Q&A: Chef Matt Weber of Uptown Cafe
Matt Weber will be the first to tell you he’s not part of Louisville’s chef fraternity.
But he is part of a restaurant family of sorts, working since he was 18 in Nancy Shepherd’s Uptown Café and its upscale sibling, the now closed Café Metro. At the Uptown, he was an assistant pastry chef and prep cook, mentored by chefs Eric Sinnott, Dave Barnes and John Edgerton. Executive chef at Uptown Café since 1992, Weber has worked closely with kitchen partner and sous chef Laurie Banta for the past decade. A self-professed laid-back guy, he sat down to talk with F&D one Monday morning in November.
Chef Matt Weber
Current Restaurant: Uptown Cafe
Previous Restaurants: Cafe Metro
Neighborhood (current): Crescent Hill
Hometown: Louisville (high school: Trinity)
Spouse: Susan Biasiolli
Kids: Sons Griffin (16) and Gabe (12)
Favorite Hobbies: Cycling, swimming
Favorite Cookbook: The Joy of Cooking, by Irma Rombauer — “for techniques, more than recipes”
Favorite Kitchen Gadget: A sharp knife
What is your first food memory?
“My mother was a single mother. I remember my sisters making spinach egg noodles with butter and parmesan and black pepper. We were little, and we had to eat. Mom was at work.”
Who has influenced your cooking the most?
“My mother, my grandfather, my father. He pushed me. When he wanted to know how to fix something himself, he’d ask me. My mother was an at-home gourmet in the seventies and early eighties.”
Why did you choose to cook this type of cuisine—new American bistro with a regional twist?
“It’s eclectic. If you pick up my menu, you’ll see regional stuff, a lot of Italian, French, Asian influence. I can put anything I want on there because we’ve got such a wide variety.”
Grilled shrimp tacos
What’s your favorite go-to ingredient?
“Cumin and thyme.”
Is there a guilty-secret ingredient in your kitchen — something you’d rather not be spotted using?
“Sometimes I use soup bases instead of fresh stock. There’s not always time to make fresh.”
What cooking skill required in your kitchen is the most difficult to master?
“Good knife technique is probably the most difficult. I always tell people to go slow. I’d rather you go really slow than chop your fingertip off. ’Cause then you’re no good to me.”
Dumbest thing you’ve ever done in a kitchen?
[Laughs.] “I have chopped a couple of fingertips at different times. And I dropped a raw cheesecake into a case of lettuce.”
If you had to work for one chef in the world, who would it be?
“I don’t know if I could. I’ve been the boss for too long. But I would work with someone and learn some stuff. I like Jamie Oliver. I’d definitely like to cook with him. He could teach me a lot about nutrition. People ask me about nutrition, and I don’t know. I’m a chef.”
What do you aspire to?
“I kind of grew up on that corner there [at Café Metro and Uptown Café]. They’re kind of my family. I’m pretty comfortable here. I’d like to have my own place someday, but I’m not actively planning anything.”
If you could cook a meal for anyone, who would it be?
“My mother. I was a junior in high school when she passed away. It would have to be vegetarian.”
What music was playing in the kitchen last night?
“The Rolling Stones, “Dancing with Mr. D.” I had a playlist of all the songs that started with D on my iPod.”
What’s in your fridge at home?
“A gallon of past-due milk. Some fresh vegetables from my CSA farmer: a quarter head of Napa cabbage, some sort of delicious spinach with purple stems, a butternut squash, fresh garlic, carrots. Some Thanksgiving leftovers. Some chorizo cornbread dressing with pecans and cheddar and jalapenos. I made that.”
Is there anything in that home fridge you’d rather not admit to having?
“The expired milk.”
Grilled duck breast with molasses sauce
What was the last book you read?
“The third book in The Hunger Games trilogy: Mockingjay.”
What food is your guilty pleasure?
“I have a horrible sweet tooth. I’ll eat anything from chocolate soufflé to a Little Debbie Nutty Bar.”
Your favorite quick meal to prepare at home?
“Tacos, with beans and really good fresh corn tortillas.”
Which seasonings don’t you respect?
“I think there’s a place for all seasonings. But I don’t like the pre-made stuff, in general.”
Best cooking tip for a novice?
“Salt your pasta water. It definitely brings the flavor of the pasta out. And don’t be afraid to try a new recipe, and don’t be discouraged if it doesn’t come out pretty as a picture. Try it again—or order pizza.”
What do you think is the next worthwhile food/dining trend?
“In my world, we’ll come up with an idea and we’ll see it in a trade magazine a month later. Recently, Laurie came up with chorizo corn dogs, and then she saw essentially the same thing on the Internet. It was uncanny how close it was.”
Besides the Uptown, what is your favorite restaurant in Louisville?
“I really like Nam Nam.”
Who are your favorite chefs?
“I think Dave [Truong] at Nam Nam is really good. Jim Gerhardt. Ed Lee. I’m not in to the chef fraternity. I like Jamie Oliver. His show The Naked Chef really had a laid-back approach, which is a lot of the way I am in life and in cooking. I don’t get uptight about cooking at all, and I have no pretensions. Good food is good food.”
Iron Chef Louisville: Who do you not want to battle?
[Laughs.] “I’m afraid of all of ’em.”
Other than the Uptown, what’s the first place you’d take an out-of-towner?
Give us one reason Louisville should be considered a culinary destination.
Smoked gouda queso and chips
“Because there’s so many great chefs and restaurants here. I mean, the competition’s fierce. It’s unbelievable. You’ve got mainstays like the Uptown, and then there’s The Blind Pig, Harvest, Decca, all the new places opening up. There’s three restaurant rows in Louisville! And then offshoots of that. I’ve seen a lot of places come and go, but it seems like the number of restaurants is increasing. And the number of good restaurants is increasing. You have to be on your game all the time. You can’t really slip.”
How do you feel about the pressure?
“I’d like to have more customers. We’re diligent about changing our menu at least twice a year to keep it fresh. Changing the drinks menu frequently. Trying to stay proactive.”
What are you doing in the kitchen now that you’re excited about?
“We’re doing a lot more sandwiches, and I’m pretty excited about them. We’ve got a grilled goat cheese sandwich, toasted open-faced with blackberry jam and served with mixed baby greens, drizzled with a balsamic reduction. A hot ham and American cheese sandwich with shredded iceberg lettuce, a fried egg and Sriracha aioli. A Cobb salad sandwich with turkey, bacon, avocado, and bleu cheese dressing. Sandwiches always make me happy. My last meal would be a sandwich.”
Your last food-related “wow moment” was?
“My fried turkey. I made it for Thanksgiving. I took my Obama sign’s metal frame and turned the prongs into hooks and squished the long part into a handle, and took my two turkeys and trussed their legs with coathangers and slipped the hooks under the wire. You dunk it two or three times in oil at 375, and they’re done in 52 minutes.
What’s your last meal on earth, if you had the chance to choose?
“A BLT with a real, ripe, delicious August tomato from the garden. Hellmann’s mayonnaise, black pepper, Bibb lettuce and a couple of Corona Lights.”