Matt McPherson, 31, started restaurant life as a dishwasher, going on to work for Tony Maws at Craigie on Main and Barbara Lynch at Menton. This spring, he’ll open a waterfront café, Café Iterum, at the Clippership Wharf residential and retail complex in East Boston, a neighborhood that he says has retained young professionals — himself included — despite an exodus to the suburbs since the pandemic hit.
Why did you become a chef?
I started off out of high school looking to become an electrical and aerospace engineer. When I found out how much sitting and reading and stagnant work there was, it just didn’t suit me well. I wasn’t prone to just sitting and doing work like that. With the suggestion of my mother, I got a job in a restaurant kitchen as a dishwasher. She thought I might like cooking because, well, I’ve always loved food, and it’s much more hands-on. It’s very much an interactive job.
I applied to Johnson & Wales. While I was there, I was fortunate enough to work at two great restaurants for an internship. My first was in New York at a restaurant, Public. It had one Michelin star while it lasted. I think they were technically Australian food. It wasn’t the super fancy stuff. It was just really high-quality ingredients, really good techniques, super high volume, a very New York-style restaurant. It got my feet wet for sure in a really busy restaurant. [It was] a great experience, being in New York and seeing the New York food scene.
From there, I went to Istanbul, Turkey, to a restaurant called Mikla. The food was awesome, the culture was awesome. Everything about it was awesome. The restaurateur, Mehmet, was fantastic, and he really did a lot to show off the culture to me.
Take me to Boston.
Once I graduated, I did a short stint with Tony Maws to get my knocks in. He owns a super-busy restaurant, and not a lot of people can last there for long. He has a great technique and a great sourcing. But it’s hard to last there for long. So from there I moved on to Menton, which was my longest stint here in Boston. I was there for over two years, rising through the ranks. That’s a great restaurant, because you get to see and learn everything. It puts you through kind of a training program, a very old-school grade system. Chef de tournant was my final job.
What was the biggest lesson that you learned working under Tony Maws?
Move faster. And regardless of how much pressure is on you, always do the right thing, do it right the first time, and not take shortcuts. He would push you to try to move faster and get things done faster, but then, when you tried to take a shortcut, he would crucify you for not doing it the right way. … In a kitchen, it’s always tough, because you’re always short on time.
It takes time to do it the right way. And it’s always going to be better if you do it the right way, no matter what. I don’t necessarily push my employees that hard, but that’s something that I really focus on: teaching them that doing it the right way is priority number one. And if there’s an issue with it, come talk to me instead of thinking about taking a shortcut.
Do you think that fine dining still has a role in the Boston dining scene, given COVID-19?
Yes, very much so. I’ve been talking to a lot of industry professionals, and I unfortunately see restaurants going kind of in two major ways. It’s going to be fine dining, and it’s going to be fast-casual.
It’s really going to be the mom-and-pop restaurants that are going to suffer the most, because those are the ones that people eat at, I guess, for convenience or when they’re at work — which now, because of COVID, they might not be able to afford as much. People [who] eat at Asta aren’t really suffering right now as much. So I think those restaurants typically are going to be fine. Even the Alden & Harlows are going to be fine, because again, their typical clientele are the techies or the young professionals who work from home, and they haven’t really lost their jobs too much from what I’ve seen.
Tell me about opening a new restaurant in this climate. Why?
I started my restaurant journey over two years ago. It’s been a long process, including one lease falling through and this lease taking eight months to get together. So it’s going to happen no matter what. I’ve worked this hard to get it done, I’m not going to let anything slow me up.
We’re going to do coffee, we’re going to do drinks and morning foods, whether it’s to-go or in-house. And since COVID hit, we just decided, OK, well, we just won’t do any dining in-house. It’s all going to need to be to-go, which was kind of our main business anyway — the dining in-house was just kind of an added bonus. So it worked out that COVID shouldn’t affect us too much.
I also had the foresight of going into a neighborhood that was emerging. There’s a lot of young professionals here who, from what I’ve seen, haven’t really lost their jobs and still live here. They didn’t move out of the town, which I know lots of people around Boston did. East Boston has been pretty steady with its professionals here. They’re still here, even though they’re working at home. They’re still out and about. A lot of people have dogs or a family, kids. So they’re still going to be coming outside for a morning coffee, and if they can get a breakfast sandwich, they’re going to do it. So I was fortunate enough. My niche is still there and ready for me.
You’ve worked in some of Boston’s best kitchens. What would you say to somebody who wants to open a new restaurant? What should people be thinking about if they want to keep the industry alive?
I think the systems of a restaurant have been kind of neglected for a long time. I have a friend opening a restaurant down on the South Shore. It’s all about making that restaurant run better and more efficient … how you diversify your revenue stream. He’s going to be selling sausages to go. He’s doing flatbreads and sausages in-house, deli. So, just talking about how to make sure that you have several different revenue streams, whether it’s catering or other things like that.
But, for anyone looking to get into the industry, there’s a ton of opportunity out there. The restaurant spaces are finally becoming available that haven’t been available for years. Stoddard’s downtown is an example. It was a kind of a tourist restaurant, not really anyone local who I know ever went there, but a great space. It’s now a prime location for someone to come in and open a restaurant for cheap, because it’s a pre-built restaurant that you can come in, redecorate, and open. And that’s something Boston has never had before.
What’s your first food memory?
My family was very food-oriented and still is. Both grandmothers cook from scratch. One’s very Italian, so we did the Feast of the Seven Fishes at Christmas. Every time you went over, there were cookies —she did 20 different Christmas cookies, Italian Christmas cookies. Every time you go over, she has fresh bread made. On my dad’s side, my grandma does much more of the Americana-style traditional from-scratch kitchen.
They’re in a very small town in upstate New York, both of them are, so they’re always just shopping at local farmers’ markets. Now it’s kind of trendy to go to Cambridge and go to the farmers’ market or this or that. That’s just what they did. On Friday, the fish truck came through, and so they got fish on Fridays, and it was just all these things that I grew up with that were kind of normal. My grandmas both got whole cows and pigs slaughtered and put into their fridge or freezers. They would hand out cuts of meat to people at Christmas.
What’s your favorite quarantine snack?
Ben & Jerry’s is always, I think, everyone’s staple. I’ve been trying to avoid that, though. Recently, I stole my grandmother’s secret recipe for dish-pan cookies, and they’re absolutely ridiculously good.