, to [Team USA coach] Phil Tessier, to other Thomas Keller Restaurant Group properties. Harrison was working at Ad Lib and everybody was [saying], “There’s a young kid at Ad Lib, you should reach out to him. He’d be a great candidate.”
I thought, “Let’s see what he’s got.” I asked if we could bring this guy in, time’s a-ticking. We were three and half months out from [the team-selection competition in] Vegas. He had actually tried to get a job at The French Laundry, so that was a nice moment for him, because now he had the opportunity to come to Per Se until the competition in Vegas.
He’s a well-driven kid. He’s quiet at times but full of excitement. He was [2015 Bocuse d’Or USA commis] Skylar Stover’s commis in the Young Chefs Competition, so understands what Ment’or is all about. Obviously, having the communication between Skylar, who competed with Phil, they were friends, so he was constantly reaching out. We’re pretty similar, how we grew up: small town, played baseball. So it was an easy click for the two of us.
What was your knowledge of the Bocuse d’Or going into it?
I was introduced to it through Timothy Hollingsworth when he did his. That gave me a little bit of information about what it was. Then when Tom Allan [commis to USA candidate James Kent in 2011] went, I was in transition to coming to The French Laundry, so had some access when they came out to train. That was the first introduction to me. I thought it was something different and cool, a way to showcase French cuisine as well as a high standard and an elevated, arena atmostphere.
I was just getting my feet wet at The French Laundry when Richard Rosendale started training for [the 2013 Bocuse d’Or]. Then when Phil did it, I was at Per Se and got to see his preparation and organization. I followed him along the way, saw the process he developed. That’s when it clicked for me. When he finished second, I thought, “OK, this is something we need to be doing and something I’d love to do, or be part of.” I felt more prepared watching him and going through the process with him. It was the best time for me to compete.
When are you moving to Yountville or are you already there?
I’m out in California right now. I landed two days ago. [Ed. Note: This interview was conducted last month.] I’m trying to get myself acclimated and create a foundation for the next eight months here. I am completely full time now. All my attention is given to the Bocuse d’Or and hopefully achieving what we need to get done.
There’s a new pressure on the US team. Paul Bocuse wants gold for the USA. Thomas Keller wants gold. We’ve already got a silver. There’s one position above our last result and twenty-two beneath it…
You look at it nine or ten months from now and the pressure of getting to that point isn’t heightened. But there is the expectation of going in and winning gold, so there is pressure there. There’s definitely anxiety. Anything can happen. Just one mistake can lead you in the other direction. Seeing how Phil went about it his time, and having Phil on the team takes some of that pressure away. The relationship we have makes it easier as well. I’m sure I’ll run into moments when the pressure will heighten and be a bit more frustrating to me.
Is it always on your mind?
I think about it all the time. That’s the scary part. I’m always thinking about something, like the garnishes. I’m trying to develop the fish plate even though we don’t know what the fish is. [Ed. Note: the fish and meat that will be used in the competition won’t be revealed for months.] Being in California, walking down the streets, in The Garden, there’s a lot to be inspired by. So it’s always going through my mind, even during sleep.
Do you have dreams about it?
It’s a combination: Dreams of hopefully winning. Dreams of failing. Dreams of food. Ideas come to you when you’re in a semi-dream state… things that keep you up at night. Obviously there are beneficial parts to that … things to work on the next day. But as things start to form and take shape, there’s no large foundation for this yet. We form dishes around proteins the majority of the time. That’s the way we do menu development. We have a list of proteins and beautiful produce. In this case, we’re developing the platter and dish around a protein that we don’t know. It’s the opposite.
Are you a competitive person? Have you played sports? What’s your personality like in the kitchen?
Well, I don’t have time for any pick up games anymore, but when we were in Florida, I played a lot of softball. I do consider myself competitive. This industry is competitive. I love the competitiveness. I love the innovation and creativity. At one point growing up in high school, I wanted to do something with art and struggled with art. People said I should be an architect. Finding cooking was a form of art for me. It really is. The ability to craft something with my hands that’s not only beautiful but delicious is very intriguing to me.
I hear you’ve already had a meeting with designer Martin Kastner, of Crucial Detail, who developed the stunning platter for Philip Tessier last year. What was that like?
We just went out to Chicago a couple of weeks ago. To see his creative output is remarkable—the ideas and things he comes up with are amazing. I’m excited to work closer with him … to work with the food, for him to see my concept/direction, and hopefully we can start piecing the puzzle together. I love the work he did at Next and Alinea and the work he did with Phil was a huge eye-opener for the competition. He definitely has some ideas that he wasn’t able to use in the last competition that he wants to bring to this one, so I’m excited to see where he takes it.
What else are you doing to get ready for competition? I know Phil put himself through a daily physical regimen. You going to do anything like that?
Oh yeah. We’ve already started that. I like to be active and fit on my own, just to feel well. It’s definitely a crucial point that Phil gave me. Being fit in the morning, it just keeps you up and awake and makes your mind sharper. Being in the kitchen for this long period of time on your feet, moving quickly, making moves and turns, makes the body tired if you’re not in shape. So it’s been something I’m doing, trying to get myself up in the morning. I’m so used to being up until two in the morning. I’ve been working from 11 am until 2 am for the last fifteen years, so now I have to reverse my clock. I’m trying to get acclimated to getting up in the morning, at the crack of dawn. I want to be ready for that.