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An interview with chef Matt Ghabel of the Motley Cow


Matt Ghabel
Check out Matt Ghabel’s recipe for delicious beet hummus below. — photo by Heidi McKinley

Little Village sits down with Matt Ghabel of the Motley Cow to talk about anything and everything involving the world of cooking. From chef heroes to cooking mottos, Ghabel gives us the scoop on what’s going on at the Motley Cow and even back at home in his private kitchen.

Little Village: Do you have any chef heroes?

Matt Ghabel: My current boss, David Wieseneck. The [Motley Cow] is meant to be farm-to-table food which is what I like to do, too.

LV: It seems really difficult to have all local everything

MG: It’s nearly impossible.

LV: What makes it difficult?

MG: It’s a lot more work from the kitchen’s standpoint, but arguably more efficient overall when you think about flavor and the relationships. We have three main farmer’s we go through: Friendly Farms, Echolective and Salt Fork Farms. We’re all friends with all of them. They’ll walk in the back door and all the cooks are like, “Hey it’s Derek, we love you.”

LV: So how do you communicate with your farmers?

MG: Derek [from Echolective] is the best at that. Derek will send a text message to David, twice a week with what he has and then David tells him what he wants and it will show up the next day.

LV: Do you cook a lot for yourself?

MG: I cook a lot for [my girlfriend] Jamie and I. If I were single I would never cook at home. For some reason I’m totally content eating toast and butter.

LV: So when it comes to food and cooking, what’s your motto?

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MG: Well, Alain Ducasse said, “good food is 60 percent ingredients and 40 percent technique.” I think that’s pretty spot on. To me, quality ingredients are kind of a given. All chefs cooking good food want in-season produce from local farms because it tastes the best and in a lot of cases it is actually cheaper.

LV: Have you been involved in any other cooking activities besides working at the Cow?

MG: Yeah, last year I organized a couple farm dinners. Bill Ellison and Lois Pavelka own a little restaurant in Solon, Iowa. She lets me do dinners there and use her kitchen. I did one in early august and I’d like to do another one but it is kind of getting late. It takes like three weeks to organize it.

LV: Is it harder to do in winter?

MG: Yeah, unless I were preserving a lot of produce. Which I do try to do, just at my home on a small scale.

LV: What are you cooking with now at the Cow?

MG: Tomatoes and summer squash and zucchinis are all finishing up. What we have now is what’s picked off the plants. The plants are all dead at this point. Especially after last night. Which means our menu’s going to be changing a lot this weekend.

LV: How do you make decisions about what goes on your menu?

MG: I like to think that [our menu] naturally evolves constantly. It’s not like we sit down and we say, “We need to change the menu today.” We do it out of necessity. It’s like, “We’re out of eggplant we need to change that dish.” It’s kind of fun.

LV: Can you talk more about your 60/40 philosophy?

MG: 60 percent ingredients is what’s local and in season, obviously. Then 40 percent it’s technique which I think is interchangeable with passion. I feel like a lot of cooks kind of think of their job as just their job and they don’t get excited about it, but a cook that gets excited about what they’re cooking and loves to do it and is actually having fun doing it, is taking care to not skip steps and they’re not taking short cuts so I honestly think that that’s huge.

LV: How important are organic ingredients to you?

MG: Well, if they aren’t “certified” organic, they’re what Bob Braverman [of Friendly Farm] called “beyond organic.” In a lot of ways state standards of organic are not even logical. Like, they can still use plastic and burn plastic. A lot of farmers are certified organic and they use plastic mulches over their dirt and plastic leaches into dirt and then they burn all their trash. The way I was always taught with Bob, it’s not just how you’re growing vegetables, it’s how you’re living.

LV: When did you start to think of “local” as an important adjective to describe food?

MG: When I worked at Graze [in downtown Iowa City] I always kind of thought it but I didn’t know any better. I thought it was unrealistic to only support local food, and in a lot of ways it is. I’m not going to say we don’t order food from big distributors but we we’re pretty strict about it on entrees. It’s pretty unrealistic to try to run a restaurant year round in Iowa and not ship in produce.

