For fifteen years, Matt Selby helmed the culinary ship at Secret Sauce, rising to prominence with the whimsical, bold cooking that anchors Vesta and its younger siblings, Steuben’s and Ace. His departure from the group five years ago initiated a lot of soul-searching, as he moved from the short-lived Corner House — “The neighborhood wasn’t ready,” Selby says — to Central Bistro to Punch Bowl Social to consulting. After finally defining the type of cooking he really wanted to do, he landed at Bremen’s Wine & Tap, a casual neighborhood joint that opened at 2005 West 32nd Avenue in June. In the following Q&A, Selby talks about what rustic cooking means to him, the dish he cooks most often at home, and why it’s important for chefs to take care of themselves in a physically demanding industry.
Westword: Since making your name at Vesta, you’ve done stints at a handful of restaurants, plus did a brief experiment with consulting. What brought you to Bremen’s Wine & Tap?
Matt Selby: [Owner] Dina Castillo and I have known each other fifteen years, from when we both worked at Vesta. She spoke with me a year and a half ago, when I was still at Central. She shared the vision and what she was going for, and talked about the neighborhood vibe and feel. Her first question was, “Do you want to be the chef?” I really wanted to go into consulting, which I absolutely hated. I feel like I had to go through a few things to figure out what excites me. After a lot of soul-searching, I reconnected with Dina. We had one conversation, and I couldn’t sleep that night — and it was a good kind of I-couldn’t-sleep. I realized, if I’m losing sleep, that’s probably something I should be thinking about. She had gotten this [old Rosa Linda’s] space, and I grew up eating here.
You’re doing a simpler form of cooking here than you did at Vesta.
Dina’s vision was strong enough when we first talked for me to carry it with me: This space is screaming for rustic and simple. It was going to be about porchetta, larger pieces of meat — that type of kitchen. I’m a rustic chef and cook; it took me a while to realize that if I can’t do it with my two hands, I don’t want to do it.
What do you mean by “rustic cook”?
In my twenties, much like any young cook, I was about reaching for everything in the pantry — I was going for that wow factor. Vesta had this million-dollar pantry and walk-in, and it was really easy to do that. It took me a while to pull that back and say, let’s not go for shock value; let’s go for finesse and make people happy. I carried that with me for a long time. By the time I took that to Central, I said, if I can’t do it with these two hands, I don’t want to do it. Part of that is being lazy — I don’t want to pick up a damn Robot Coupe [a high-end food processor] and wash and clean it. But also with the foams and emulsions, it gets to a point where, with all the straining, you’re losing volume and flavor. I thought of some of the best dishes I’ve made, and they’re so simple. I’m striving for simplicity in my life; it makes sense that it would carry into my cooking. One cool thing about being 43 now is having seen trends come and go. Things that were not trendy in my twenties are kind of trendy now. And regardless of whether they are or aren’t trendy, I’m now mature enough to say, who cares? If it’s fresh and tasty and local, I don’t care about trends. I’d like to say that I never have, which is kind of a lie. When you see them come and go, it humbles you. Who was I to say I wouldn’t cook with a certain ingredient twenty years ago?
Could you give us a few standouts on the Bremen’s menu that really highlight your evolution?
The Bremen’s opening menu contains the greatest hits over my entire career. I didn’t do that out of ego. I’ve just taken my knocks opening restaurants, especially with dishes that are like, why can’t we get this right? It was important to open with dishes I knew my guests would like, be that a new guest or a regular who’s followed me. When you’re opening a restaurant, you’ve got enough fish to fry. We’re doing a watermelon and bacon salad with fresh mint — I’ve been trying to do that salad for years in some way, and this is the first time it’s sold on a consistent basis. There’s the porchetta sandwich — I’ve wanted to do this since the first time I had one in Philly, at the Reading Terminal. And the Oaxaca black-bean sauce on the rotisserie chicken dish: The chicken itself was something I did at Vesta in ’99 or 2000. We were doing coconut-milk black beans, and halfway through doing that, I realized if you strain off the coconut milk, you get this incredible sauce. That goes along with the rallying cry here of no waste. I’m so sick of throwing food out. And then there are our lamb ribs, done Memphis style. I love barbecue, and I love lamb.
