Matt Anderson wanted to become an Olympic downhill skier from the time he was three and wobbled on skis for the first time. But eighteen years later, he threw his skis in the trash. Anderson, once a member of the U.S. Alpine Ski Team, gave it up in 1991. "I crashed mentally," he says. "There was too much travel, I had too many injuries, and all of that combined just started to add up - and I walked away."
It wouldn't be the last time that Anderson, the chef de cuisine at Bistro Vendôme, would let his feet do the walking. Anderson, who was born in Ann Arbor, Michigan, had his first kitchen job at fourteen, at a country club, then boomeranged from ski hill to ski hill and college to college, eventually ending up at Kendall College of Art and Design in Grand Rapids. He was studying to become an artist...until the day he waltzed out of the classroom and never returned.
Instead, he strode two blocks down the street to the culinary school, where he filled out an application. And it was then, Anderson says, that he finally found his calling. "That's sort of where my whole life came together," he remembers. "I felt like I knew what I was doing at that point. It was something that I could stomach doing, and I felt good about cooking - about melding cooking and artistry."
Soon after graduating, Anderson landed in Denver, where he was hired as a line cook at the Flagstaff House. In 1999, he moved to Summit County to snowboard and cook; in 2004, he returned to the Mile High City and took a job as head chef at the now-defunct Amore in Cherry Creek. He was scouring Craigslist ads, searching for a new gig, when he came across a plea for a chef de cuisine at a nameless French restaurant.
The restaurant was Bistro Vendôme, where Anderson has been cooking for the past several years. "I love the honesty of cooking, because it's something tangible that I can put my hands on at the end of the day," he explains. "I just like to cook, to create something from nothing, starting with raw ingredients and seeing the results in front of my face."
In the following interview, Anderson talks about what happens when he's hungry, street smarts vs. book smarts, French butter and his boss, Jennifer Jasinski.
Six words to describe your food: Simple, comfortable, seasonal, flavorful, rustic and refined.
Ten words to describe you: Loyal, father, husband, quiet, sarcastic, introverted, creative, passionate, dedicated and resourceful.
Favorite ingredient: French butter. For those of you who haven't tried it, you must; it's what butter is supposed to taste like. American butter has kind of an unnatural flavor to it, whereas French butter has a sweet, kind of cream flavor to it.
Best recent food find: Verjus. It's made from wine grapes, so it has the elements of vinegar, but it doesn't have the acidic tang of vinegar. It's sweeter, mellower and a great substitute for vinegar, even though it's more expensive and harder to find.
Most overrated ingredient: Salmon. It's so overdone, and there was a time when there wasn't a menu in town that didn't have it. It's the fish equivalent of chicken, and seeing it night after night - having to cook it on the line every night - gets tiresome.
Most underrated ingredient: Fleur de sel, a hand-picked sea salt from France. It has a great flavor, and if you've got a baguette, French butter and fleur de sel, that's all you need.
Favorite local ingredient: Palisade peaches.
One food you detest: Sea urchin. I know it's a delicacy, but when I first moved to Colorado, I worked at the Flagstaff House and we had sea urchin on the menu, which was something I'd never worked with before, so I was naturally curious. But the first time it hit a hot sauté pan, it released a smell that I'll never forget. It was like someone had taken off their dirty socks and sautéed them.
One food you can't live without: Pasta. A lot of times, I just need to eat, and I don't want it to be a big ordeal -- I just want calories, and pasta is the first thing I go for. If I miss family meal at the restaurant, then before service, I'll eat buttered noodles with some fresh basil and I'm good. When I crash because I haven't eaten, people need to watch out: It's the most dangerous time to be around me. I could tell you a story about what happened at the Aspen Food & Wine Classic a few years ago, but it's probably best I don't. I'll tell you this much: It had something to do with trunk shots and whiskey and trying to find somewhere to eat at 2 a.m.
Biggest kitchen disaster: Soon after I started working at Bistro Vendôme, one of the dishwashers told me about a drip coming from the ceiling. It was right in the middle of service with a full restaurant, so I told him to put a bucket under the drip and that I'd deal with it after service. The drip eventually became a stream, and by the time I could look into it, every crack in the ceiling was pouring pink fluid - coolant -- everywhere. No food went out, and I had to close the restaurant and send everyone to Rioja. I imagine their kitchen probably wasn't too pleased to have us drop a ton of people in their lap, but I had no choice.
What's never in your kitchen? WHIRL, a weird, thick butter substitute. One of the places where I worked had it, but I've never seen or heard of it again. I just wish I'd never seen it to begin with, because it's horrible. We don't have chef coats in the kitchen, either. Instead, we cook in T-shirts. If you're sweating your butt off, why the hell do you want to put more clothes on?
What's always in your kitchen? EVOO, of course. Just kidding. I'd have to say black truffles; they're always included in at least one dish on one of my menus.
Favorite dish to cook at home: Honestly, I don't cook much at home. If I do, it's making bulk meals for my son for the week. The rest of the time, I mainly graze on stuff like olives, hummus, pita chips and cheese.
Favorite dish on your menu: I just added a new duck dish to the menu -- a confit of duck leg I cure with salt, garlic and thyme for a couple of days before covering it with duck fat and slow-cooking it for about four hours until tender. It's served with a butternut-squash-and-bacon fritter, wilted spinach and an apple cider demi-glace. I like the kind of cooking that goes back to old-world techniques, like confiting.
If you could put any dish on your menu, even though it might not sell, what would it be? Toad in the hole. I like silly food that breaks down barriers, mainly because a lot of people are so hung up on an ingredient that can only be harvested for five minutes each year in some village that no one's ever heard of -- and then to add insult to injury, it tastes like crap. Where I come from, crap is crap, exotic or not, so I like to make food that's just good. I once worked with master chef Angus Campbell, who would always say that a true chef is someone who can take an ingredient that anyone else would throw away or use for filler and make it amazing. Creating something from nothing is the hardest thing to do in cooking. Anyone can take a truffle and shave it over some pasta and say they are a great chef. That said, I'm not sure that chef Jen would let me put toad in the hole on the menu. Who knows if people would take it seriously?
Weirdest customer request: I had made a lunch special -- some seared tuna salad thing -- and the woman who ordered it sent it back and said she wanted it chopped up. That was fine, so I diced it up, assuming she might have had trouble eating it or whatever. A few minutes later, she sends it back a second time with the same instructions to chop it up, so I dice it again, send the dish back out, and it comes back again. This time, the server says that she wants it smooth. So I threw it all in a blender and made it into a soup, and she said it was perfect.
Weirdest thing you've ever eaten: Brains. They weren't all that good. The texture was nasty, and the flavor was kind of weirdly muddy.
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Favorite celebrity chef: Anthony Bourdain. I don't watch a lot of what's on the Food Network, so I'm not real familiar with the big TV personalities, but I like Bourdain's attitude and how he downplays the fact that cooking isn't being about a celebrity chef, but about producing great food. He seems to be driven by something other than being on a pedestal, and I think if you asked him how he liked being a celebrity chef, he would laugh and say that he's just a good cook. I respect that, especially since when I was coming up through the ranks, there were no celebrity chefs; the chefs who were on TV had tons of experience and were chefs first and celebrities second.
Celebrity chef who should shut up: Rachael Ray. Her whole EVOO thing is just so witty. I've heard some ridiculous catchphrases over the years, but it's hard to have respect for someone who doesn't grind away in a hot-ass kitchen, but instead hangs out in an air-conditioned studio. I'm sure she puts in a lot of hours, but I think most working chefs would agree it's annoying.