Chef Chat

How Chef Matt Marcus Turned His Passion for Music Into Your Favorite Food Truck Dish

Matt Marcus
Photo by Mark C. Austin, courtesy of Hometown Social
Matt Marcus

The French food writer Lucien Tendret once wrote, “To give life to beauty, the painter uses a whole range of colors, musicians of sounds, the cook of tastes.” Tendret recognized the art of a great meal was like the art of a great song, each created from a place of love by artists who understand and respect their ingredients. A lot of this, a pinch of that, every note building upon the other until its beauty is sent into the world (or, at least, table number five).

It’s no wonder many restaurant professionals are also musicians. In Houston alone, there are probably too many to count, but Houston Press did go in search of some to learn how their culinary and music lives intersect, why both pursuits gratify them and how their music experiences ultimately make your dining experience a better one. We’re featuring some of the city’s most acclaimed, accomplished food names over the next few days. Each shared what’s new at their establishments and reminded folks that Houston eateries are open and eager for business. And, they all spoke at length about the music they play and love. The series kicks off with Houston’s number one Phish fan, Matt Marcus.

“Music and food go hand in hand. You’re not gonna go to a restaurant where it’s dead silent, there’s always gonna be music playing,” noted Matt Marcus, one of the founders of 8th Wonder Brewery and founder and executive chef of the award-winning Eatsie Boys food truck. “Music is so important to me and so is food. They’re two really fun parts of life and I’m very lucky to be working and raised in both avenues.”

Marcus established himself as a Houston food icon by helping to jump start the city’s food truck scene. He honed his kitchen skills via the Culinary Institute of America, where he earned a Bachelor of Science in Hospitality Management, as well as associate degrees in both Culinary Arts and Baking and Pastry Arts. Within five years of launching one of Houston’s oldest chef-driven food trucks in 2010, he was being lauded in food circles and by Houston Business Journal, which included him in its 40 Under 40 class of 2014.

Those accolades were earned from Marcus’s eclectic menus, which frequently fuse Houston’s diverse tastes into single, sophisticated food truck offerings. Head to Eatsie Boys’ truck, parked at 8th Wonder and serving customers from noon to 8 p.m. daily, and marvel at the to-die-for Elote Fries, for instance — a bed of seasoned, crisp waffle fries topped with buttered corn, hot sauce, cotija cheese, mayo, green onion, a hint of lime and a Hot Cheetos crumble. The truck’s Matzah Ball Pho pulled from Marcus' Jewish heritage and one of the city's go-to lunch dishes. The new spin on the Vietnamese soup became Eatsie Boys' breakthrough menu item. Marcus considers it his “greatest hit.”

“I remember writing (the recipe) and it was one of my masterpieces and I’ll always carry that with me, just like Fleetwood Mac is always gonna play ‘Dreams,’” he said.

click to enlarge Eatsie Boys' Elote Fries: a perfect orchestration of tastes - PHOTO BY JESSE SENDEJAS JR.
Eatsie Boys' Elote Fries: a perfect orchestration of tastes
Photo by Jesse Sendejas Jr.

A native Houstonian, Marcus said he had an early interest in food, sparked by his grandmother. But his food interests then couldn’t compete with music. He’s played saxophone since grade school. He attended Parker Elementary, a music magnet school in southwest Houston, and was asked to choose an instrument on the first day of first grade, he recalled. The band director’s desk was covered with mouthpieces.

“I reached out for a saxophone mouthpiece and I blew into it and he’s like, ‘Okay, you’re playing the saxophone!’”

A lifelong obsession with music began that simply. He started playing tenor sax and learned how to read music. Later, he attended military school and played in the school’s marching band.

“A lot of John Philip Sousa,” he laughed. “That’s where I kind of expanded my musical prowess and I started playing with guitar and drums. I actually moved from the saxophone to the bass drum and I played the bass drum for this marching band for almost three years of my high school career. It was very cool for me. I was the heartbeat of every step that these military children were taking. I always thought that was so cool.”

Leading the band could easily be seen as formative for someone who would one day oversee thriving food operations.

“I’ve always enjoyed structure in my life. I’ve always been most successful when there’s structure and just like a band has a hierarchy of leaders, a kitchen has a hierarchy of leaders,” he said. “I feel like the chef is the composer and he’s leading the group and telling them what to do and how to play and at what tempo. All of the different ‘musicians’ are the chefs and the cooks – although it’s written in a recipe, everybody plays the note differently.”

Marcus said he’s played in groups but as his career came into focus he lost his connection with organized music.

“I don’t really play in bands anymore. If I have some extra time and I see the saxophone there and it’s calling my name, I pick it up and I play a couple of notes. Same thing with the guitars and with the drums.”

What’s keeping him from those instruments lately is consulting work. His latest projects include assisting with the menu for the new Treebeard’s location in Memorial and helping the legacy restaurant New York Deli and Bagel Shop expand into a new location with a state-of-the-art kosher bakery.

Marcus said he listens to music while working. He’s a fan of all kinds, from Fela Kuti’s Afrobeat to Kamasi Washington’s boundary-pushing jazz to techno and old-school country. He may be Houston’s biggest Phish fan. He’s seen the band live more than 120 times and said, “Trust me, I’ve been in plenty of kitchens where it’s like, ‘Hey, we gotta get there before Matt’s there because he’s gonna put on fucking Phish again and we’re gonna listen to a 20-minute song.’”

Those songs clear his mind and direct his energy for the task at hand and Marcus said writing a new recipe is very similar to writing a song.

“I think we’re lucky with food that a lot of people eat with their eyes. Something can be completely gross but look beautiful and somebody’s still gonna chomp it down in their mouth,” he said, “but with music, first of all nobody’s going to be able to look at a piece of music and say, ‘This is going to sound beautiful!’ Very few people will. When that first note hits, you’ve probably got five or six bars before somebody changes the station or tunes you out.

“I’ve never been good enough at music to write. I mean, don’t get me wrong, I’ve written some silly-ass songs and stuff, but whenever I’ve sat down to write a menu or ideas for somebody I’ve always thought of myself as writing a score of music or a hit song. A chef has their greatest hits, we have our greatest hits, a restaurant has its greatest hits.”