Chef Matthew Aita insisted on the fact that he'd need to keep rolling the garganelli while he conducted our interview. It was on a recent afternoon, while he was preparing for that evening's dinner service at the new bistro Le Philosophe, on Bond Street. If the last few months' unexpected stream of positive press was any indication, it was going to be a busy night, and Aita was following the routine he's obsessively trained himself to carry out over the last decade and a half: keeping quiet and cooking. Aita, 31, started out working when he was 16, and his career has taken him from cockroach-ridden kitchens in Philly to the Rittenhouse Hotel, from Jean Georges and Daniel to Jim Lahey's Sullivan Street Baking Company. Now, he's running the show at what is probably one of the most pleasant restaurant surprises of 2013. In the following interview, Aita talks about getting into cooking, his experiences in New York kitchens, getting used to dealing with the media, and what it means to modernize French bistro food.
How did you get into cooking?
I'm a pretty basic guy. I grew up in Philadelphia. When I was in high school, I needed to get a job to make some money, so I worked at a bakery and café called Lido's. At the time, the son had taken it over — it was around for like 40 or 50 years — since he had tried to make it as an actor in New York but failed. I started out as a cashier but failed, because I was never very good with people, so they asked if I'd go in the back and make salads and stuff like that. It was a disgusting, horrible kitchen with bad food and bad cooks. I washed dishes, studied, learned a few things, and the chef there was a really cool dude — really laid-back. He loved cooking, but he was just burnt out because of drugs.
How old were you?
I was 16. Then I left there and got a job at Gamestop, but I kept thinking about the kitchen. I caught the bug. I went to another bad kitchen after that, since this place, this pub, was looking for a young cook. The chef was, again, hardcore and old school and didn't give a shit about anything. But I liked the environment there, I liked the idea of cooking. He got arrested one night, and I ended up running the kitchen. I left that place — this was maybe around the time I was 18, and I knew that this was what I was going to do. It was either that or music.
So what did you decide to do?
I knocked on the door of the Rittenhouse Hotel, where Jim Coleman was at the time, and they gave me the opportunity to stage there. They taught me a lot — they kicked my ass and showed me basic needs. I worked for free, and finally I graduated high school, and they gave me a job there. I wanted more, since I was working 5:30 a.m. to 4 p.m., and I wanted to work in a restaurant. So I got a full-time job at a bistro called Caribou Café, which wasn't necessarily special but they did a lot of classics. I was now working 5:30 a.m. to 1 a.m. every day. That lasted for 10 months. I eventually left the hotel and worked at Caribou and also did some other stints, including Le Bec-Fin.
When did you end up in New York?
I moved to Colorado since I was sick of Philly and wanted to see the country. I cooked at a couple of places around there, and then when I was 24, I decided it was the right time to move to New York. I wanted to cook for the chefs I really admired, like Daniel, Ducasse, and Jean-Georges. I ended up at DB Bistro Moderne, where I cooked for close to three years. I became the sous chef, transferred over to Café Boulud around the time Gavin Kaysen had just started and there were lots of changes going on. So I asked Fabrizio, the pastry chef for Daniel, what my next step should be. And then he pointed me in the direction of Jean Georges.
I started from scratch at Nougatine for five or six months. Then I got sent to Jean Georges, worked every station, and then worked as sous chef for like a year.
Jean Georges is the place that seems to get the most mentions in articles about the restaurant.
Yeah! You writers, man. No one ever mentioned Co. the pizzeria that Jim Lahey opened with Jean-Georges. I ended up working Jean Georges in the mornings and Co. at night, since fine dining pays shit and they needed help when that place was opening and doing 500 covers a night. Then I ended up going and being a corporate chef with Sullivan Street Baking Company, where I learned so much. Jim is a genius. He's a super nice guy, works with amazing product and standards. He's a lover of food like one else I've met and a really intelligent man who taught me a lot about food, life, management, everything.
And then I left and found this job, since this restaurant was already in the works. I threw the menu together in like a month, did like a hundred covers for friends and family, and then opened. We're just a simple French bistro. That's it.
How do you look at bistro cooking?
I mean, look at Paris right now. The young guys who have Michelin experience are now doing bistros with affordable food. Here we have classic bistro food, but also things like classic Tournedos Rossini, which is more fine dining from back in the day. It's relaxed and tasty. It's a place for people to come in a bustling environment where you can drink wine.
I don't think our food is totally classic bistro. We take a more modern approach to it, even though we focus on the foundational stuff. I lighten it up a little bit.
Can you talk more about how you modernize it?
I try to take the experiences I had at Daniel and Jean Georges and put them together.
What does that mean?
Daniel: classic French cuisine, techniques. Old school and lots of hard work. A lot of this [points to tray of garganelli]. Jean Georges: more about his palate, his flavors, his techniques. It's worldly — pop, acidity. So the blanquette de veau will be lighter, more acidic, and have some chilis. The duck à l'orange will have fennel, coriander, star anise. I like to cook what I love to eat, but I'm still trying to figure out who I am and what I want to do.
This seems like the first place you can actually really do that.
Yeah, exactly. What we do here is just the basics of good cooking: taking a good raw ingredient, preparing it well, and serving it to the customer hot.
How do you keep the prices so surprisingly low?
We use really bad ingredients! I go to Chinatown every morning. [laughs] No, I have been in New York for a while, so I can get good deals with the purveyors I have relationships with. I don't waste anything, either. The paté is scraps, whatever I have around. Chicken livers I'll get from the chicken and not order. The Bordelaise I'll make from the beef scraps. That's something I learned from Daniel: you don't waste anything. You take something very humble and you make it beautiful and delicious. Also, I'm just good at shopping around really well. That takes a lot, a lot of work.
It seems like not too long ago, people weren't too hot on French cooking, and now there's what some are calling a resurgence of bistros. How do you look at all that? Is it just a cycle?
What is French food? I ask myself sometimes. There are certain dishes and historical events that define what Italian food is, what French food is, what Chinese food is. For me, French food is a lot about technique and how we prepare things. That's it. Look at Jean Georges: you can call that French, but it incorporates a lot of things. You take influences from here there, put them together, and then something new comes in.
But blanquette de veau is always going to be there. Cooking now, you can be so creative and do whatever you want. So when they say French food is dead and now there might be a resurgence, well, it's just cyclical. It's always been here in some way or another. People want this food.
You don't seem too used to or enthusiastic about media attention. How did the review process feel?
I'm not used to it at all. I have a thing — I always think about the news, the idea that you should be to the point and matter-of-fact. In reviews, you can put your voice into it, but you have to provide facts and be clear about whether you had a good experience, a great experience. Now it's kind of like a circus with media and celebrity chefs. When you write something, people read it and believe it, and that has a lot of power. I don't really want to talk about it, since at the end of the day I just really want to cook good food and keep my head down.
I acknowledge and am happy when people are writing about it — and I want to be sure to know about the bad stuff, the stuff that isn't working —but for me, I want longevity. Longevity comes with community and the neighborhood. That's what I want. I want to get better as a chef every day and teach the people in my kitchen. I know that in not too long, the hype will die down and what will keep filling the seats is consistently good food.