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Ignacio Mattos of Isa on Immigrant Cooking

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Photo: Daniel Krieger

The Uruguayan chef Ignacio Mattos runs the kitchen at Isa, in Williamsburg, which opened in August of last year. In the time since, the restaurant's interior design — woodsy, rustic, full of triangle motifs — and its menu have earned much praise but also provoked a measure of bafflement in certain people. It earned a James Beard nomination for best new restaurant of the year, for example, but some critics have found the endeavor unjustifiably idiosyncratic or even pretentious. Mattos admits that he can't exactly figure out why that's been the case.

He argues that from the very beginning, he and owner Taavo Somer have worked to develop something fun and to serve pleasing, straightforward food. What tends to complicate matters, in the chef's view, is that it's deeply personal, and different for that reason. Here, in the following interview, he talks about how Isa came about, the problems of perception, and what it means to not neatly fall into a category in New York City.

Where were you before Il Buco, the last restaurant you worked at before opening Isa?
I was in Brazil. I was helping a friend open a restaurant, but I was also in Rio meeting my wife [laughs]. Before that, I was at Chez Panisse. I also worked with Francis Mallmann for about six or seven years at two of his restaurants. I've worked in Uruguay, Argentina, in Sao Paulo, I helped open a restaurant in the Hamptons — kind of all over the place.

The time with Mallmann and the time at Chez Panisse were probably the biggest deals?
Yeah. I met Gilbert Pilgram and David Tanis when they were with Fernando Trocca in Argentina. I was opening a place with Francis called Patagonia West in La Boca. We were doing traditional Buenos Aires — porteño — food. I had no idea who David and Gilbert were, but they invited me to come to Chez Panisse and cook a dinner. I told them I was getting tired of Buenos Aires, and they ended up inviting me to come work there.

How'd it go?
Great, incredible. You obviously learn about that care for the product, and it's a place with so much history. The food was very similar to what I had been doing, but at the same time, I wanted something more. You had a lot of freedom there, but you had to respect the idea of the chef, and I realized that the things I wanted to try out often didn't mesh with what traditionally was done there.

How so?
I wanted to play around a little bit more. Maybe it's that Latin American insolence, that idea that you can do whatever you want and cross borders.

And Il Buco? Let's fast-forward.
Il Buco happened because Donna [Leonard, Il Buco's proprietor] found out about me through Peter Kaminsky, who had found out about me through Francis. I stayed there for six years, since I really liked it. It was a big transition, setting up permanently in New York and being with my wife, but it was great until it came to the point where I wanted to cook food that wouldn't fit into a traditional Italian context. "Mediterranean" is actually the better term for the food we ended up doing there, actually.

Did the move to Isa happen because you met Taavo Somer?
I was already looking for people to make a project happen. Taavo would come into the restaurant — I didn't know him — but thanks to a friend we had in common we met. He was looking to do a project with food that wasn't what I wanted to do, so I helped him search and recommended some people. In the end, though, we figured out that we could go into it together.

What did he want?
He wanted something more Francis Mallmann — lots of ashing, the clay oven, rustic.

But isn't Isa pretty damn rustic?
I think it's very, very rustic. Completely. It might just be a little bit more "elevated," if that's even the right word for it. "Cared for" could be another term. What some people perceive it as may be different than that, but that's another story?

We'll get to that later. What do you mean by "elevated"?
There's this idea that for something to be comforting, it has to be a big bowl with spoonfuls of meat sauce on it. As other chefs have proven, it doesn't. Or when we're dealing with vegetables: why always julienne them when a vegetable can be so beautiful? You shouldn't destroy that.

We wanted to not serve massive portions and to develop a menu that was maybe more measured. It can be brutal to cook in that fatty, heavy way. It's easy to score points like that. I see it during our brunch, where the menu is different and some people can barely move at the end of the meal.

I love eating prix fixe, for instance. It's very hard to keep people excited and unaware of the passage of time for more than two or three hours. It's very difficult to have someone sit for three hours and not notice that their ass really hurts. It applies to the opera, to the movies, to restaurants, where to sustain the magic that long is an insane challenge. So, we wanted to come up with a restaurant where people could eat two or three plates for fifty bucks, with food that wasn't pretentious but was cooked at a high level, with maybe a little more care and respect for the product than you normally associate with the word "rustic."

What's "rustic" mean to you?
For me, it's the artisanal — it's almost purely aesthetic. What we are doing is very straightforward; you eat what you see. There aren't any secrets. Sure, there's a little bit of playfulness, since the whole point of this place was for people to have fun. There are people that manage to do that with thirty courses, but that's not what we could do or wanted to do. I'm really pleased with the love we've gotten, but I would be lying if I didn't say I was confused that we can't get other people to see that what we're after is pretty simple and unpretentious.

