Talking Shop with Matt Janke of Lecosho
A few months ago I got the bright idea to do a series of interviews with some of Seattle’s most influential (and personal favorite) chefs and restaurateurs. To me, they are a venerable clan who work themselves to the bone to entertain the likes of you and I and to see us happy eating their food. I have the utmost respect for them. They are also driven entrepreneurs in their own way – investing themselves wholeheartedly in their passion and craft. I mean – what other people would invest most of their waking hours in a profession that traditionally pays poorly, is loaded with stress, and affords limited time to even start a family let alone keep one going? Ask a restaurant owner when the last time they had a vacation was – wait, I will do that!
The Key Ingredient
The first interview in this series starts with Matt Janke – owner of Lecosho in downtown Seattle. I first met Matt in 2005 when I arrived in Seattle and was staying in temporary housing when starting a new job and waiting for my wife to arrive from Chicago.
At that time, Matt owned ‘Matt’s in the Market‘ which was/is located in the Sanitary Market adjacent to Pike’s and has an undeniably quintessential view of Seattle with the Market’s neon sign, the Sound, the Olympics, and the ferries buzzing across the water at any given moment. The ‘Matt’s’ from back in the day was different from the full-scale restaurant it is now. It probably had about 5 tables – none bigger than a 4 top – and a counter for 6-8 people. The kitchen had only hot plates to cook upon. There was no 8 burner stove with a massive hood, huge oven, fryer, or ice cream maker. The same few people worked there seemingly every night. It was stripped down, simplicity at its finest. And the food was good! It was one of the last true hidden gems in Seattle where a lone diner could eat wonderful food alone without feeling out-of-place. I loved this spot and what it was.
Service was charming in an odd Seattle-esque way and I got to know one of the servers there over time. Two specific events that define this person come to mind: once when he poured Louis Roederer over a half glass of Billecart Salmon that I’d brought and quickly recovered by saying ‘Enjoy your Louis Salmon’ and apologizing. And another when he came to a dinner party at our house and was so taken with our bathtub big enough for two that he decided to take a bubble bath then and there while everyone else was eating and drinking. Matt later debunked the originality of this idea and let me know that a friend of his business partner had done the same thing years earlier. Ah, the people you meet in the food world…
Fast forward to 2013 and Matt’s ‘newest’ venture Lecosho (pronounced with long O’s) which is located on Harbor Steps in downtown Seattle and serves a menu based on locally sourced, sustainable ingredients since the fall of 2010.
Matt owns Lecosho with Jill Buchanan whom he has known and worked with for over 20 years. After enjoying a beautifully hand-made Painted Hills beef burger for lunch on a clear late December day, I met with Matt to ask him a few questions about his past, present and future. Here’s what he had to say…
Where did you get your start in the restaurant biz?
I was a dishwasher in Spokane. It was my first job the summer after graduated high school at the Spokane landmark restaurant Clinkerdaggers. Later, I moved to attend the University of Washington and got a job with through Clinkerdaggers at one of their restaurants in Seattle.
Why did you get involved in food?
I moved up to it through the ranks while working in the restaurant. Then, I dropped out of UW and became cook full-time. I began in 1980 just after Lennon was shot and continued for about 10 years before I eventually started working for the Schwartz Brothers on the culinary side at Cucina Cucina. I ended up creating my own position there, training folks on the business and then ended up expanding into doing restaurant consulting by word of mouth over the course of the next 10-15 years. After that, I opened Widmer in Portland in 95 which was a 259 seat restaurant all from the ground up. Start to open took about 18 months and it was very successful as we opened to doing $10k/night.
After that, I opened Matt’s in Seattle June of 1996 with a two burner hot plate, 5 tables and a counter. It was located in the old Café Counterintelligence space in the Sanitary Market next to the former Chez Shea. I decided to transition it to the new owners in 2006 and completed it in 2008 which coincided with my son being born.
What do you love most about the restaurant biz?
I love entertaining and interacting with people. We have a sculpture of the fat Buddha at home which we believe dictates our lifestyle. This is portrayed in how I take part in the running of Lecosho.
What do you like least about it?
