Matheus De Araujo, 41, came to the United States from Brazil as a teenager, following his older brother’s footsteps. He balanced high school with dishwashing, until he dropped out and began cooking full-time. He launched his career at The Cheesecake Factory (he still loves their teriyaki) before joining Jacky Robert at Ma Maison. Now, he’s the director of barbecue operations for Andy Husbands’ Smoke Shop, commuting 90 minutes from Acton every day. Yes, he listens to a lot of podcasts.
From The Cheesecake Factory to The Smoke Shop: You have an interesting story! Let’s start at the beginning.
I grew up in Brazil with two siblings. My parents had a restaurant, a sub shop, so I grew up in the business. Next year will be its 40th anniversary. They’re a staple in our hometown. When I was about 9 years old, that’s when I got involved in the daily operations. I cut the deli meat, ham, and mozzarella, while my brother would help my mom press all the hamburgers — we’d do almost a Smashburger version. My father would make homemade mayonnaise. He’d make gallons at a time. Everyone raves about the mayonnaise. Every time my mother comes to visit us, she makes a batch of hamburgers, and we keep it in the freezer. I ended up working counter, where I would put the sandwiches together.
What brought you to the United States?
When I was 16, I didn’t want to work for my parents, and the opportunity to come to the States arrived. I thought I’d stay for a year because I had to go back and serve in the military. In Brazil, when you turn 18, everyone has to do it.
I arrived here in February 1999, and Logan was covered in snow. I was like: ‘This is amazing.’ I was coming from rural Brazil, a small town. I went to East Boston, and I just fell in love. I had an uncle here and a brother who had just come the year before. I thought I was visiting, but I just stayed.
What was your first cooking job in America?
My first cooking job was a small restaurant in Winthrop. I was going to high school in the morning, and I was dishwashing at night. I started working double on the weekends and started lighting up the wood-burning pizza oven. And that was so exciting for a 17-year-old kid, to be able to go in and start learning these different techniques.
Eventually I outgrew it. My brother and I couldn’t keep up with expenses. I had to drop out of Winthrop High School, and that’s when I started work at Cheesecake as a fry cook. The line was seven different stations.
How did you balance everything?
As a dishwasher in Winthrop, it was easy. It was in the same town. By 10 o’clock I was home. But I couldn’t make ends meet.
Some days at Cheesecake, I wouldn’t get home until midnight or 1 o’clock. I used to work at the Galleria. I’d get the last Green Line train to get to Government Center to get the Blue Line to arrive in Winthrop. It was hard to get home. Back then, you didn’t have Uber. I decided that it was best for me to drop out of high school because I was succeeding at Cheesecake.
After six months, I was asked to do a store opening, and I was on the flat-top station. I was being cross-trained. I went to Chicago and did my first opening there, and I fell in love. Again, there was crazy energy. People were lining up out the door. You knew that for the next six, seven hours you’d just be putting your head down and just cooking and teaching. It drove me to learn more.
Were your parents worried at all?
My mom was concerned. But I thought it would just be a year, and she had the experience with my brother coming a year prior. Back then, I was young. I didn’t care. I wanted my freedom. I think I was so immature. But luckily, I had the right mentors who helped guide me.
How did you make the leap from The Cheesecake Factory?
I worked with Cheesecake for almost 10 years. I worked my way up to doing multiple openings as a lead. I was the youngest kitchen manager to be promoted at 19 years old, which was a great achievement for me, coming from where I came from.
After Cheesecake, I had the opportunity to work for Max Brenner in their headquarters, where I became kitchen operations manager in New York. I oversaw four locations, [including] one on Boylston Street that we opened in 2011, and New York, Philadelphia, and Las Vegas. I was doing a lot of traveling for Max Brenner. It ended up going from a savory and dessert restaurant to being just desserts, so I moved back to Massachusetts, and I came across Ma Maison.
Gotta ask: The Cheesecake Factory has so many menu options. What’s your favorite?
That’s a tough question. I always used to eat chicken teriyaki, marinated overnight with an Asian vinaigrette, and then it gets grilled, and it has caramelized banana in it. It reminded me a little bit of back when I used to live with my grandmother. We used to have bananas all the time when we ate our meals on the farm.
What was Ma Maison like?
Working with Jacky was very different because I came from these large corporations where everything’s by the recipe; you had to follow procedures. Jacky has no recipes. He’s going by touch, taste, and how the food looks. I learned so much about details and how to utilize every single product. It was just phenomenal.
How did you find The Smoke Shop?
Andy was looking for a kitchen director. He spoke with a good friend of mine who works for Cheesecake. It was a good month’s interview process, making sure it was the right fit for both of us.
When I first met Andy, I saw his passion for the cuisine and saw his passion for the business. I didn’t have any American barbecue experience before, beyond barbecuing on the weekends. It was coming back to what I grew up with, where we ate a lot of meat.
Let’s get into some quick, fun questions. What is your take on the Boston food scene right now?
The 2020 stuff, when that happened, it kind of pushed us back a little bit. But this last year, we’re starting to see a lot of new stuff coming around. I love a lot of bakeries. I love Bakey on Tremont Street and Michette in Somerville. It’s a very, very small place with amazing croissants, amazing breads.
The experience I had with Ma Maison, the food he’s putting out is very traditional French. It’s amazing. And Cassie [Piuma] at Sarma? Those flavors are amazing. And all the ethnic cuisines coming around? I’m loving it.
I think everyone should really give a chance to those small, little places that they have in their neighborhoods and try to experiment with something different; try the new Peruvian or the new Thai restaurant that opened around the corner, not too fancy. They’re home-cooking.
Where do you love to eat close to home?
I live in Acton. I love Eve & Murray’s sandwiches. And I love Karma. But we do cook a lot at home, French, Italian, Mexican, and rice and beans are a staple for us. I have two kids and a busy life.
Where do you get your recipes?
My mom sends me recipes from my grandma! The French is going back to Jacky. When I was in New York, I worked a lot with Mexican and Peruvians. And I got to learn some of it with them. So those are from memory, incorporating what we like into their traditional recipes.
When you were growing up, what was your favorite thing to eat?
I was a meat-and-potato kid. My mom used to do steak frites all the time. I didn’t get to explore different items until I came to America.
And now, what’s your favorite snack?
Oh, I love chocolate. I tell my wife all the time: ‘Don’t buy chocolate!’ Last week, I was doing research and development for the restaurant, and we did a six-layer bar that had coconuts and chocolate chips. I left it on the counter, and we’d be snacking on it at the end of the night, which wasn’t very smart.
Any dining pet peeves?
My father made mayonnaise. I don’t like it. It’s weird. I’ll eat any kind of aioli, but plain mayonnaise? Not my biggest thing. As an operator, as you walk into a restaurant, you’re always looking at lights. Are all the lights on? Are any lights burned out? It’s engraved in you. Every time I go out, I’m paying attention to it.
What’s the secret of good barbecue?
Time. You cannot rush good barbecue. And you need to have a great group of people to barbecue with. I learned from Andy: You’re not barbecuing for yourself. You’re barbecuing for others. You’re not going to eat a whole brisket or a whole chicken by yourself. You’re doing this barbecue to enjoy with others.
What’s your favorite thing on the menu at The Smoke Shop?
Definitely the brisket.