Well, there are those that love it — you got the James Beard Best New Restaurant nomination, a five-spot in Time Out, James Murphy and David Byrne seem to like it. But then you have people like Eric Asimov who basically found it strange. Why do you think that is? Might it have something to do with the space?
I'll say it again: the main idea of this place was to make it fun. Sure, the space has an impact and, in general, the space can determine how someone interprets a place. But I love that space, I love that bathroom. We didn't want the place to be a box, and we didn't want to have the seemingly obligatory roast chicken, the burger, the pasta, and the salad on the menu. We wanted to have the opportunity to do something else. When does a critic ever write about a bathroom? Never, because it's usually just a plain old place to do what you need to do. We had the luxury of being able to do something fun, so we did. At the beginning it was maybe more polarizing, but I feel that people have warmed to the food and the space.

It's important for people to have strong opinions and to have a dialogue, but I think there's a tendency, especially in New York, for people to go into places wanting to criticize. It's almost like some people really want to dislike a place before they even walk in. There's a spirit — and it obviously doesn't apply to everyone — of wanting to be the first and final word and wanting to determine what the right and wrong way to do something is, when it's never really that black and white.

I think that part of the initial problem was that we didn't fit neatly into any particular category. That's not to suggest that we are amazing or better than anyone else — we were just trying to do something different.

Saying that you are or want to be different can easily be taken as pretentious, though.
That was never the goal. We wanted people to relax and to enjoy themselves, to come in and at some point during their dinner say, "Hey, look at that!" or just, "This is tasty." We never wanted to be pretentious because we didn't have particularly lofty goals, but there were certainly those that reacted to this place saying, "Who the fuck do these two guys think they are?"

And why do you think some people have found the food weird?
I ask myself that all the time. You drop this restaurant in Paris, and it could go completely unnoticed. We're trying to make a personal restaurant in a city — and I'm not the first to say this — where restaurants have lost personality and character.

Other chefs have said that recently. Why do you?
Because opening a restaurant is a brutal enterprise. It's so damn hard to take a risk. You look at Momofuku and that wave, and it's of course an exception. Maybe our price range being a little higher affects that perception, but we're not even that expensive. More and more people are responding positively to us, but some of the greatest words of support for our place have come from industry people. There are chefs that want to be doing what they want to be doing, but the system doesn't allow them that luxury. I was fortunate here.

Has the food changed since you opened?
Yeah, it's evolved. There's more contrast now, in the sense that there are a few safer or more crowd-pleasing items — where what you order and what you expect is what hits you right when you put it in your mouth; stuff that's more immediately pleasing. At the same time, there's the other side, where we try to seduce you a little bit, where you convince people to like what you're trying to do. I think it's important to do that.

For what it's worth, more than New Nordic or Primitive Modern, what I get from your food is that idea of "Latin American insolence." There's a lot going on.
For me, it boils down to the fact that this is immigrant cooking, purely and exclusively. There isn't a set background or heritage that we have to follow. I'm in New York and I'm filtering my experiences here and I try to put that onto the plate. I may have just knocked the city, but there's no limit to the stuff we can draw from here. Look at the kitchen at Isa: there are Chinese-Americans, people from the Caribbean, Latin Americans, French people in there. If I'm in New York for a reason, it's because you have that. It's beautiful. So, how can we channel that into our cooking? That's our reality. So, in that sense, we are trying to say something.

I stand behind the food we're doing, but obviously the goal is to keep making it better and better. To that end, we're disciplined, but we have to keep things open. The question's always been, "Why not?" here. We keep trying things, and that's taken us to some wonderful places.

I also want to have our message out there a little bit clearer. You know, I care and I don't care about the perception of the restaurant. I just want people to get it loud and clear that what we're trying to do is cook for them and make them happy. In the process, we try to be mindful about sustainability and serving things that might not be illegal in a few years because they're that bad for you. I just hope that it's clear that we're not trying to screw or alienate anyone.

You've got places like Frej, Acme, Atera that might signal an exciting change. You could say that each one is trying to say something, at the very least...
They're all friends. I love 'em all. There's a really interesting community. I don't know exactly how it happened or why it happened more or less at the same time, but it's really nice to see that. Add to that list the Gwynett St. guys. I've spoken brutally about New York, but the real point is that it's frustrating to see so many talented, creative people who can't express themselves because they don't have the support. These guys maybe do, and that's a good sign. Everything can't be a spreadsheet. There are very, very talented people around who have really good intentions and want there to be room for different ideas. When I go out to eat, I want to support someone that I feel is fully committed to their craft and has the opportunity to express that.

· All Coverage of Ignacio Mattos[~ENY~]
· All Coverage of Isa[~ENY~]
· All Eater Interviews [~ENY~]


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