Cafe Society

Part two: Chef and Tell with Matt Mine from the Oceanaire Seafood Room

This is part two of Lori Midson's interview with Matt Mine, executive chef of Oceanaire. You can read part one of that interview here.

Culinary inspirations: Many things, but the weather and the seasons usually play a big part in how I cook, in everything from the ingredients to the style of cooking. Fall is my favorite time to cook, because I love the heartier stews, the braised meats, the root vegetables -- all foods that are really comforting. Any time I go out to dinner and have a good meal, I'm inspired. Both of my grandmothers were great cooks; every time we had a holiday or family function, food was always the focus, and I used to hang out a lot in the kitchen and watch everything.

Favorite ingredient: Garlic and onions. I know they're very simple ingredients, but they're the backbone of most dishes. You hardly ever use them as stand-alone ingredients, but they really enhance other ingredients, regardless of how they are applied -- unless you do something really stupid to them, like throw them in a food processor. Tossing onions or garlic into the food processor makes them taste bitter; the smell is gross, too.

Most overrated ingredient: Bluefin tuna. It's delicious, but if we keep eating it, it won't be around for much longer. We need to give it a break for a while.

Most undervalued ingredient: Carrots -- puréed, braised, roasted or raw -- are great, and they can carry a lot of other ingredients. Unfortunately, they're almost always in soups or stocks, but never showcased as the main star on the plate. That's a mistake.

Favorite local ingredient and where you get it: The sourdough bread that Michael Bortz makes is the best sourdough ever. His company, City Bakery, pounds out every kind of bread imaginable, although he bakes a bread just for us called Ocean Sour that our customers love.

One food you detest: It's not that I detest eggs -- they're great every way you cook them -- but I really don't like the smell of eggs cooking. No matter the technique, the smell just drives me crazy. I can't describe it; they just smell weird to me.

One food you can't live without: Corn dogs. Yes, I know, but what can I say? They were always my favorite childhood snack. Sometimes when I go to the grocery store and only buy a package of State Fair corn dogs, I pray that I don't run into someone I know; otherwise, I'd have to explain that they're not for my kids -- I don't have any kids -- but for me. And then I'd have to hang my head in shame. Still, I think it's the corn dogs that keep me young.

Most embarrassing moment in the kitchen: I was young, a few weeks out of high school, a few weeks into culinary school and working in my first professional kitchen at one of the best restaurants in Pittsburgh. I got yelled at for everything and had this amazing ability to screw everything up; it was like the harder I tried, the faster I'd mess up. One night I had exactly one job to do: watch one special entree in the oven. Did I mention that I was responsible for just one thing? I was so nervous that I kept checking on it, like every few seconds, because I didn't want to burn it. It was during the middle of a busy night where the chef was barking orders at the line, expediting and cooking half the entrees, and then he suddenly just stopped everything and yelled, "Matt, let the fucking thing cook! Every time you open that door, you're wasting time!" I wanted to quit, not because he yelled at me, but because I wouldn't let the damn thing cook. When you ask a chef how long something takes to cook, most of them reply, "Cook it until it's done." I learned that the hard way.

Favorite cookbooks: I like cookbooks that have good recipes and good pictures and focus on different techniques. One book that I really like that isn't a cookbook but does a good job of depicting life in a professional kitchen is Down and Out in Paris and London, by George Orwell. It's fun reading that really nails the challenges and stresses of working in kitchens. I also like books on food history. Mark Kurlansky writes interesting books about the finding of cod and salt, and I really liked The Perfectionist, by Rudolph Chelminski. It's a sad story about French chef Bernard Loiseau, whose restaurant maintained three Michelin stars for ten years. When it was rumored that he was going to lose a star, he killed himself. Seems kinda silly, but the book goes into detail about how passionate he really was -- and how much pressure it takes to be one of the world's best chefs.

Favorite food movie: Ratatouille. What's not to love about a rat chef?

What show would you pitch to the Food Network? I'd pitch a show that depicts the realism of a professional kitchen -- what it's like when the pilot light goes out in the oven that's cooking the short ribs that you needed for a party tonight. What's the backup plan? How about when the dish machine dies at 5:30, right in the middle of service -- what do you do? Or what about when someone upsets you so much that you want to smack them in the month, but at the end of the shift you buy them a beer.

You're making a pizza. What's on it? Bacon and onions.

You're making an omelet. What's in it? Eggs -- and nothing but eggs. I make them the French way, with lots of butter. I do them over high heat and stir and shake them until they're puffy, bright yellow and delicious.

You're at the market. What do you buy two of? Six-packs of PBR. er instead? How about the banter that goes on in a kitchen?

Best culinary tip for a home cook: Three things that help make a home cook's life easier: Use gas over electric, add a touch of acid to your dishes, and think the dish through before you prepare it. The first thing I always looked for when I was apartment hunting or buying a house was whether or not the stove was gas, because gas regulates heat so much better than an electric stove. Have a good selection of vinegars in the pantry -- just about any flavor can be intensified with a touch of acid. Last but not least, you should always taste your food at every stage of the cooking process, but do more than just taste; think how the dish will feel and taste after three bites, or twenty.

If you could cook for one person, dead or alive, who would it be? My grandmother. Over the last ten years of her life, I didn't get to spend much time with her, and she recently passed away. She was a huge influence on me and my life in the kitchen. Growing up, if there was a dinner at her house, she would always be the last one to sit and eat. She always made sure that everyone had everything they needed. She was truly a great cook and loved to be hospitable. I think she would be proud of my cooking experiences, and it would have been an honor to cook gnocchi for her, which was her favorite dish. She never really got to sit down, because she was always trying to please people.

After-work hangout: I really enjoy going home and hanging out with my two boxers, Hendrix and Clyde. They're awesome.

Hardest lesson you've learned: I used to get pissed and disappointed when I'd come up with a really great dish and then only sold a few of them, or when people wanted to change something about a dish. But over time, I've learned to be as accommodating as I can. Whatever a customer wants, whatever they need, they can have it. If you want lavender-crusted fish with lime, it's all yours.