Matt Lewis and a Bit of Southern Hospitality from Restaurant Roux
Son of a Gun, We’ll Have Big Fun…
I recently happened upon Restaurant Roux on Mardi Gras of all days. I had probably driven past the space it occupies a hundred times and always just assumed that it was some broken down cowboy bar that I had no business wanting to go inside. However, this day was special – I needed to bribe my young son to be brave on a trip to the doctor’s office where he would be getting a checkup and a couple of shots. So, the bait – beignets. The visit went very well and he was a champ. I knew he would love those hot, powdered steaming sugar covered morsels from the South. So, off to Restaurant Roux we went. When we arrived, we were surprised by both a crew from Evening Magazine interviewing owner Matt Lewis while filming a segment for Mardi Gras and a New Orleans jazz band in full Fat Tuesday regalia. It was a quite the scene and it made our visit that much more memorable. Especially since we were shown that evening on TV in the segment!
Jambalaya on the Bayou
A few weeks ago I watched a film recommended by my friend Heather called ‘Happy’. It’s about the people around the world who find happiness in their lives despite lacking material wealth or possessions. Many people are profiled – from the father of a family living in the slums of Kolkata, to a Brazilian beach bum who lives for surfing to a man who lives in the Louisiana Bayou and gives swamp tours for a living. All of these people have a few key things in common – they lack material wealth, they appreciate what they do have, they enjoy their environment and homes, and they have deep family connections.
The gentleman from Louisiana is not rich from a financial perspective – but his life is rich with experiences, the joy of living off the land, and the relationship he has with his kin. He speaks of weekly gatherings where everyone brings food they’ve mainly harvested from the bayou – crawdads, crab, shrimp, gator, etc. They have a weekly meal and talk about life and enjoy each other’s company. It’s this story that inspired me to talk to Matt about his life growing up in New Orleans and what it means to live there. Too many people believe life in New Orleans is either about struggling through natural disasters or getting loaded at Mardi Gras. While these are events that contribute to the culture for better or worse, they in no way define life in NOLA.
Do You Know What it Means to Miss New Orleans?
Fast forward to a few weeks later: I went in for brunch one weekend and asked the owner, Matt Lewis, to sit for this interview. We checked calendars and he enthusiastically agreed. When I arrived Matt greeted me with a smile and a hearty handshake. His personality is warm, genuine and instantly welcoming. Within minutes we were chatting like old friends who hadn’t seen each other for a while. Matt Lewis has a way with making you feel welcome and that’s what Restaurant Roux is all about. Make yourself at home, welcome to our joint, and treat ya self. Now dig in!
So tell me about the journey behind opening Restaurant Roux
Well, we had the truck (the successful Where Ya at Matt?) and we started fundraising, dealing with banks and all of that. A lot of times the banks will string you along until the end and then back out. It was very frustrating. Eventually we went for private funding with investors that believed in what we did. A lot of times it’s about just putting it out there with who you know. You never know who might be into making an investment.
We have also had a huge amount of family support. That helped because in opening this place we had to stop and start a lot. We had challenges with our contractor and ultimately had to finish the project ourselves. It turned into kind of a team building exercise with everyone chipping in. We were here 7 days a week the last two months putting it all together. We earned this project.
Where did you get your start in the restaurant biz?
I started right after college in ‘96. I was thinking I’d go to med school at first. I took the MCAT and a year off and while hanging out I started working in a restaurant in Birmingham. I moved up in one chain as the kitchen manager and then I went to work for Frank Stitt for almost 2 years at Bottega and then Highlands Bar and Grill.
Then I went to the CIA. When I cooked for Frank that instilled the drive and passion of wanting to cook. While I was cooking for Frank, I also worked for Chris Hastings at Hot & Hot Fish Club. Chris pushed me towards culinary school though Frank would have pushed me towards the ‘school of hard knocks’ and learning on the job. The CIA was a good networking tool and I still keep in touch with a lot of classmates. A lot of times it reinforces the knowledge you already have, teaches you more depth of skill and you start to understand the science behind it.
Then I cooked around which led up to the truck I started 4 years ago. At that time, there were only 7 or 8 other trucks in Seattle – now there’s probably over 100-150. Getting in when we did allowed us to have that name and reputation. The truck has become more of a great catering machine. It’s actually easier to run the restaurant than the truck because there’s more predictability and routine to it.
Why did you get involved in food?
I had a passion for it growing up. Part of it was growing up in New Orleans. Most people eat to live but in New Orleans you live to eat. Most gatherings are centered on food and Sunday dinners were the tradition for most people. I used to do soul food Sundays when I first came here because that’s what I liked to do. When I went to Birmingham I recognized that the food was OK but not great. Mom cooked for us 6-7 nights a week and friends would come over and be blown away. My friends would appreciate it and soon I realized I grew up with something special.
