Last September I walked into Estela with no list of questions to start off our interview. Chef Ignacio Mattos had been written about so reverently in the short time the restaurant had been open that my head was swimming and I had still to map what kind of stories I’d hoped to draw out.
Most reviews at the time were far more than ample in their praise. Some were so masturbatory that my eyes could not have rolled further back in my head while my fingers Googled the definitions of words coming from deep within the crevices of the writer’s ass (I know I’m mixing metaphors here, but people have been taking Mattos’ work very seriously). Mattos was ceremoniously dropped from his previous position at Isa more than a year before Estela opened, a point that made me sympathize a bit with the person I’d yet to meet, as the story of his departure was once again brought to light and rehashed repeatedly; such exposure is why I’ve only set one foot in this world, unsure until I work out how far I want my contributions in it to go.
Yet when we sat, it wasn’t a media-hungry celebrity chef seated across from a headline-seeking, googly-eyed member of the press. We both spoke slowly, my questions formulating in time with Mattos’ gentle deliberations. He contradicted himself within phrases, not quite sure how to commit his thoughts. At one point I thought to myself, “Does all this talk about food even really matter? Why are we not just eating anymore?”
Suffice it to say, it ended up being an awesome piece; easy like Sunday morning to put together. And a week after it ran I sipped my coffee and flipped through my New York Magazine to find this in the Approval Matrix:
Since then Estela and Mattos have swept up bouquets of accolades; spots on “Best Of” lists and awards drawn by people whose opinions others value. But, here, my full interview with Mattos is just a subtle, quiet conversation in a sunlit little alcove.
And now, as I never actually returned to Estela to dine, I’m about to scroll through my calendar and match up a free date with a table, so I can dig into a plate of endive.
Ignacio Mattos on Good Food with an Identity
Taken September, 2013
What’s most important to you about your menu?
That it tastes good.
What does that mean to you; what has to happen to make it taste good?
It needs to eat well. It has to make sense on the palate, above anything else. Then it needs to look humble and simple and unpretentious. That has been the goal, and I’m still trying to shape it. We are in such an early stage, but the thing that’s interesting is how it evolves with the ingredients. There are a couple parameters that I try to respect…
Just how the dishes come together. How they’re going to eat and look. I just want them to look like nothing.
I find that kind it funny, because people have been writing about your food with a sense of reverence and complexity.
There is complexity but when you see it, it is what it us. It’s a pile of meat. Or endives. And also, I’ve been using ingredients that are… I would say “bastardized” more than forgotten. Like button mushrooms – people are, like, “meh” about them. Like endives – they’re not trendy ingredients. It has to taste good and it has to have a homey element. And it has to maybe fulfill the idea that you can make it at home but not necessarily achieve it in the same way. It takes certain commitment to deal a certain dish in a certain way, but it looks like, “Eh, sure, I can do this.”
Is this sort of a homecoming for you personally? It’s a far different style of food than you’ve been cooking recently.
I think it’s all correlated. You go through restaurants and you start picking up stuff as you grow up, and then try to find a way of replicating what you want to say. I’m really bad at talking about it, but I can communicate with food. And so at this moment it’s yes…. No, it’s not a connection…. I guess it is a connection, but it’s not related to what I grew up eating, if that makes sense. It kind of makes sense, in a way, but still it’s at a very early stage. We’re on the right path, but it’s not what I expect it to be.
What’s the ultimate goal then?
That it has an identity; that it’s good food with an identity. That it tastes a certain way, that the menu and the food look in a very particular way. I don’t want it to be trendy; I just want it to be its own thing. But, again… that’s my perspective. I just want people to feel comfortable with the food; that it’s fair, that it’s reasonable, and that it makes perfect sense.
How do you find that? In communication with your diners, partners?
It’s through everybody; growing up, and learning to listen. Everybody has their thing. Taste is such a complex thing. In a table some people will love a dish and say another isn’t great, and the table next to it will be freaking out about the dish they weren’t into. I think overall it’s a pretty consistent menu from start to finish. Taste is completely… you know, it’s a Pandora box. You never know what you’re going to get. So for me it’s listening – you listen to what people have to say and then you start polishing, and tuning. Like the steak tartar; it started one way and I think it’s reached a point where it cannot get any better. I think it’s good where it is. Like the mussels… there are certain dishes that I’m completely pleased with, where they are, and don’t really see them changing. They may be tweaked and evolve, like, the portion size. I don’t know. I’m curious. Also, I want things to be more perennial, like they stay all year long, rather than seasonal. I want the bones of the menu to be something that you can have throughout the year, all four seasons.