It can be really demanding and really boring at the same time. In order to stay engaged I have to alternate different elements and stay fresh. Menu changes, wine list updates, specials, and the like. These are keys to keeping it interesting. I also enjoy the game of rising to the challenge. For example, if I come in and see we are going to be loaded up that evening I know we’re going to get our asses kicked. I try to make it fun by motivating the team and myself to power through it and stay loose while still having fun. It leaves us all with a sense of accomplishment.
What is your #1 goal with Lecosho?
It’s the same as at any restaurant I’ve ever run – treat people as though they are in your home.
What is your philosophy regarding food/cooking?
Simplicity. You have to have good ingredients you can believe in and don’t need to follow every trend. Present your menu simply – whether it’s the food, wine or cocktails. And make sure that service is attentive but not intrusive.
What advice do you have for people looking to get into the food business?
Be aware of what you are getting into. The food and restaurant business has been portrayed as a glamorous life in more recent times with the advent of TV shows and celebrity chefs. Going to culinary school will not motivate you. Work in industry for a bit before you decide to invest time in it. Work as dishwasher and see how it runs before you invest more of your time and life in a career that might not be what you think it is.
What would you have done differently when starting out?
I would have approached ‘Matt’s’ more realistically. Basically, I think I priced my menu too low. I would have liked to have learned more about the financials and business side of things.
What/who is your inspiration?
I really don’t follow the whole ‘foodism’ culture but Chef Erik Cannella (formerly of Matt’s in the Market and now Chef and co-owner of Canella Kitchen in Manson, WA) makes the best food I’ve ever eaten.
What is your favorite ingredient?
Beets are great and anything with tarragon and dill.
What current trends in the biz do you see on the horizon?
Sustainability has a way to go (no pun intended) but it’s here to stay. More natural, less chemicals, etc. Also, eating local but not to the extreme. Another burgeoning theme which has garnered more publicity recently in Seattle due to the potential minimum wage law hikes are labor costs. The impacts of these hikes will definitely be felt in the restaurant and food businesses as people need to make more and costs will be passed on to diners which may alter their habits.
What trends/fads are played?
Nose to tail never really became a general trend or movement. We make our own sausage here and it’s great but it is just too much for most people to take on.
What would you like to see more of coming in from local farmers/growers?
There’s so much great stuff in Washington that it would be hard to ask for anything more. Such great diversity between products coming from the Olympic peninsula, eastern vs. western Washington, grains, potatoes and the like. That said, I’d like to see more meat raised in more humane way. That goes across the board for poultry, beef, lamb and pork.
If someone invites you to their home for dinner what should they cook?
Whatever they want – I’m just happy to be there. People always get so nervous about inviting a ‘chef’. I just like to eat something I didn’t cook.
Who is the best chef in Seattle right now?
Chef Garrett Melkonian from Mamnoon. It’s new, vibrant, and they are really living it. The flavor profiles are amazing and it’s something that was sorely needed in this town.
What is your last meal?
Hmm.. tough question. That would have to be either bouillabaisse or paella – something with saffron in it. One caveat – it would have to be served with a big, smoky garnacha and a Spanish or Portuguese white or I ain’t going!
I’ve had the pleasure of dining at Lecosho on at least 25 occasions since it opened – often returning because of my insatiable desire for their porchetta sandwich and Matt’s welcoming smile and handshake every time I walked through the door. It has what I love and that is – keeping things simple. Every menu item focuses on its main ingredient. And the entire menu fits on one page. Perfect. I don’t want to dig through a book to find the diamond in the rough. I just want the diamond to be presented to me with a simple accompaniment. A basic setting. You see – Matt knows his business. It’s the customer experience that matters most and when you come to Lecosho you are welcomed into Matt’s home away from home and treated like his guest. It’s something many strive for but few actually achieve.
Stay tuned for future Chef Interviews with Jason Stratton of Cascina Spinasse and Vespolina, Holly Smith of Café Juanita and Renee Erickson of Boat St. Café, The Walrus & the Carpenter and The Whale Wins!
For my favorite review of Lecosho in history – check out what The Surly Gourmand has to say here.
If you enjoyed this story then read more about food, farming and eating locally in Seattle by Jason Price at TheHungryDogBlog.com!