LV: Was there a specific point in your life where you were like, “okay i’m going to be a chef?”

MG: I don’t think there was a point. When I started working at the cow for sure. Learning that [cooking] wasn’t just a science, that it was an art form as well.

LV: Do you watch cooking shows?

MG: I’m going to say yes but I’m not proud of it. I mean [my girlfriend] likes to watch Top Chef. I think I learn things. Sometimes they do things and I’m like, “that sounds interesting, I’m going to try that.”

LV: Do you ever think of owning your own restaurant?

MG: Yes but it is so much work. If I owned my own restaurant it would be simple, and it would be strictly local food, and I would probably be closed in the winter time.

LV: What would you cook for the president?

MG: Probably duck confit because it’s the most delicious thing in the world, but my favorite thing to cook is roasted whole chicken. Brine it, and then let it sit overnight and then roast it in the oven at 300 degrees with all the vegetables — carrots, onion, potatoes — all in one pan.

LV: Is there anything you hate about cooking?

MG: I don’t think there’s anything I hate. I mean, cutting vegetables can be a very meditative thing. A lot of cooks when they have a lot of things to do don’t take the time because they’re too stressed out to cut it right or wash it. I think over the years I’ve kind of tricked my mind into not hating anything because I just do it every day of my life. It’s washing dishes at home and you tell yourself you hate washing dishes, that’s every day for the rest of your life that you’re going to hate washing dishes. You have to get over that.

LV: Are you going to cook your own Thanksgiving this year?

MG: I have a big family. [My girlfriend] and I will try to do something. Her mom is a good cook too. I usually don’t cook anything for my parents. My family is the opposite. My parents were both miserable cooks.

LV: So why do you think you like cooking, especially considering you weren’t brought up appreciating it?

MG: Honestly, I feel the rewards. I feel great when I eat good food and I know that coming from my own family eating bad and drinking soda makes me feel like sh-t. To me it’s obvious so I want to delve into eating 100 percent. It’s like, I don’t have to do anything, just work hard and eat good food… sounds great.

LV: When is your favorite season to cook?

MG: Probably now. September, late September because everything is in season.

LV: Do you have a favorite cookbook?

MG: I’ve been reading these volumes of Modernist Cuisine [by Nathan Myhrvold]. It’s serious. This guy invested millions of dollars into making these books. It’s funny because every recipe is sous-vide or in a pressure cooker. David and I do not do Sous-vide. In a lot of ways it is the best way to cook but it takes the art out of it. It makes it pure science. We’re romantic.

LV: What is “sous-vide” food?

MG: Well, there’s no sautéing. It’s all in a water bath, sealed in plastic, everything. We might get an emersion circulator but it’s just a thing you put in a bucket of water and then you put the food in plastic and you seal it and set the temperature and it cooks it at the perfect temperature for as long as you want. everything is spot on. If I’m not reading cook books I’m reading about home gardening. I read a lot about homesteading. I don’t know if I wanna be a chef or if I want to raise lambs and pigs. I’ve always wanted to raise animals. If it was small scale I’d love to milk goats and make cheese. No one around here milks goats. There’s no local goat milk. We make our own Chèvre at the Cow.

LV: Any recipes you’d like to share with readers?

MG: Beet Hummus, it’s so good and it’s so easy. You roast the beets and then blend them up with garlic, white wine vinegar, salt and oil. What’s great about this is you can substitute beet for anything: eggplant or squash — anything.

Matt does his hummus recipe “to taste.” Here is a formula for the less adventurous:

  • 4 medium beets (1/2 a pound)
  • 2 tbsps white wine vinegar (or to taste)
  • large pinch of salt & pepper
  • 3 large garlic cloves
  • 3 tblsps extra virgin olive oil
  1. Cut off tops of beets and wash them. Put them in a covered pan in 1/4 inch of water. Roast at 375 degrees until you can pierce them easily with a fork (usually around 40 minutes).
  2. Blend all ingredients in a food processor until smooth. (taste and adjust your preferred seasonings)
  3. Dip your chips in it (also good with cucumber and – probably not local – goat cheese)


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