I realized how spoiled I was in college to have grandparents nearby. My grandma would have been offended if I didn’t come over for Sunday dinner. My friends would beg me to come over to her place on Sundays. You begin to appreciate the value of food. It was a given that I’d have 12-15 people at my house on Sundays when I moved here.
Tell me about the spirit of Louisiana and what food means there
People don’t necessarily know what Creole food is and they come in here with preconceived notions. We’re more of a John Besh or Frank Stitt-style place. We take the ingredients and put our own spin on them. You can go to your mom’s, aunt’s or grandma’s house and have their gumbo and all three will be different. And everyone has their favorite. Some people expect us to recreate their one drunken night on Bourbon Street and they probably don’t remember it right anyway.
We try to educate people what Creole is and the variety within the cuisine. It’s an influence, an inspiration and not a set menu. Creole is the closest thing to Tuscan cooking. Everything is fresh and the technique is defined but there’s a level of creativity that’s accepted. Take, for example, the Po Boy sandwich. Most people don’t know how it even came to be. Well, the Po Boy was developed by an Italian grocery down there in New Orleans. The knee-breakers from the Organized Crime syndicate were out in force against the strikers. And this one grocery supported the strikers, so they took the end of day bread and slapped whatever they had on it. They’d say, “Here you go poor boy” which had too many letters and syllables in it so it just got shortened to ‘po boys’. It was all about them helping out the strikers.
You see a lot of people making a lot of money – like CEOs of companies that talk about what they’d like to do vs. what they are doing now. To me, there’s no better experience than breaking bread with people. I’d consider myself happy – my life is all good. To get to where I am now it took a lot of frustration, blood, sweat and tears. It’s a dream realized – it’s the equivalent of catching a touchdown pass in the super bowl. It’s an accomplishment for sure – and it taught lessons that I can use in the future.
So, do you know what it means to miss New Orleans?
Oh yeah. I do miss it. It’s a place I love to visit. I don’t know that I could live there full time. There’s something about it that grabs you. You’ll never lose that piece. I always try to go back once or twice a year.
What do you love most about the restaurant biz?
There’s a lot about it that I love. I think, on one level it’s the people you work with. It’s a different type of person that enjoys this business and has a shared passion for it. There’s nothing better than seeing that wow factor on someone’s face – and thinking wow – we created that. It’s almost a selfish thing to get that great feedback.
Think about people with a desk job how are going through piles of paper, and excel worksheets – it’s part of the job but it’s not motivating. If you can give that type of experience to those people they would never go back to it again. Also, meeting farmers and producers who take pride in what they do I just have a huge respect for them.
What do you like least about it?
Sometimes the hours you have to put in. I grew up very family oriented and at a certain point I tried to get out of cooking. I remember I was at the Four Seasons on Christmas Eve or day – and I remember feeling this emptiness and thinking about cooking for other people and not for my family. I realized there had to be a better way. At a certain point, you realize it’s not forever but in a same sense, that’s why we close here on Thanksgiving, Christmas, etc. A lot of peers urge me to stay open on holidays but to me, it’s a community maker. Even if the folks that work here can’t make it all the way back home I want them to be able to spend time with their friends on those days. It’s more important than money.
Tell me about your Executive Chef – Michael Robertshaw
He’s awesome. We worked together at Toulouse and he helped me for a bit when we started the truck. He then went to Local 360 and then we came back together. He’s amazing – I’ve never worked with a more talented Chef. We get each other – we’re more like brothers, speak our minds, respect each other’s opinions, and most of the time on the same page. The biggest thing is we always have the best interest at heart. When I was opening this place I already knew who I wanted to be the Chef.
What is your #1 goal with your restaurants?
The wow-factor and the community that started with the truck. Keep building upon that. The community we have is a gift. We have close to 7000 people who follow us for the truck and restaurant combined. When someone gives you that gift, supporting us, it’s up to us to take that and to build upon it. That’s what Restaurant Roux was born on. We don’t want to lose that following. There’s always an idea in the back of my head for what’s next. We’ll continue building upon community and giving back to them.
What is your philosophy about food/cooking?
Seasonality – always. Do well with what we’ve got. There’s so much bounty here in the Northwest and it’s not hard to be creative.
We’re coming into the best season and with Spring we start bringing in new vegetables. Summer brings tons of farm to table ingredients and then fall brings braised meat which is just outstanding. Winter is there to make you appreciate Spring and Summer. There’s cool stuff you can do but not a lot of produce you can use. Nothing like seeing fresh Yakima asparagus – that’s like the flag waving that lets us know Spring/Summer is here.
