The Tasting Panel magazine

November 2014

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Page 38 of 136

38  /  the tasting panel  /  november 2014 ONE-ON-ONE WITH MERRILL SHINDLER Robbie Wilson R obbie Wilson—Chef/Partner at Mattei's Tavern in Los Olivos, in the heart of California's Santa Ynez Valley wine region—has a resumé that reads like a who's who of great chefs: Michel Troisgros, Thomas Keller, Tom Colicchio and Nobu Matsuhisa. He's spent his life around the best food in the world. But his finest culinary memories are more downhome. Like the jerk chicken he ate at age 12 on a trip to Jamaica with his dad . . . handmade tortillas cooked over mesquite on his family's Texas ranch . . . and a breakfast of char kway teow (stir-fried noodles with Chinese sausage) that was his first meal in Singapore. That's what he remembers. And that inspires what he cooks today . . . Merrill Shindler: At Mattei's, you do fried pickles and okra and Welsh rarebit. What's going on? Robbie Wilson: I had to ask myself: "Do I want to make food that people eat once a month?" I'm cooking what I want to eat. I'm cooking the dishes I love. Were you to the kitchen born? I come from a family of lawyers: my father, my brother, my grandfather. I got a degree in political science. But then, I landed a job cooking at a restaurant called Gabriel's. I wanted to study French cooking in New York. The chef at Gabriel's told me, "You're a smart kid. Don't spend 60K on school. Go cook with Troisgros." He was right. You were a nobody in one of the great restaurants of France. What did you do? It was very old school. Potatoes; I peeled potatoes. I did a stage. I was at the bottom. Do you have a food memory that inspires you? I'd spend time with my mother's family on the Gulf Coast, built around crabs. Old Bay seasoning and blue crabs. Crab boils at the beach house. Waking up to eggs on crab cakes. Po'boy crab sandwiches. And smoke from the mesquite on the family ranch. What did you learn from the Big Boys? The basics. How to go through a whole box of greens to find the right ones. From Thomas Keller, I learned the importance of having a Jedi knight–like temperament— always talk calmly, don't yell and scream. It's all Zen. You want to do everything you can to never let him down. And what is your Perfect Food? A nice roast chicken. Cacio e pepe, with pasta made from scratch. Good bread with olives. A brioche, fresh from the toaster, with room temperature butter. And Girl Scout Thin Mint cookies—right out of the freezer. MATTEI'S TAVERN, LOS OLIVOS, CA PAYS OFF

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