Interview with a Chef: Paul Mattison
May 30, 2017
Chef Paul Mattison of Mattison’s Restaurants & Catering in Sarasota, Florida, has been a great friend to Niman Ranch for years. He was a Featured Chef at our 2016 Farmer Appreciation Dinner and he’s shown great support for our farmers in his local community. Later this month, he’ll be hosting a Next Generation Scholarship Dinner at his restaurant Mattison’s Forty-One in Sarasota.
Hear about where Chef Paul came from and what he’s been up to since the Dinner last year.
Where does your passion for sourcing high quality ingredients come from?
I grew up in a fairly rural community in upstate New York, though I didn’t grow up on a farm by any means. As an Italian family, we were always gardening and cooking with my Italian grandmother. She was a big inspiration. Our food was always fresh and natural. Back then, processed foods were starting to become popular, but we really never ate them. We enjoyed making things like our pasta from scratch. Spending time around the dinner table with fresh food has always been a part of my life.
I do feel like I’ve always had a good pallet. I had just started high school when I began washing dishes and busing tables in a restaurant. Shortly after, when I was nearly 16, I was cooking already. I guess you could say I just took to the industry really well.
All the restaurants I worked in – even since the beginning – were fresh concepts, with everything made from scratch. As I grew up cooking that way, for me, flavor was always so important, and you can only get great flavor from quality ingredients. I went on to the Culinary Institute of America for four or five years, not knowing what I’d end up doing with my life. As I began to take cooking more seriously, flavor became the most important thing to me.
My “battle cry” has been and continues to be: Source the best quality ingredients, the best quality flavors you could possibly put into anything.
Why do you choose Niman Ranch meats?
I worked with this one brand when I started cooking in Florida. I used it for 25 years religiously, and the product was always great. But when I learned about Niman, it really stuck.
One of your reps had been trying to show my staff Niman Ranch product but had no luck, so I said, “Alright, come and see me.” They brought in some product and we put it on the grill next to the product I was using and I tasted it. Turns out I picked out the one I thought was better – and it was Niman!
I was like, “No way! Give me another try, I don’t believe it,” because I had been using that other product for 25 years. I had them grill it again and you know what, there’s such a difference in the flavor – it’s clean. There was such a clean, light fresh finish coming off the product. I picked it again. The worst thing that you get from beef is that irony, metallic taste in your mouth. Your beef was nothing like that. I was convinced.
Then, you hear the whole story about factory farming and it’s really scary. I’ve been to slaughterhouses before, but I never paid that close of attention to how there’s that big of a difference. When you hear the Niman story and see how they do it, you see how they reach consistency in all their products. What blew me away more than anything is that you’re not one big company. You’re a consortium of farmers. You help to manage more than 720 family farmers to do everything the right way and consistently the same way to create a consistent product coming off of small family farms.
It’s pretty hard not to want to spend a couple dollars more to use your product and turn people onto it. Yes – it’s sustainable. Yes – it’s keeping small family farms in business. Yes – it’s quality and taste and palatability. More and more the customers ask for it. More and more of them want to know what we serve them before they make the decision to dine or not. I think more and more, the industry will move away from the processed, factory farmed model to move towards yours.
What empowers you the most about owning the Mattison’s concepts?
Every day is different for me, and I like that. I’m in control of my own destiny to the point where I don’t know if I could ever work for a big corporation. It’s not me, you know? I’ve always been entrepreneurial. I cut grass, delivered newspapers and shoveled driveways when I was a kid. Then I got to the point I think every chef does – you’re like, “I want to own a restaurant someday,” and that’s not something everybody can do. Just because you’re a great chef doesn’t mean you should own a restaurant. Just because you’re a great mechanic doesn’t mean you should own a car dealership. The knowledge of how to run a business can be so far from the craft. For me, I love it all.
As I get older, though, it’s become about my love to cultivate young people. The mentor aspect of being a business owner is so important to me. I love to teach young chefs – people who want to get into the industry, people who want to grow, people who want to learn – and I love to watch their talents evolve. At this point, I feel like my job is to give them the tools and environment to be successful. I work to embrace them and encourage them to use their talents, use their creativity and come up with great new things. A lot of them are doing stuff that is way beyond what I ever did when I had a pan in my hand day-in and day-out.
As a restaurant owner, you have to embrace your people, roll up your sleeves and work together with them while also inspiring them to grow and do great things. I still love to cook; I love getting in the kitchen for special events – like when I was in Iowa as a Featured Chef at your Farmer Appreciation Dinner. But a couple of times, I’ve even gone to my chefs to get feedback on events when I’m running the show. They inspire me as much as I hope I inspire them.
It’s fun to watch my company grow and to watch people around me do the same. Every once in a while, you’ll get somebody who’s really exceptional. They get the opportunity to move on, and as much as you hate to lose someone who’s great, you’re also really proud to see them get there.
What’s next on your plate – now or in the future?
I just opened a new restaurant, Mattison’s City Grille – Bradenton Riverwalk.
It’s been ten years since I’ve built a restaurant, and I swore I’d never do another one. I finally felt like everything was working just fine with everything operating in the black. As I’m getting older, this is the right pace for me. But an opportunity fell in my lap where it just made so much sense, I’d be foolish not to do it!
The atmosphere at the new location lent itself to copy the same concept I have in downtown Sarasota, which is a very casual, outdoor, alfresco-type dining space with live music. I built this one in just 13 days! Everything just fell into place. There wasn’t a lot of work to do because we ran with the same menu and the same concept – all the same tiles, furniture, etcetera – so we got lucky. I’ve never done anything like this in my life, but I’ve also never seen anything like it in my life.
Looking further into the future, I’m going to start offering consulting services. I’ve seen so many people over the years who get involved and either don’t have the experience, or they build the kitchen wrong, or they get into some other trouble. I’d like to give back to the industry by helping people out. I think it would be fun to help people create and design new concepts or retool the concepts they have and make them more efficient. I love logistics. I swear I should have been an architect or a builder sometimes; I really love the way things flow and operate. Most of all, I would love to help people realize their dreams. It’s the next natural step for me – what else am I going to do? My staff is so seasoned and talented that sometimes, I’m just in their way.