Over the past few weeks we’ve been exploring the profound impact that chefs such as Jennifer Jasinski and Max MacKissock have had on cooks who've worked for them, people like Dana Rodriguez (Work & Class) and Joshua Bitz (Meadowlark Kitchen), who went on to open their own successful restaurants. Years ago, Alex Seidel – a repeat semifinalist for the James Beard Foundation’s prestigious Best Chef Southwest award — took a young cook named Matt Vawter under his wing at his highly-acclaimed Fruition. But instead of parting ways to further his career, Vawter decided to stay put, joining Seidel as proprietor/chef de cuisine of Mercantile Dining & Provision, winner of the Best New Restaurant award in the Best of Denver 2015. Keep reading for excerpts of my conversations with Seidel and Vawter, edited for length and clarity.
Westword: You’ve had a lot of cooks under you. What was it about Matt Vawter that made him stand out?
Alex Seidel: His work ethic stands out head and shoulders above, and his ability to take constructive criticism and use it to motivate him toget better, that’s number one. A lot of people can’t take that criticism as well and turn it into a positive…. I think he was 21 when he started at garde manger in Fruition. He worked his way through the stations faster than anybody ever had. One thing we talk about is just because you start in garde manger doesn’t mean you stay in garde manger. You push yourself to excel. He rose through the ranks.
What has it been like watching him grow?
Seidel: I do feel like a proud papa sometimes. When he won that Cochon event [Cochon 555], there was a lot of excitement in that for me, probably more than when I won that event. There was a true feeling of joy and excitement.
What lessons did you try to impart?
Seidel: Taking the job seriously. Being organized. Attention to detail. Coming in trying to improve every day…. Learning how to manage people in different ways. Understanding that people choose to work for you, but they don’t have to. Finding what motivates different people. We worked on that for a long time. Matt’s always been a leader by example. The leadership piece always came easy to him.
At what point did you start talking to him about Mercantile?
Seidel: There was a period when Matt had been there about four years. He thought maybe it was time to move on and try something new. I told him I’d take care of him if he chose to stay. Mercantile wasn’t in the thought process at that point. There was nothing concrete there, no concept for him to stay for. There was trust and understanding between the two of us.
It’s unusual in this business for people to work together for so long, isn’t it?
Seidel: I’d say we’re very fortunate with a good majority of our cooks at Fruition and now Mercantile who have been part of our culture…. I like to think we provide a good culture for learning. We take it pretty seriously. We’re not for everyone. It’s … stressful to attain to those standards every day. It is unusual for people to stay together for so long.
Matt, how old were you when Alex hired you at Fruition?
Matt Vawter: I was 22. Now I’m 29.
Have you ever thought of him as a mentor, or just a fantastic chef and boss?
Vawter: I definitely thought of him as a mentor and I still do….The thing I really learned from him is, managerial-wise, how to be a better manager…. You can’t manage by fear. Your employees don’t have to be there working for you. Those are the things that I really grabbed hold of from Alex.
What was the most important thing Alex taught you?
Vawter: The biggest thing he always preached is it’s amazing what you can do in a year. I really hold on to that. Every year we look back and say, "We did this and now what can we do next year?" Also, never be satisfied. That’s the other thing that resonates with me.
Are you mentoring someone right now?
Vawter: I mentor all my cooks every day. That’s the goal…. Alex has always wanted people to … go out and be great chefs. I share the same philosophy. The mindset is you are the sous chef of your own station, not just a cook. You understand the big picture. That’s our mindset.