Late last November, when Matt Selby exited his executive chef post at the Corner House, an irresistibly charming restaurant in Jefferson Park co-owned by James Iacino, president of Seattle Fish, he stepped away from the spotlight, quietly doing time in the kitchens of Beast + Bottle and Jonesy's EatBar and pausing to reflect on his priorities. "I needed to take some time to find myself and figure out what was most important to me," admits Selby. "And what means the most to me," he says, is "cooking, getting my ass kicked on a Friday and Saturday night and working with people that I can collaborate with."
All of which he has found at Central Bistro & Bar, where he's now the executive chef, collaborating, he says, with a galley full of pros and a solid management team, led by owner Isiah Salazar and general manager Seth Murty.
"We knew we had to get someone in the kitchen with a sense of leadership and someone who pushed conversations and let everyone have a voice, and I've always looked up to Matt, and when we sat down to chat, we just hit it off; it was a really great fit from the get-go, and I knew that he'd inspire and lead what's already a talented kitchen," says Salazar.
"I'm not a one-man jam," confesses Selby. "I need to be able to bounce ideas off of people," he stresses, "and I need to be on the line, cooking, touching every ingredient and sitting down with my really talented crew, including my two awesome sous chefs, and having brainstorming sessions -- asking questions, like 'Which restaurants have you recently been to?'; 'Where have you traveled?'; 'What are you reading and what are you exited about?'" The confabs, he adds, are "more like coffee conversations," and from those, new menus emerge.
And Selby has just released his first menu at Central, a spring board that he describes as "simple and clean with an emphasis on technique and putting great flavors together that celebrate the top of the season," a time of year, he notes, that's "all about tying together early spring produce and late winter's bounty."
It's not the easiest transition, admits Selby, but it's one that he wholly embraces. "I love the challenge of playing with the Colorado weather patterns," he says. "One day it's sunny, while the next day, we have sideways snow, but I love that, and it gives me the opportunity to showcase spring and winter ingredients in innovative ways."
During a recent tasting of several of Selby's new dishes, it was clear that he's practicing what he preaches. An exquisite lamb dish, transcending both seasons, is simply stunning, revealing a rich patch of robiola fondue and a spring lift of fresh chickpeas weaved with green and white asparagus, green onions and the subtle sharpness of radishes. His cioppino, fragrant with the sea-scent of mussels, clams and Maine lobster, benefits from a light -- but bracing -- broth poured in a stream from a pitcher. Grilled slices of bread that float on top are smeared with an assertive rouille pungent the anchovies and ancho chiles. His smoked pork ribs are propped atop a subtly sweet barbecue sauce that is, of course, messy, and in the mind of a thoughtful chef, a plain napkin won't do, so the plate is delivered to the table with a wet towel and a lemon tucked into a Staub dish. The little details matter.
A few of the most popular dishes -- the burger, for example -- remain on the menu, but the majority of the plates are new and jolted with an energetic bounce, similar to the spring in Selby's step. "I'm scraped, I'm bruised, burned and scared, but I'm so fucking happy," says Selby. "I'll admit that I fell in love with Central gradually, but I'm so thrilled to be here, and I'm thriving in a collaborative environment of people who share the same philosophies on cooking and hospitality as I do."
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Here's a preview of some of Selby's new dishes (his spring menu launches today), along with a terrific dessert from pastry chef Heather Krussow, who Selby says is "killing it" and a few of the lovely spring cocktails from bar manager James Menkal.