Kathleen’s Post: Talking Sustainability with Chef Matt Louis

matt-louisI met with Chef Matt Louis at a coffee shop in Portsmouth on a drizzly Monday evening. For those who may not know, Chef Matt Louis is the Chef and owner of two beautifully crafted restaurants in Portsmouth, NH: Moxy and Franklin Oyster House. Since we both work in the restaurant industry I knew his name and about his restaurants but otherwise I had only met Chef Louis in passing before this meeting. It wasn’t hard to start up a conversation, Matt comes with a warm personality, a great smile and tremendous amounts of knowledge and I came with plenty of questions.

I started off by asking him how he would introduce himself to a total stranger, because in a sense, that’s basically what I was at this point.

Well, I live in Portsmouth but I grew up in Raymond, New Hampshire. I traveled, worked and lived all around the U.S. and came back to Portsmouth because it is the hub of a lot of art and culture. Food fits right into that. You don’t find that dynamic in every community,” he tells me.

I am always curious to know which chefs attended cooking school and which chefs fell into the business in other ways, so I asked if he went to culinary school and if so, was he taught to incorporate local and sustainable ingredients? If not, how did it become an interest?

I went to the Culinary Institute of America in New York. Honestly, I really wasn’t taught about those practices in school. When I was in school the sustainable movement was just starting and wasn’t mainstream yet. School was more about learning the skills, techniques and classics. Now it’s like if you aren’t practicing sustainable methods you’re behind. But it isn’t something that should be marketed, it should just be done. Your average customer wants to know where the food is coming from and we should encourage that. Now the CIA program incorporates these practices in their curriculum.

I first started to get exposed after I graduated and started working for Thomas Keller at French Laundry in California. The menu was written every day and there is just one menu; it was about what was available. It was the first place where I took the food stuff out of the ground and brought it into a kitchen. It was way above me there but that’s where I was first introduced. And it seems so simple now but sometimes we lose that at a young age or we just never got it because of the new age. But us tending that farm was a big part of the job. We would get out there and get dirty.”

So, how did incorporating local and sustainable practices come to be a part of your business structure?

Seacoast Eat Local was a big part of it actually. When I moved back to the area from New York City, I was the chef at the Wentworth Hotel for a number of years and when it came time to open my own place and it came to the concept behind my business, I realized I didn’t have any relationships with any of the farmers. I reached out to a chef friend in the area, Evan Hennessey, Chef and owner of Stages at One Washington in Dover, and I asked him to introduce me to the community of farmers. The first thing he did was bring me to the Winter Farmer’s Market in Rollinsford, about six years ago, and that was my first introduction to all of it. I was completely blown away. I can’t believe that all of this stuff was available and growing here and I had no idea. So I quickly went around and said hello to everybody and got contacts and went home and started reaching out.

My friend then introduced me to Debra Kam, one of the founding board members of Seacoast Eat Local, and just a wealth of knowledge. We started talking and she set me up with a few things. It started small with just a couple connections and then over time, like anything, it just kind of evolved. Now we have a very extensive network of twenty to thirty farmers in the area. When people ask me ‘how can I do that’, I tell them to say hello, buy the product and invest in the people and their product and it keeps going from there.

At Franklin we work with about eight oyster farms working to rebuild oyster communities and we have our own farm in Great Bay which came from relationship building. It has been so interesting to learn about how the oysters are responsible for so much of the quality of our waters and coast. Its learning this whole other literature.”

What are some facts that consumers should know about oysters and why you chose to serve them?

Oysters are filters. They sit there and filter and actually clean the water. Water quality depends on oysters to clean the water and without them the entire ecosystem is at risk. For us, they are the ultimate food stuff of straight nutrients, vitamins, minerals and protein. It is incredible to learn the history of how far back oysters go. They were what was available right there at the water’s edge and ready to be consumed. The first thanksgiving was huge in terms of shellfish. And then pollution came around and demolished so much of our coasts. Luckily we have many organizations who are now trying to put it all back together.”

