took his first cooking class at the age of eight, a schoolkid with the sisters of Notre Dame. He studied international business at the University of London. He has been both a stockbroker at Paine Webber and the executive chef of the Missouri Athletic Club-West.
"I have a weird background," Unger admits.
Now, at a age 35, he has opened his first restaurant, Mathew's Kitchen
, which debuted late last month at 5625 Hampton Avenue, the former home of Del Pietro's Ristorante
"I've always had a passion for food," he says, recalling himself at age ten baking banana bread for his family. Still, he studied business at college and graduate school and then went to work as a stockbroker for Paine Webber.
After a few years, he says, "I just thought to myself, 'I don't want to do this. I want to own a restaurant.'"
His culinary studies, which include Forest Park Community College and the Culinary Institute of America's St. Helena, California, campus, eventually led him to the Missouri Athletic Club-West, where he served as executive chef for seven and a half years.
"The ultimate goal was always to open my own place," he says.
Unger looked at several possible restaurant spaces over the years, but never found one where the numbers worked. Then Mary Rose del Pietro
decided to retire and close her iconic south St. Louis restaurant. It was the ideal opportunity for Unger and his wife.
"We live in south city. We're going to raise our kids in south city. [We decided,] 'Let's do it.'"
Unger describes the concept of Mathew's Kitchen as "comfort food with a twist." The goal are "more upscale" versions of dishes with which diners are already comfortable. The menu
offers such favorites as meatloaf and mac & cheese. Here, though, the meatloaf is a blend of ground beef and pork wrapped in bacon and served with a Worcestershire-based barbecue sauce; the mac & cheese is made with Gruyère and topped with sliced lobster tail.
(This isn't a novel concept, of course, a fact that Unger readily admits, citing a restaurant in Napa, California, as his inspiration.)
In addition to his background as a chef, Unger is also a Certified Specialist of Wine and a Level I sommelier. This dual knowledge gives Mathew's Kitchen another "twist," he says. A chef who is able to pair his food with wine -- specifically, in this case, from a list exclusively of California reds and whites -- is something he believes that "very few restaurants do."
Mathew's Kitchen is open 4:30 p.m.-10 p.m. Monday-Thursday and 4:30 p.m.-11 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Call 314-351-1700 for more info.