Restaurants have been popping up in non-traditional spaces for years now, housed in everything from shipping containers to repurposed industrial buildings. But a restaurant inside a library? That’s a head-turner. When Seeds Library Cafe opened last year inside the Boulder Public Library, it served a much-needed purpose: giving patrons a place to grab coffee and a seasonally inspired salad or sandwich without leaving the stacks. This restaurant, a partnership between Boulder County Farmers’ Markets and the City of Boulder, does far more than that, though. “The intent is not just serving as a cafe for the library,” says general manager Matt Collier, who’s worked in some of Chicago and Boulder’s most acclaimed kitchens. “The goal is helping to influence the community to buy more local food products through different methods.”
Keep reading to learn more about the man tasked with carrying out Seeds’ far-reaching mission, and why he believes we should be on a first-name basis with the people growing our food.
Westword: Quick bio: How old are you, where have you lived and worked, etc.?
Matt Collier: I’m 34 years old. I’m from a lot of places, but mostly Colorado. I’ve worked at the Kitchen, Full Moon Grill, T/ACO, Oak at Fourteenth, Chautauqua Dining Hall and the Kitchen Upstairs. In Chicago, I worked at Boka, Blackbird, the Publican and Big Star. I’ve been doing this for fifteen years.
Where do you get your inspiration for new dishes?
I get my inspiration from what is given to me by the seasons. Especially right now, it’s become a really fun challenge to create dishes and really only cook with what is provided from the over-winter. I’m finding I can make fun items while other chefs are already getting in spring vegetables from California.
Do you think farm-to-table is a trend that’s passed, or is there just less of a buzz because it’s become mainstream? Is that good or bad?
I’ve never been a fan of the term “farm to table,” as everything comes from a farm, no matter how it was grown. I believe, especially in this area, where we have so many farmers, we should begin to know the people who grow our food by name. I don’t think that people caring about what they eat is a trend that will go away. I think we need to have a broader vision of what it is we are trying to do. Are we following a trend, or are we trying to lower our gas-emission footprint by buying from the area? Are we supporting our community members who work very hard to farm great vegetables by buying what they sell? Are we asking the right questions at the restaurants that we eat at to see if they are doing the same?
This is a hard business. What keeps you motivated?
My family, and the hope of helping to change how people buy their food.
Why did you decide to start cooking?
I had some friends help get me a job at Chautauqua Dining Hall a long time ago, and I have never looked back.
What’s your earliest food memory?
Watching my grandmother make breakfast for everyone early in the morning before anyone else would wake up.
What’s a career highlight?
Opening up both the Publican and Big Star in Chicago were huge highlights for me. Helping to create two standards in Chicago that will be very popular for many years was such a thrill and honor.
Did you have a mentor, and what did that person teach you that still rings true today?
I had a gentleman named Eric who owned an eccentric diner called Lucky Platter whom I was fortunate to meet and work with. He showed me there were many different ways to be successful in this business. Your guests and the relationships you build with them are the most important thing.
Do you have a signature dish, or something you’ve made throughout the years, even if you’re not publicly known for it?
I always return to making scallops with an heirloom-pepper piperade with rich purée and a red-wine gastrique. That’s the closest I get to a signature dish. I find the joy in this profession is continually pushing myself to discover new dishes. That means I rarely keep revisiting things continuously over the years.
Biggest flop you’ve ever served:
The biggest flop was actually a gnocchi dish I’ve made a thousand times. But when I did it for a job-interview tasting, I completely overthought it, and the gnocchi didn’t turn out at all. I never served it to the owners, but the explanation of why I didn’t serve it cost me the job. That’s the closest I got.
Hardest moment in your career, and what it taught you:
My mother passing away. It taught me that cooking isn’t just my career; it is my way of being able to shut out all of life’s unfair moments and just focus on creating beauty.
If you could only work one station, what would it be?
What’s your favorite snack food?
What ingredient are you excited about right now?
Honestly, beets. I have disliked them for as long as I can remember, but with their versatility, they have become a huge tool for me with cooking in this low-produce time of season.
One ingredient you wish would disappear:
It’s not one ingredient; it’s the oversimplification of our ingredients. We used to have 200 varieties of corn in the Americas. Now we have three varieties that make up 99.9 percent of all corn. It’s this example and others like it that I wish could disappear.
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Are there any foods you can’t eat or simply don’t like at all?
Thank God I’m not allergic to anything. For years now, when there was something I said I didn’t like, I’d try even harder to make it in a way that I would enjoy. Right now there isn’t much left.
Do you ever cook at home? If so, do you have a go-to dish?
The kids love the meatloaf.
Where do you eat on a day off?
I mostly eat at home with my family, but since we have kids, we try to frequent easier places. We do enjoy Sancho’s, Il Pastaio and Turley’s, and when we get to go out, my wife and I tend to mainly go to Oak and now the new restaurant Arcana.
Best tip for a home cook:
Get the 2015 annual special issue from Cook’s Illustrated. It has done wonders for my wife.
Seeds Library Cafe is at 1001 Arapahoe Avenue in Boulder. For more information, call 720-884-6372 or go to seedsboulder.com.