Chef Matthew Daughaday of Taste (4584 Laclede Avenue; 314-361-1200) talks to Gut Check about food, family, Gerard Craft and his favorite after-work hangouts.
Did your family cook together when you were a child? Yes. We had family dinner at 6 p.m. every night. Both my mom and dad cooked. My dad had his specialties he prepared, but most of the time my mom cooked. My mom even had a bell on the back porch that she would ring when it was time for dinner. We would be playing in the park and we would hear the bell and know it was time to come home.
What was one of your favorite childhood meals? It's probably still the same now: meatloaf. There used to be a butcher in U-City -- we went there my whole life -- and he had a mix he would use for his meatloaf that I think was veal, lamb and pork, which was just irreplaceable. The butcher passed on, and my mom makes her version of it, which is pretty good, but it's not the same.
How old were you when you started cooking? I can remember when I was real little messing around in the kitchen. I remember one Mother's Day, when I was too young to probably even be near a stove, me and my friend tried making what we thought were pancakes but which were just flour and sugar and water. Our moms were gracious enough to eat it. It was probably in high school when my friends and I would be cooking on a regular basis with each other. One of my closest friends and I would cook what we thought were fancy night dinners with wine and everything.
Where was your first cooking job? I worked at a natural foods store in Colorado when I was in school and I started making meals to-go. I realized there how much I loved working with food, but my first job cooking on a line was after I moved back to St. Louis to go to culinary school, at Luciano's [Trattoria].
Did you attend culinary school or college? I went to Fort Lewis College in Durango, Colorado, for English education and then started at Forest Park Community College for culinary, but ultimately earned my culinary degree from California Culinary Academy.
What do you eat? I rarely ever cook for myself when I'm home so I end up eating way too much late-night food out. If I do cook for myself I make myself a lot of simple food -- things like pasta with garlic and chili flakes.
We'd be most surprised that you eat...? As much as I sort of despise the fast-food industry, I still love Steak 'n Shake, I can't help it. There's one right by my house on the way home from work. I try to stay away but I can't.
What are your three favorite restaurants in St. Louis (besides you own)? Honestly, non-biased, Brasserie [by Niche] is one of my favorite places to sit down and have a meal. The food is always 100 percent solid. Another place, really because I've gone there since I was little, is Duff's. I always get the same thing there, too -- a burger and the French onion soup. You can't go wrong with the blue plate lunch special at Farmhaus. Sidney Street [Cafe] is always awesome and Mike Miller from Dressel's and I worked together at Niche, and it's always fun to see what he's doing. We have a very similar style in many respects.
A local chef who most impresses you? Kevin Nashan at Sidney Street. Aside from being extremely humble about what he does, he is amazing. Starting the garden when he did and when he started making charcuterie -- he deserves more acclaim and I have mad respect for what he does as a chef and how he went about it.
Your favorite restaurant elsewhere? Recently I went to the Purple Pig in Chicago. I really like what they're doing. It reminds me a lot of what we're doing here at Taste -- really flavorful small plates. Also Torrisi in New York City. It was hands down the best meal I've had in a long time. They serve traditional Italian specialties. You basically pick your protein and everything else just kind of comes out. There were five or six little antipasto plates, the pasta course, entree and dessert and everything was really simple. One of the things that stands out was a dish showing the five stages of pickling, so there were cucumbers -- some quick pickled, some fermented -- but still super flavorful and delicious. They also did mozzarella stretched to order -- a plate of freshly stretched warm mozzarella with olive oil -- insanely delicious.
Your favorite food city? San Francisco. You can get the same product here that you get out there but there it's just so much better. And there is so much variety from casual to fine dining out there. One of my favorite places out there is a banh mi place that was in one of the worst parts of town, run by two ladies in their sixties or so, and there was always a line out the door. Best sandwich in San Francisco.
Favorite recent food find? It's not really "new" but I've really had a thing lately for beef tongue. I've worked with it before and now I am working on a pastrami beef tongue which will be on the menu in the fall with more of a Moroccan set of flavors. Beef tongue has been an item that I am interested in and been playing around with recently.
Most essential ingredient in your kitchen? It's got to be salt. The difference between food being OK and food being awesome a lot of times is that it has been seasoned properly.
Name five words to describe your food. Flavorful, Simple, Creative, Approachable -- man, though, I hate that word and, um, well, I make food so that people will enjoy it. I mean, as much as I love making food if it's not good or if it's not what people are looking for that takes away from the experience of cooking for me -- from the joy.
What is one food you dislike? Food where there is no passion in creating it. I have no problem going to dirty little diners but if someone doesn't care at all about what they're doing it's no good to me.
What is a food you cant live without? Pasta. From simple to complicated, it can be delicious. It's just one of those things I'll always eat.
St. Louis needs more what? Attention. We have good food, we have people who care about it, we just need more attention here. That's one of the reasons I came back to St. Louis after culinary school -- I know a lot of good chefs from St. Louis who left for bigger cities and their resources but the more attention we get we'll keep more good chefs from leaving.
What is your best tip for home cooks? Don't think your food sucks. Everybody who cooks at home thinks that their food isn't good enough.
What is your favorite after work hangout? I like to go home, spend some time with my girlfriend. If I do go out, I like to go somewhere with a dart board.
Your favorite kitchen tool? My hands. People have gotten mad at me over it, commented on it, but if I can plate something with my hands or take something out of a pan with my hands, I will. People make fun of me because I can't feel anything in my fingers anymore.
What inspires you? Passion. Seeing someone who loves what they do, it doesn't have to be food related -- but seeing someone who really cares about what they'e doing inspires me to want to be better at what I do.
Proudest professional moment thus far? Actually, more towards my beginning when I got my externship at Niche and got to work on the line at Niche. It let me know that I was actually decent at what I was doing because of the high esteem I had for that place. That was an inspiring moment.
What's the most difficult lesson you've learned in this business? When I worked the protein station at Water Bar in San Francisco, I was young and shy and quiet, and I worked this massive wood oven that was extremely hot and I got kicked off my station three times in the year I worked there. Each time I thought I should quit, that I wasn't good enough to do this and never would be. But I think every good line cook has that epiphany moment when they see how everything works and it was the night my sous chef was about to hit me in the face because he was so mad at me and I was so in the weeds and was about to be hurt by my chef that I had that moment and I saw how it all works. That was the last night I ever got kicked off my station or ever got really weeded on a station.
When did you know the chefs life was for you? I loved cooking and I knew it was always something I wanted to do but when I was cooking at Niche with Nate Hereford and Ray Carpenter on what I think was the best core line of cooks I had ever worked with and putting out really good food -- I realized that if everyday could be like this, I could definitely do this and be happy for the rest of my life.