The Tomato Freak



chet_gerl_matts_in_the_marketPike Place Market has long been considered a national landmark, and a city treasure. It’s even inspired a public market movement across the country. But, unlike San Francisco’s Ferry Building, regularly drawing Seattleites to shop or eat can be challenging, because it’s also one of our most popular tourist attractions.

At Matt’s in the Market, chef Chester Gerl (he goes by “Chet”) and owner/former Pike Place Fish Market thrower Dan Bugge have breathed new life into the venerable Pike Place restaurant, yet kept it a place where more locals than tourists go to hang out, have a drink, and enjoy what Chet calls “market-inspired Northwest cuisine.”

Former owner Matt Janke opened his charming, cozy bistro in 1996, capitalizing on the fledgling concept of local ingredient sourcing. The space was too small for a proper kitchen, so opening chef Eric Canela used two countertop butane burners and an oven. That didn’t slow business in the least, and getting a table or bar seat at Matt’s was—and still is—no small feat.

In 2006, Matt formed a partnership with friend, neighboring vendor, and loyal customer Dan Bugge. When Chef Canela departed, Matt decided that the time was right to sell to Dan. Dan brought in Chet—a friend of Matt’s and the former chef at Place Pigalle—to man the kitchen. Within a year, Matt’s had undergone a complete remodel that more than doubled its size, and included a real—albeit tiny—kitchen. Updated, it’s an adorable, bustling modern bistro with checkerboard floor tiles, exposed beams, pale mustard and charcoal gray walls, and arched windows overlooking the bay.

Today, Matt’s is one of a number of Pike Place Market restaurants sourcing from nearby vendors, but thanks to the efforts of its chef, it perhaps best represents what a true market restaurant should be. Chet grew up in Spokane and Southern California. He began cooking at the age of nine. “My mother hated it when I ate all her cookie dough, so I started making it myself,” he laughs. His first restaurant job was bussing tables at 16; by the time he became a cook at 19, he knew he’d found his calling. He graduated from Portland’s Western Culinary Institute in 1998.

His mentor at the time was caterer, master gardener and mycologist Dan Brophy, who is now a chef instructor at Oregon Culinary Institute. “He really opened my eyes to how small spaces can be used to produce food in urban settings,” Chet says.

Also instrumental in his career was Tamara Murphy (he was Brasa’s sous chef for a brief time). “Tamara’s the one who inspired my love of using the whole animal,” he explains. “I learned to butcher whole pigs from her, and she connected me with a lot of local farmers.”

Bill Frank, owner of Place Pigalle, had a major impact on the young chef, as well. “He turned me into a quality chef,” says Chet. “He made me aware of my surroundings, and what Pike Place has to offer a chef and a restaurant. After working with him, I really felt that I was in touch with the market. I appreciate that I can always look forward to the appearance of seasonal ingredients here: asparagus, morels, and stinging nettles in spring; stone fruit in summer, and winter squash, kohlrabi, potatoes, and braising greens.”

Chet took the artisan techniques and gardening skills he’d learned, and, combined with his expanded work space, used them to implement changes in Matt’s kitchen. In the tradition of Paris’s famed Les Halles, he is sourcing from within the market as much as possible, breaking down whole fish and pigs, and making much of his product in-house, including charcuterie (chorizo, coppa, and head cheese).

When not playing with pig parts, Chet and his cooks are making their own pasta, condiments, pickled vegetables, preserves, and ice cream. Most of the fruits, vegetables, and foraged foods on the menu come from Frank’s Quality Produce, and farmers who sell at Pike Place’s thrice-weekly outdoor farmer’s markets. Favorites include Olsen Farms, Foraged and Found, Willie Green’s Farm, Nash’s, and Alvarez Farms.

Seventy percent of the restaurant’s meat (hormone and antibiotic-free) comes from Don & Joe’s; the rest of the beef and pork are sourced from Painted Hills, Thundering Hooves, and Carlton Farms. Seafood, because of Dan’s background and connections, mostly comes from Pike Place Fish and Pure Food Fish Market.

Says Chet, “Dan’s and my goal is to source seafood from sustainably-managed fisheries. The salmon is line-caught, and we only use wild fish, because we feel it’s the right thing to do to ensure healthy fish populations.”

The kitchen is still too small to accommodate bread production, so Chet uses Le Panier and Columbia City Bakery. Cheese comes from DeLaurenti and Quality Cheese, as well as from small, Washington cheesemakers like Kurtwood Farms, Quillisascut Cheese Company, and Mt. Townsend Creamery.

What isn’t sourced practically outside his kitchen door comes from Chet’s home garden, including tomatillos and 26 types of heirloom tomatoes (“I’m a freak about tomatoes,” he confesses). He buys starts from Swanson’s Nursery in Ballard, and grows them in containers in his North Seattle yard.      The cold, rainy spring unfortunately had an impact on this year’s crop; they were late to flower and fruit, but perked up in late June (he’s had bumper cherry tomato crops as early as June 19th, with more cooperative weather).

Chet is currently most excited about the restaurant’s plans to create a rooftop garden and market P-Patch. “Due to renovations in the market, and because it needs approval by the historical commission, it’s still up in the air,” he explains. As this issue went to press, things were moving forward, and a proposal was being prepared to present to the city, with the backing of the market. Chet’s love of gardening and produce play heavily on his cuisine, which is also inspired by his travels to Mexico, Southeast Asia, and Spain. While he doesn’t consider his style to be fusion, he likes to feature items like posole, Vietnamese bahn mi, or bacalao-stuffed piquillo peppers with Romesco sauce.

With tomatoes in abundance, this is the chef’s favorite time of year, but the market also yields “some of the best produce in the Northwest—berries, greens, beans, cucumbers, squash. They’re all grown here, and are at their peak now.”

Does he ever find the crowds at Pike Place daunting? He gives a happy sigh. “It’s not just for tourists. I love the smells when I walk from one end of the market to the other: pierogies, bread from Le Panier, Beecher’s cheese, and always, fresh seafood.”

Laurel Miller is a Seattle food and travel writer and culinary educator. She had to give up her garden for her nomadic lifestyle, and she hopes Chet will take pity and give her his windfall heirloom tomatoes.

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