You had a lot of time between Isa and Estela. Was it a growing period for you?
Yeah, I think the challenge is to evolve. That period was great for the time that it was, but now it’s about trying to shape a completely different thing. You learn from mistakes, and try to improve them. I had a lot of free time and I was trying to get isolated in terms of trends and whatever is happening around them, and trying to do food that is simple, and feels right, and is honest. Just honest food. Yes, it’s a thoughtful process to put together, but that shouldn’t translate to the diner. It’s tasty food; that was the main objective. That you can relax and not worry about anything.
You’ve got a hefty wine menu here. Does that play into how you craft dishes?
When we come up with this it wasn’t about the food, it wasn’t about the wine; it was about building a place that felt right for us, and that it wasn’t about me, or Thomas. It was about the place itself. It’s hard because people like to define food, but we wanted to make a place where people can relax and have fun. And if the food is good and those people think that the food is blah-blah-blah-blah-blah, you’re welcome. But it wasn’t really the goal. The goal was to do simple, tasty food with a smart wine program, with great cocktails, and in an environment that is unpretentious yet charming to an extent. It was a very humbling; we weren’t really expecting all the press reactions. It’s been very positive, and I think the people get the translation that what we’re trying to do something honest. In this industry there’s craziness and fun but, I don’t know, it’s hard to talk about this place!
I find how chefs define their style or progression very interesting. Some have a type of cuisine that they work within or a technique they’re rooted in. But you have a great deal of technique behind you and this beautiful space…
But there are limitations. Like, the kitchen is not really much. We tried to keep some of the equipment that was there, but there are no gimmicks. There are not a lot of tools for this and that. This is 2+2; nothing else. So having to deal with limitations was part of the challenge. And I really liked it. Even in terms of the ingredients, I want to keep it extremely… I don’t want anything really strange or weird.
It’s just too much information and you start getting lost. Like, I don’t really want to see pictures of food; you lose focus of what you’re supposed to be doing. And I’m saying it in a very humble way. I know the things that I don’t want to fall into. Like today, we were talking about how we can simplify but, with those very few tools or ingredients, feel good. That’s what we’re trying to do.
We’re a saturated food world in New York, where everybody takes pictures when they eat, there are a million blogs, everyone has an opinion or comment on everything. It’s a lot, and I often find it overwhelming. Does any of that outside world play into this decision to simplify?
Yeah, I think it’s a combination. We are saturated with everything. We even make it very dark so you can’t take pictures in here. And when people still take pictures and post them I’m like, “Why do you put this picture up, it looks terrible!? How is somebody going to like that?!” I wanted to eliminate all those gimmicks. There is attention to how this looks, but it’s…. I don’t know. It is what it is.
With your staff, how do you teach to get the most success and longevity out of them?
I think a structure that is nice and sustainable. We’re trying to put a system together where cooks work in the kitchen for four days and then on the fifth day they run food, so they can get out on their feet. We have a very solid team and I feel very lucky to have the team that we have. So we teach them structure and how to work smartly in the kitchen. Most of the time in the kitchen it’s like running without a head; there’s a lot of pressure and sometimes you put too much pressure on yourself and forget about thinking. For me the most important thing is to have people that stop to take a second, figure it out a plan, and from there on they move forward. That has been the most challenging part. And try to make it work efficiently in a good environment. There is a discipline for our way of working, but I want to have fun. And it’s very relieving and gratifying to have a team that we can be proud of, on all fronts. Estela is home; it’s the group of people that we have.
Simplifying seems to be important to you, and being in the moment. Do you feel like that’s where you are in general in your life?
You try to simplify in life, yes. Yes. Totally. But it’s a constant struggle. We were talking about the constant coaching. Like, if we say the word “problem”, we are making a problem. If we say “issue”, it’s an issue. We’re just realizing that we are all complicated, and we all make things more complicated than they actually are and don’t notice, you know? So it’s all about communication.
Are you a spiritual person?
A little bit.
You have this introspective / cognizant recognition I don’t know if a lot of chefs this early in a restaurant would consider.
I’ve been fucking up, so much! You try to learn, and teach the people around you not to make the same mistakes that you did. Everybody has their own path in life, there’s not much you can do, so here we just try to keep it tight and provide a challenging environment that is, like, realistic. That still evolves. And it’s difficult but… I forgot what we were talking about. Oh, yeah, the spiritual thing. I had a very interesting thing this past weekend, so I’m a little…
Can you share?
No, I can’t! But it was pretty spiritually intense.