He had quietly begun to tackle the case of favas when the Houston Press entered into the low-ceiling kitchen at One/Fifth.
"Want some help?"
"Sure. Want a Topo or something?"
Chef Matt Staph has a calm thoughtfulness about him; a demeanor that is, interestingly, very attracted to the fire. Like the way flicking flames have the ability to transfix; Staph emits the ability to operate quick but cool in stressful situations. Exceptional qualities for a kitchen leader to possess.
The Plano native cut his teeth at The Commissary in Dallas under John Tesar, no doubt the notorious chef has inspired more than a few to a pirates life for me. After The Commissary closed, Staph waited tables at Graham Dodd's Central 214, soon after requesting a spot in the kitchen. He spent five years working around Dodd's restaurants, Hibiscus and Wayward Sons, and in 2016 his wife's work brought them down to Houston.
Because of aligning ideals, Staph sought out Underbelly. Instead, he filled a space helping Shepherd and team open the revolving restaurant concept; One Fifth: Houston. The next year, when the restaurant flipped from Steak to Romance Languages, Staph had been promoted to chef de cuisine. With the countdown now almost in double digits, he helps prepare for One/Fifth Mediterranean.
The Houston Press and chef Matt Staph settled into a corner booth in the dining room with a case of favas, some Topo Chicos, and a few bowls…
HP: I hate to ask, but are you a Cowboys fan?
HP: Absolutely, okay.
HP: Please tell us a juicy John Tesar story…
MS: (Laughs) I don't know if I can tell any of those, they're maybe too juicy. I [will] say that I had a lot of fun working for him and there were occasional late nights where we were still at the restaurant at 5 a.m. He [would] drink sparkling rosé and tell crazy stories.
HP: So that's kind of where it began for you, The Commissary?
MS: Yeah. He made it seem like… I don't know, I was always super interested in cooking, but he made it seem like he was this rock star. He was crazy and did all this cool shit. It was just something where I was like, man, I want to do that. I could do that.
HP: When you waited tables and looked in on the kitchen, what job looked like the most fun?
MS: Probably the guy that was getting hammered the hardest. I don't know it looked like fun.
HP: You like being in a washing machine a little bit?
MS: Yeah, a little bit. It's a lot better than standing around looking for stuff to do. That chaos. It's fun because it gives you that opportunity to rise up and control it.
HP: What station do you like working the most?
MS: Umm, I would say sauteé when I was at Hibiscus in Dallas. We had a giant wood-burning grill, which was a lot of fun to work with. Learning how to manage your fire and deal with 400 covers for restaurant weeks.
HP: You have a wood-fired oven here…
MS: Yeah, the hearth is right over there.
HP: What kind of wood do you use?
MS: Post oak.
HP: You've climbed the ranks quickly at One Fifth, what can you attribute to your success?
MS: I would say the biggest thing, and the biggest thing I always look for, is caring. And always being willing to do whatever it takes.
HP: Do you make the gnocchi here?
HP: What's your trick?
MS: Instead of doing potato, I do the pate au choux. The Parisian gnocchi. So just basically making pate a choux and then piping it out. I did the butcher twine method for a little while but the cuts weren't very clean, so we use the scissors [now]. I like to use the little school scissors. Safety scissors is what I call them.
HP: Oh, the Fiskars?
MS: Yeah for the little kids.
HP: Those are sharp enough?
MS: Yeah. You dip them into hot water every few snips and it cuts right through. I just like them because they're small and the ends are blunted. [I had these hot pink ones,] but when my knives got stolen they were in the bag.
HP: I'm sorry. I feel like at one point in every cook's life their knives get stolen...
MS: Yeah, and I've had really good luck with that, but it just happened last January.
HP: So, your building back your collection?
MS: Yeah, I was lucky enough to get an insurance check for them.
HP: What are some things Chris Shepherd has taught you?
MS: He has really taught me how to motivate the guys and create that family bond. You see it when he walks in the kitchen. All the guys light up and start working ten times harder, and it's not like they didn't work hard before that, but everyone wants to make him proud. He does so much for everybody. It's really cool. He is definitely one of the nicest guys I've ever worked for, hands down.
HP: You are about to turn the corner on year three at One Fifth, are the ideas starting to come to you for the year of Mediterranean?
MS: Oh yeah, I think we were like halfway through (One Fifth Romance Languages) when I was already writing down notes in the little book I bought for the next concept. We've done a couple outings getting Mediterranean and Persian grub, which is always fun.
MS: I will say my favorite place has been Al Aseel, and it's over by where I live on the west side.
HP: Are there any dishes you can tell us about?
MS: Nothing is set in stone, but I can say our bread service is going to be unique. Some hearth roasted pita, and I think we're going to do some cool tableside stuff.
HP: Are you typically expediting at the pass on a crazy night or are you running around?
MS: A little bit of both. I like to run out to the raw bar if I see them get in a big order. Do my best to help them shuck some oysters and then get back. One of my favorite things is on Sunday, if somebody wants the night off or whatever, I'll go work pasta station and expo from there. Keeping your hands in the fire is one of the most important things.
HP: (Cleaning favas) This is really peaceful.
MS: Yeah, Kenny is going to be excited that we helped him.
HP: What's your favorite random spring vegetable?
MS: I really like green garbanzos, I love those. I really like using stinging nettles too.
HP: Those are great.
MS: But if you get them on you it's not fun.
HP: What will you do with the favas?
MS: This new pasta we're going to do today is very springy and fun.
HP: What's going with it?
MS: It's going to be a chicken mezzaluna with green garlic nage and these favas. And maybe morels?
HP: Green garlic nage sounds really good, what's in the stuffing?
MS: Confit chicken, shallots, ricotta and a lot of herbs. A lot of basil. Real light and not too heavy and I got some summer truffles in too...
HP: Do you shave it out front?
MS: Sometimes, I usually do them in the back. (Chuckles) If Chris goes out and shaves them tableside you never know how much truffle is going to come back, which is always fun. People love that. And then it's crazy, you'll see the tickets start coming in and it's like add truffle…add truffle…add truffle on everything. It's crazy, he'll get back there and start shucking oysters, people will see them, and then we'll get like six dozen oysters coming in.
HP: Your wife is a scientist?
MS: She is a neuroscientist.
HP: That's amazing.
MS: I can't really go to in depth because it confuses me still, but she is basically a research scientist.
HP: Are her hours manageable?
MS: We both work a lot, hers are definitely a little more manageable than mine because she sets her schedule a week or two at a time. But, there will be times when I get home at 11:30 p.m. and she's like, "hey, we have to go to lab right now, I need your help." So, I go with her.
HP: Oh cool, you go with her?
MS: Yeah, yeah. I'll pipette stuff for her to make it go faster, she runs experiments overnight sometimes.
HP: What's pipette mean?
MS: It's like those little things you always see in the movies (makes a syringe dropping something into a petri dish type motion.)
HP: How did you meet?
MS: She used to work for my dad, actually.
HP: Doing what?
MS: She was his vet tech, and I was the one coming up there getting stitched up all the time or getting x-rays.
HP: What kind of music are you into?
MS: I mean everything, now that I live in Houston I feel like I listen to more Houston rap than I ever had before…and that was a lot back in Dallas. I have the weirdest mix of music on my phone. Anything from like Bun B or Swishahouse to Katy Perry. And when we get in the shits I like to put Kenny Loggin's Danger Zone on. On repeat.
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MS: Yeah. I can't tell if the guys hate it or just really love it.