As the executive sous chef of Masaharu Morimoto’s glitzy, eponymous restaurant Morimoto (88 10th Avenue, 212-989-8883), Matt Hudack builds on the knowledge he’s gained throughout his career, never missing an opportunity to learn new things. Here he discusses chef’s schedules, the mentors who’ve shaped his cooking, and why you won’t be seeing him challenging Morimoto to any karaoke battles.
Where are you from?
I grew up in Newton, Massachusetts, about a five-minute drive from downtown Boston.
Why did you decide to go into the industry?
I got into it because of one restaurant and one guy: Giordano’s on Martha’s Vineyard and the main man over there, Buster Giordano. I worked for him for five years, through college during the summers. If you want to learn something about work ethic, respect, and having a great time through all the long hours and 120 degree days in the kitchen…he was the reason why. He taught me how to love what you do, to own it, to give a shit about everyone and everything in the restaurant and to be successful at it. By my last year there, I was helping run the joint with his brother and his three sons. It was my last summer after I graduated from college with an economics degree, and I knew I didn’t want to work in an office. Buster pulled me aside and asked me why didn’t I go to culinary school, because I was built for this life. I thought about it for a couple days, looked into CIA (Culinary Institute of America), and three months later I was gone, up to Hyde Park NY.
What inspires you to cook?
I like to make people happy and I think food can be one of those things that can really turn someone’s mood around. Think about the times where you had such an awful day, and you worked so hard and nothing went right, but you stopped at your favorite burger place with a couple of friends and had a beer and crushed a great burger — it’s like, for that moment, everything else in the world kind of goes away. It’s like that for me when I get to create or be part of the experience. When someone comes up to me afterwards and says with the most sincere eyes and honest tone that they had the time of their life for that little moment in their day or week, that they felt that escape…I remember the first time I ate at Le Bernarndin. I walked out after the meal and said to my friend that I felt like I just got back from vacation. Also, one other thing is, what kind of office job do you know where you can run around, scream and yell, crack jokes, and swear all day long? It makes you feel young.
What is it like executing someone else’s vision?
It’s great. It can be tough at times, sure, but that’s how you learn. That’s how you build a foundation so that one day it’s you who is delivering the vision. People get mad and bogged down and tend to make excuses, but instead you need to remember everything you learned so that you don’t mess it up someday. There will be a day when you need to know how to set up the best station, or roast the best meat, or build the most beautiful plate, and you’ll be happy to have had that experience and education.
What’s the end goal?
That’s a hard one. I got started a little later than some — I was 26 when I first came to NYC, so I need a little more time to build myself up before I take that plunge. I think someday it would be amazing to have a few restaurants, and be able to look at the first one and say, “That’s where it started,” and look at what I built with determination, vision, and hard work.
What are your hours like?
To the “normal” person they are atrocious, bordering on abusive, but you learn very quickly that it is what it is in this business. You work until the job is done. Currently, I would say I am living a good life with respect to the rest of the culinary world: 10-12 hours five days mostly, on a bad day 14-15 hours and a bad week six days. There were periods in my career when I worked for two months straight without a day off from 5 a.m. until midnight, when I was buying new socks on the way to work because I didn’t have time to do laundry. Looking at it now having done those things, you have to maintain balance in your life, especially if you have a girlfriend. God bless mine. She has stuck with me through all the hours, the exhaustion, the bad moods, and everything in between. Hard work is admirable and necessary at times, but it can also become counterproductive, when your body begins to break down and your mind is not as sharp; you can actually work backwards. I value my days off very much so now.
Do you have any valuable lessons to share?
Cook! Cook as much as you can as often as you can, as long as you can. A lot of people, especially in NYC, are driven and want to move up as fast as possible and be a sous or chef de cuisine. Learn as much as you can just about cooking first. Work in a few places, learn technique and make contacts. I myself rushed it a little and looking back, I wish I had stayed as a cook for another two years, because once you make that jump there is no going back and then you are managing people, writing schedules, managing food and labor. You have real financial responsibilities to answer to owners for. The next step is awesome and super challenging, but you won’t get far unless the food tastes good. One more thing that I will never forget is something current chef de cuisine Erik Battes said at his first pre-shift meeting: “What is the meaning of integrity? It’s what you do when no one is looking.” I really like that and I am going to steal that line for my first pre-shift someday.
Who have been your mentors?
I’m not sure I can say I have just one. I have taken something from everyone I have worked with over the years. For example, Buster taught me how to work fast and give a shit about everything. Chef Morimoto taught me to think outside the box creatively and to master knife skills. Jamison Blankenship taught me how to work clean and how to be an amazing manager and leader. Yoshinori Ishii and Ariki Omae taught me to slow down and be calm when things get wild in the kitchen. Executive sushi chef Robbie Cook taught me to respect the products I use and dedicate my all to my craft, and Erik is still teaching me his creative process and to just do it, put it on the plate or you will never know.
What is the hardest thing about working in a kitchen?
Dealing with 40 different personalities every day and everyone needs something from you. The cooking is the fun and easy part. I wake up everyday and think to myself, who is going to call out sick? What is going to be broken, and is the DOH going to show up today?
In addition to his creative cooking, chef Morimoto is known for a love of singing. Have you ever made music with the man?
No, I don’t think I would do him any justice, but he does a mean “What a Wonderful World” by Louie Armstrong. I was in Hawaii with him for the one in the dining room of his Waikiki restaurant [which lead to an appearance on CBS series Hawaii Five-0].
Have you contributed any dishes to the menu?
As of yet, nothing complete. But it’s a process, especially with Chef Morimoto, Erik, and Stephen. Their expectations are very high, and for the time being, I am proud to be a part of the support and creative process with Erik on things like the new smoked butter and black truffle scallop with white seaweed. It’s delicious.
Do you and the rest of the staff go anywhere post-shift?
I wouldn’t say those days are completely gone for me, but I work earlier hours now, so the times of 4 a.m. nights at Corner Bistro with 15 people or a drunken night at McKenna’s Pub are kind of drifting away. I still love a huge night out in K-town for Korean BBQ, ddukboki, and spicy instestine stew with multiple bottles of soju, some beer, and my favorite line cooks.