What are some specific ways your restaurants are sustainable, eco-friendly, and locally sourced?

It is a huge part of what we do and originally driven by the concept of what the restaurant was going to be. I know New England food; it is what I grew up with so why not cook with the food from where we are from? I have three categories that I use to run my kitchen. History, Cultural and Food Stuff. Nothing goes on the menu if it doesn’t fit in one of those categories. If we can’t answer ‘the why’ then we have to give it to someone else.

I think the word ‘local’ is a peculiar word. Is it a certain mileage, are there boundaries? Who’s to say that something from a great farm in New York isn’t a great product here? I like to refer to it as intelligent sourcing. The Native Americans didn’t care about state boundaries, they simply ate the food they could get. If it doesn’t grow natural to the area, I draw the line and we don’t use it.

The biggest part of sustainability is making sure the business is sustainable. If the business isn’t sustainable then there is no place to practice all of these good things. That can be a tough balance. If you are smart about it then it can be done.”

What are practices that you see chefs do that are not sustainably practical but can easily be changed?

There is a lot of unsustainability going on. When you haven’t been exposed it can be seen as intimidating and overwhelming, at least that’s what I would like to think and that it’s not that people are just lazy. But let’s focus on the good and recognize that there are a lot of people who want to do this but are overwhelmed. What could be done is if everyone could do at least one thing, like buy from one farm, just introduce yourself and build that relationship, and then it will become less of a task. And who knows what will grow a few years from now, but it has to start somewhere.

Something that can be done is truth in menus. Don’t just use buzz words like organic, local, or free-range just to get people to come to your restaurant. These are really important words. They mean something and they should be thought about more carefully before being thrown on a menu. It is easy to source these things but it does take time.”

For restaurants that pump out large amounts of food, is buying locally worth it? Do you think that local growers can provide enough?

I think they can and that there needs to be a balance, but it is possible. When Pigs Fly Pizzeria is an example. They set the term of how to do it on a bigger scale as a busy restaurant. You can still be engaged and do your part. When there is a conscious effort to do that, you’re adding to the conversation instead of pretending that is simply doesn’t apply to you.”

As someone who is engaged in this community’s food movement, what are some things that you would like to see more of?

More of the way that it is going. I would like to see more and more restaurants engage in buying intelligently from people in our communities and neighborhoods. These people are our neighbors and we should continue to grow. The more the diner becomes intelligent about it, the more we have to continue to practice these things. As a community who has so many options here, and we know that some communities don’t, its absurd to me that some practices aren’t being done. But as long as everyone is staying aware then this momentum is going to continue moving forward.”

What are some practices that you use in your kitchen that people can practice in their homes?

“In terms of composting, Mr. Fox does residential compost pickup that seems relatively easy to sign up for. In terms of sourcing and buying product, I put many of the farms names on the wall of my restaurant so people will realize ‘hey I can buy from there, too”. It can start at the farmer’s markets and most farmers are even okay with people stopping by the farms themselves.

A product that is very underutilized is goat. It is extremely sustainable and affordable and it is something you can use all of. It is the fraction of the price compared to beef or lamb.

I think it would be really fun for people at home to sign up for a CSA to learn along the way of what is available. You are going to get things that you know and want but you are also going to get things that you aren’t familiar with and that forces you to figure out what to do with it.”

Before parting ways to head to our chosen dinner destinations, myself to the Black Trumpet for their new Social Hour special and Matt to Louie’s for some delicious Italian cuisine, I extended my hand for a handshake which Matt took but then pulled me into a hug. I left feeling like there is still so much to be done but recognized how much is already being done thanks to people like Chef Matt Louis. I left feeling full. (See what I did there?!)

Thank you Matt Louis for taking the time for this interview. Thank you to all of our chefs, consumers and producers who have taken the time to play their part in sourcing intelligently, striving to be sustainable, and spreading the wealth of fresh, wholesome and natural foods.

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