Take us back to your childhood for a moment. Was food an integral component of your upbringing?
My mom was a great cook, but she was very routine — we had spaghetti Monday, pork chop Tuesday, etc. She was a single mom with two growing boys, and she did what she could to keep up. Growing up, I loved watching cooking shows. I remember watching someone doing a whole leg of lamb. I called my mom and said, “Mom, if you stop at the store and get lamb and lavender, I’ll make dinner.” She laughed and said, “Here’s some frozen beef.” My brother was into it as well — we got into recipes, and we’d work on food at home. It grew from there. I got a job cooking at Bennigan’s, which at the time was just open a bag and pour — I didn’t even know that you could craft a career out of that. My first real cooking job was at Rattlesnake Grill, and when I interviewed, I thought, why the fuck is the guy wearing a karate uniform? I didn’t know you could find joy, enrichment and gratification in cooking. At Rattlesnake, I got to see real ingredients for the first time, to learn their history — and it really clicked.
You’ve just been through a restaurant opening, but this isn’t your first rodeo. What is hard that you’re surprised is still hard?
I always say that I have a running file of mistakes I’ll never make again. The funny thing is every time you open a new restaurant, you make a whole bunch of new ones. I’m 43 — the physical aspect is not getting easier. But at Bremen’s, I look at how we took care of each other through this. I had to take care of myself. I had to eat better, I had to get to bed on time, I had to stay healthy. Opening Steuben’s, I remember getting in at 4, 5, even 2 a.m. to get prep back on track, and I remember it being 9 p.m. and thinking, I haven’t eaten today. I can’t do that anymore. I shudder to think of opening a restaurant as a drinker. When we opened Vesta, I wasn’t a full-on alcoholic yet, but I’ve seen some guys drink all the way through an opening. If you’re not taking care of yourself, you’re not going the distance, and you’re not taking care of guests and staff. Opening should be a party. If you’re not having fun, what’s the point? But it scares me. I think now, how am I going to take care of myself today and tomorrow? I ask my staff, did you eat today?
You’ve been in this dining scene a long time. What strikes you as the most notable parts of its evolution, and where would you like to see it go?
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[The best thing is seeing] guests who demand quality, freshness and local whenever possible. Even better is seeing that in young diners. I’ve seen my kids grow up, kids of regulars grow up, and they gravitate more toward healthy decisions instead of stuff kids normally eat. That’s a huge change. It’s really awesome to see kids making really good decisions. As far as where it goes, with all the restaurants popping up, its gotten hard for chefs to keep up with each other — it’s easy to get caught up in your clique or neighborhood and forget about what everyone else is doing. And because of that, we’re not as cohesive as we were as a small market. I’d like to see a return to asking, “Who are we as chefs in Denver?” Not who am I, but who are we. We’re only good as each other, so let’s do this together.
What do you cook at home?
Arroz con pollo. It’s my jam, my zen, I love making chicken and rice at home. I’ve got one vegetarian at home and two meat-eaters — so that’s a challenge, but a fun challenge. I love connecting with my kids that way. I love asking, what do we have and what’s going to make the kids happy? The best chef I know is my wife, Gina; she knows how to season better than me, and I feel like she plays to the crowd better than I do. She can craft things with ingredients on hand that appeal to everyone.
What’s always in your fridge or pantry?
Kewpie mayonnaise. Chopped garlic, ginger and lemongrass in the tubes — they’re just so easy to use. Salt. We ran out of salt once, and all of us were flipping out. We’re salt junkies in my house. Chicken thighs — frozen chicken breasts are just janky. Olives and mustard.
Bremen’s Wine & Tap is located at 2005 West 33rd Avenue; it's open from 3 to 10 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday, and 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday. Find out more at 720-504-4410 or bremenswinetap.com.