Cafe Coeur's Matt Dawson is fusing Japanese and Italian tastes under kosher techniques.
Matt Dawson may be living his passion as executive chef at the newly opened Cafe Coeur (10477 Old Olive Street, Creve Coeur; 314-439-8800)
. However, his introduction to the kitchen came about as much out of necessity as love for food.
"I was raised by a single mom who worked all the time and didn't have time to cook big meals," Dawson says. "I took over. I started playing in the kitchen when she wasn't home and learned how to cook. I loved it, and the moment somebody would hire me, I was working in restaurants."
That first gig — an ice cream parlor in St. Charles — happened when he was just thirteen. Though he was admittedly young, Dawson instantly felt a connection to the food business and pursued that passion at various restaurants throughout high school. When he graduated, there was no question he'd continue kitchen work, so he got into the corporate side of the restaurant business and began his career in earnest.
Dawson loved the industry but wanted a change from the corporate trajectory his cooking career was taking. When he was in his mid-twenties, he enrolled at L'Ecole Culinaire with the intention of formalizing and expanding his knowledge in the kitchen. It ended up landing him a job before he even graduated.
"For my externship, I ended up at a place called Pepperoncini's and became the executive chef," Dawson recalls. "My last externship became my first executive chef position."
The job proved short-lived; the economy crashed and the restaurant closed its doors. From there, he went on to Quintessential Dining and Nightlife on Main Street St. Charles, and then eventually to River City Casino.
Around that time, Dawson began exploring kosher cooking and food as a way to expand his knowledge. The more he learned, the more he wanted to learn, and before he knew it, he was completely immersed.
"I've always been deeply spiritual, but not religious, and I love studying new things," Dawson explains.
That knowledge came in handy when Dawson was approached by Moshe Plotnik and Yaniv Sides, who were getting ready to open a kosher pizzeria and sushi restaurant in Creve Coeur. Sides owns a handful of kosher restaurants in New York and, after getting stranded in St. Louis for a week, was shocked at the city's lack of options. At first his plan was to open a restaurant that served kosher pizza and sushi. But once Dawson came on board, the vision grew more ambitious.
"They came to me with two concepts — for a pizza and sushi restaurant," Dawson explains. "They needed a way to bridge the two, and that got me thinking, 'Why not marry the two in fun and interesting ways?'"
The pizza and sushi concept became a jumping-off point for Cafe Coeur, a place he describes as a modern restaurant that fuses Japanese and Italian cuisine. Though the restaurant still has the pizza and sushi portions of the menu, he's been thrilled with the response to the more unique dishes that are a mix of the two, such as the "arancini nigiri," a play on both Sicilian and Japanese rice balls. It's one of the best sellers.
"As far as I know, we are the only restaurant in the country that is doing this kind of food," Dawson says. "We want everyone to come in to experience it. We're kosher, but we don't tell people we are a 'kosher restaurant.' We consider ourselves a Japanese and Italian restaurant that happens to be kosher."
Dawson took a break from Cafe Coeur and his writing career — in addition to being a chef, he's a published science-fiction author — to share his thoughts on the St. Louis food and beverage scene, his love of ramen and why time may be the most important ingredient in his kitchen.
What is one thing people don’t know about you that you wish they did?
I love to write in my spare time. Fantasy, sci-fi, mystery — everything.
What daily ritual is non-negotiable for you?
I drink an energy drink and read a food magazine before I start my day.
If you could have any superpower, what would it be?
Teleportation. I love to travel, and that would make it much easier.
What is the most positive thing in food, wine or cocktails that you’ve noticed in St. Louis over the past year?
I love that people with fine-dining backgrounds are moving to more casual cuisine — elevating it while making it approachable for the general consumer.
What is something missing in the local food, wine or cocktail scene that you’d like to see?
I'd like to see more local purveyors certifying their products as kosher.
Who is your St. Louis food crush?
There are too many to choose from. St. Louis has a lot of amazing chefs working in the food scene right now.
Who’s the one person to watch right now in the St. Louis dining scene?
I've been hearing a lot of good things about what Rick Lewis is doing over at Grace Meat + Three.
Which ingredient is most representative of your personality?
I'd have to say time. I love to use fermentation to enhance my dishes. We do all of our own pickles in-house, and I'm currently experimenting with making miso, vinegar and black garlic for large-scale production.
If you weren’t working in the restaurant business, what would you be doing?
Probably writing full time. That's my retirement plan if I ever manage to break away from the restaurant scene.
Name an ingredient never allowed in your restaurant.
Pork, of course.
What is your after-work hangout?
Usually it's whatever new restaurant I haven't been to yet. I rarely go to the same place twice.
What’s your food or beverage guilty pleasure?
Tacos. I love tacos of any and all kinds.
What would be your last meal on earth?
Ramen made by Ivan Orkin. I am absolutely obsessed with his New York restaurants, Ivan Ramen.
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