What advice do you have for people looking to get into the food business?
Make sure you try it out first. The problem I see with a lot of kids is they go straight to culinary school and get out like they know it all. There’s a big difference between knowing and doing. If they come under the pressure of working on a line like we have here they crumble. To be successful you have to be willing to do whatever it takes. That diploma gives them a sense of entitlement. Wash dishes. Work around. Be willing to do whatever. The best thing a person can do is cook eggs for a while. If you can be a good egg cook you can pretty much do anything you want in the kitchen. At the Four Seasons – in order to get on the line at Georgian line at night you had to work breakfast.
What would you have done differently when starting out?
I can’t say I’d do anything differently. Everything you go through gets you where you are. Maybe start younger? I love where I’m at. I started in my early 20’s and I wouldn’t trade it for the world.
What/who is your inspiration?
I think it’d be several – definitely Frank Stitt – seeing what he was able to do. He’s kind of the innovator for southern gourmet and has been around over 30 years. It’s also been cool to watch Chris Hastings and it’s always great to watch John Besh. I think I’ve been lucky to have a lot of people to touch my career – Jamie Shannon from Commanders Palace who passed away young was a great, towering guy. I always like to see what people take as what’s considered simple, southern cuisine and build upon it.
What is your favorite ingredient?
I love braised short ribs. I don’t know if I have a favorite ingredient but I love them. I love a perfectly roasted chicken. Asparagus too because it’s a symbol that summer is here.
What trends in the biz do you see on the horizon?
It’s been interesting to watch, and I don’t know if it’s a trend, we saw sous vide come in and I like it but not a huge fan because I like to smell my food cooking. But right behind that came this more rustic approach – all of the sudden we started to see grits everywhere and all these southern places popping up. I’m wondering if people are more aware and willing to try new things.
What trends/fads are played?
For while you saw just too much truffle oil.
What would you like to see more of coming in from local farmers/growers?
A more consistent supply of product. That’s the hardest thing sometimes – supply keeping up with demand. So many times we’re promised things that we’ve started building programs around that never happen. A solid beef program – the trend has been grass fed beef but there’s got to be something in the middle. The flavor and texture are just not there. Maybe we’ve gotten used to an adulterated product in corn-fed beef. I’d like to see a good, healthy one that is affordable.
If someone invites you to their home for dinner what should they cook?
I’m a sucker for a home cooked meal. I always tell people who if you want to cook me Kraft mac and cheese I’m there. I love to eat. I love to cook but I love to eat more. I am not picky – especially for a home cooked meal. I like to eat out too but price determines expectation and honestly I think it’s reputation that plays into things sometimes. If you are going to charge me $25 for something I’ll pay it – but it’s got to be good. Take the time – I always wonder ‘why do you buy this top end cut of meat and choose not to season it?’ As a Chef, and as professionals in the business, it’s our job to present the product as the best it can be. Salt can help to do that – there’s a reason it used to be the most expensive commodity out there. There’s a reason the saying ‘worth your weight in salt’ came to be.
Who is the best chef in Seattle now?
Michael Robertshaw. Hands down.
Recently, I had a great meal at Le Petit Cochon – Derek Ronspies’ restaurant. I also love the vibe at Westward. Rock Creek up the street too. And I do like Revel and wish I remembered it more. Joule is always good and consistent.
What is your last meal?
If it was with a group – a crawfish boil. From the community aspect of it – it’s one of the things I do miss about the summertime in New Orleans. My grandfather would have crawfish a few times a month. And with it, really cold beer to quench the heat on your mouth.
In Pursuit of Happiness
Restaurant Roux has quickly become one of my favorite haunts in Seattle. The food that Matt Lewis and Exec. Chef Michael Robertshaw are producing is top notch and unparalleled in this city. This place is something we need here – it’s food and flavors are vibrant, new to many of us, and a respite from the routine of ‘salmon on a cedar plank’. Hospitality and a laid back swagger are big factors at Restaurant Roux. I dare you to keep yourself from having a good time while making a happy mess of that po boy sandwich. The last one I ate fell apart in my hands and mouth and, without thinking twice, I wiped my hands on my jeans just like I would at a backyard family party. Treat ya self!
If you enjoyed this interview with Matt Lewis then please check out my other articles in the series at Chef Interviews and stay tuned for future conversations with more of your favorite well and lesser known Seattle-based Chefs! Next up, Josh Henderson from Seattle’s Huxley Wallace Collective which includes Skillet, Westward and The Hollywood Tavern in Woodinville!
Jambalaya Recipe from Restaurant Roux