Matt Stein, chef of Bruxie: "You're only as good as the last meal you put out"
This is part one of my interview with Matt Stein, chef of Bruxie; part two of our conversation will run tomorrow.
Even after three decades in the kitchen, Matt Stein still shakes his head in denial as he recalls what he was fed when he was growing up in the Bronx. "My mother was a horrible cook, really the worst cook ever," he says. "The kind of cook who would put spaghetti and ketchup in front of us and think that it was acceptable."
So Stein, the chef of Bruxie, a new waffle emporium in Glendale, found refuge at the homes of friends. "It all worked out, because I had friends whose mothers were amazing cooks, and every Friday for like five years in a row, I was a fixture at their dinner table," remembers Stein, whose professional dreams at the time drifted not toward cooking, but toward the deep blue sea.
He went to the University of Miami to study the organisms of the ocean, and to make a little extra cash, he took a gig at an outpost of Blimpie, a nationwide sandwich chain. It was just a part-time job, but it significantly altered his career path. "The staff there took a lot of care when it came to their product, and there was a deliberateness to what I was doing that resonated with me," says Stein, who left college -- and marine biology -- behind to explore culinary opportunities. "I finished my first year of college, dropped out, moved back to New York and became a bartender, spending whatever downtime I had in the kitchen, watching the guys on the line," says Stein. Restaurants "became so interesting to me."
And so did the cookbooks he was reading. "A friend of mine gave me a copy of Jacques Pépin's La Technique for my nineteenth birthday, and then someone else gave me Escoffier's "Black Book," and my head just started to swim; I couldn't gather cooking information fast enough, and all I was doing was thinking about food," says Stein, who eventually became a student at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, and then a sojourning chef in Austria and Switzerland, where he cooked in highfalutin, multi-starred restaurants.
He spent just over a year in European kitchens before returning to New York and "knocking on the door of every French restaurant," he remembers. Le Cirque, a then-legendary house of fuss, snobbery and undeniable cooking talent, let him in. He snagged a job as a saucier, cooking for famous -- and infamous -- heavyweights like former president Richard Nixon. And, he jokes, "the staff gave me all the Evian I could drink."
He moved on to cook at a private club and then headed to Aspen by way of Copper Mountain. "Both my wife -- she's a pastry chef -- and I interviewed for jobs at Copper, which went really well, but then we went to Aspen for the day and ended up staying there for five years," says Stein. He spent four of those years as the sous-chef of the now-defunct Gordon's, in its heyday one of Aspen's most see-and-be-seen restaurants.