Chef Matt Love: Fine Dining Meets Spa Cuisine
The spa menu at the Amangani resort in Jackson Hole reads like none I have ever seen. It is divided into sections—Earth, Sea, Feather, Hoof, and Dessert—with selections including Steamed Pacific Abalone Custard (with pickled Santa Barbara mussels, arugula, fermented bean espuma, and black garlic), Roast Pheasant (with black pearl barley, roast carrot potage, and chive), Quinoa Crusted Lava Lake Lamb (with cucumber raita, cured lemon, and heirloom tomato relish). The latter is the only mention of quinoa on a menu that is also devoid of kale and calorie counts.
These seemingly irreverent offerings are the brainchild of Amangani’s chef Matt Love, a Utah native who did (culinary) time on the East Coast before returning to the mountains six years ago. His menus are gluten-free, with a focus on sustainable, organic meats and produce, and I found many of his creations too beautiful to eat – including, of all things, the wild mushroom consommé. Who can say that about consommé? I sat down with the 34 year-old newlywed snowboarder to get to the bottom of this, as well as the challenges of cooking spa food at a destination resort in a town known for game meats.
His menus are gluten-free with a focus on sustainable, organic meats and produce, and I found many of his creations too beautiful to eat—including, of all things, the wild mushroom consommé. Who can say that about consommé?
You casually mentioned something about being a child actor. What was that about?
I was a red-haired ginger kid and one of my mom’s friends said I should do commercials because I had a freckled face and red hair. The height of my career was a Twinkies commercial back in the late ‘80s. My sister was actually the big star—she did a movie called Ordinary Heroes with Valerie Bertnelli and Richard Dean Anderson, before he was MacGyver. He gave me a piggyback ride when I was four years old.
How’d you make the transition from MacGyver and Twinkies to food?
Snowboarding. I grew up near Brighton and Solitude ski resorts. A friend got a job washing dishes at a greasy spoon near Solitude, and he got me a job so we could get free ski passes. I was fourteen, so I lied about my age, but I really took to it and liked it.
It’s a long way from greasy spoon to this type of cooking….
Well, my real passion was music, because I was young and I thought I could be a rock star. I did a stint at the Berklee College of Music in Boston, a summer program for music production, and fell in love with the city. But I got a little intimidated by the other students, and the price of that school. So I fell back on my talents at cooking and attended the Cambridge School of Culinary Arts. I did the fast track program, which was forty hours a week plus working my regular jobs, at Upstairs on the Square, a restaurant on Harvard Square, and after school I was doing high-end catering.
That sounds intense.
It was. On my time off I was staging in New York City. Staging is the chef version of unpaid internships. So I staged at Charlie Palmer’s place, Aureole, and also at Daniel. Charlie Palmer was great. He gave me a beer because he found out I was staging, working for free, and razzed me about the Red Sox, since he’s a Yankees fan. It was a great experience.
And it explains the jump to a more sophisticated culinary style.
Yeah, but I was done with the city—I missed the mountains. In Boston I was working at the Four Seasons, and they told me about job opportunities here in Jackson. I got a job with the Four Seasons Jackson Hole resort and moved here in 2006, and now I’m here.
How do you create a spa menu in a town that’s all about game meats?
Well, that’s just it. Being out here for so long, I’m tired of cooking the same things over and over again. You go into town and you’ll see a lot of the same things on menus: bison carpaccio, bison chop, bone-in ribeye. Last April I spent a month staging at Benu in San Francisco—it’s Cory Lee, from French Laundry’s, restaurant. I saw what they were doing with food and was really transformed.
What were they doing?
I saw their fresh take on food and I was inspired by it—they were taking nice quality ingredients and letting them speak for themselves. It opened my eyes to letting what’s local speak to me. That’s one of the things I’m doing with this menu—taking really quality ingredients, not doing much to them, and putting them on the plate.
Tell me about creating the spa menu.
I played around with a couple menus with our spa director, and general manager here, and they read flat. We are the Amangani, and there’s an expectation level so we thought we’d kick it up a notch. This is the fine dining approach to a healthy spa menu.
No kidding. Much of what you put in front of me was too gorgeous to eat and—with the exception of the killer kohlrabi salad—did not taste healthy at all. In a good way.
[Laughs]. Well, There’s no gluten. I’m not using any dairy or butter for cooking oil. I use rice bran oil. It’s really healthy and has the same smoke point as Canola oil, but it is made from the whole kernel of rice so it has flavor, has anti-oxidants, and has nutrients. It’s not just a means to fry something in, it’s actually good for you, too. I also use tapioca starch, instead of flour, to thicken sauces. It has no taste and thickens your sauces naturally without many calories added.
You don’t normally see a spa menu with a lot of meat on it.
I like lamb because of the flavor, and I use the loin, which is a really tender piece of meat that doesn’t have any fat. I thin it has nineteen grams of protein. It also has the most calories of anything on the menu, up to four hundred calories per serving. But in terms of the proteins, everything is organically raised.
I’m impressed that you can deliver this level of cuisine, presented in this way.
I do smaller portions, cooked right and with quality ingredients. Spa food doesn’t have to be rabbit food.