Ignacio Mattos on Honest Food and Why the Lights are So Dark at Estela
"I just want people to feel comfortable with the food—that it's fair, that it's reasonable, and that it makes perfect sense."
For the first time since I started penning this column, I went to an interview without a list of questions or projected structure for it. Because, quite frankly, so much has been written in the short span since Chef Ignacio Mattos' Estela opened, my brain was a tad fogged up by words practically drooled out all over the web. Yes, the food media usually lunges into new hotspots; I just don't normally talk to the chef until things have cooled a bit.
And it seems, from the discussion that evolved, that Mattos hadn't had much time to digest it all either. And that's fair—a chef who's had his dramatic departure from Isa brought back to life again and has thousands of eyes on him, digging in three-deep at the bar while waiting on a table, might be smart just to focus on his kitchen. So that's where we started—with what's on the plate, and why he wants it there.
What's the focus for this menu? That it tastes good.
What does that mean for you? It needs to eat well and make sense on the palate, and then it needs to look humble and simple and unpretentious. I just want them to look like nothing.
That's sort of funny considering how many people have already written of your food with poetic reverence. There is complexity but, when you see it, it's a pile of meat. Or a pile of endives. And I've been using ingredients that are... I would say "bastardized" more than forgotten. Like button mushrooms—people are "meh" about them. Or endives—they're not "trendy" ingredients. It has to taste good and have a homey element, and it has to maybe fulfill the idea that you can make it at home. It takes certain commitment to deal with a dish in a certain way, but it looks like, "Eh, sure, I can do this." We're on the right path, but it's still not what I expect it to be.
What's the ultimate goal? That it's good food with an identity. That it tastes a certain way and that the menu and the food look a very particular way. I don't want it to be trendy; I just want it to be its own thing. But, again, that's my perspective. I just want people to feel comfortable with the food—that it's fair, that it's reasonable, and that it makes perfect sense. Also, I want things to be more perennial rather than seasonal. I want the bones of the menu to be something that you can have throughout all four seasons. And that's evolving.
You had a good amount of time between leaving Isa and opening Estela. Was a change in direction of the cuisine a specific reaction your menu there? That period was great for the time that it was, but now it's about trying to shape a completely different thing. You learn from mistakes, and try to improve them. I had a lot of free time and I was trying to get isolated in terms of trends and whatever was happening around them to do food that is simple, and feels right, and is honest. That was the main objective—it wasn't about the food, it wasn't about the wine, or me or Thomas [Carter, partner], it was about building a place that felt right for us. It's hard because people like to define food, and if the food is good and people think that the food is blah-blah-blah-blah-blah, great, but that wasn't really the goal. It was very humbling; we weren't really expecting all the press reaction, so I think people get that what we're trying to do something honest. In this industry there's craziness and fun but, I don't know... it's hard to talk about this place!
What were some limitations you had to work with? The kitchen is not really much—we tried to keep some of the equipment that was there, but there are no gimmicks, and not a lot of tools for this and that. I really liked that, because in terms of ingredients, I don't want anything really strange or weird.
Why? It's just too much information and you start getting lost in it. Like, I don't really want to see pictures of food—you lose focus of what you're doing. I know the things I don't want to fall into.
We're a saturated food community socially in New York. Does that saturation outside the kitchen have anything to do with it? Yeah, I think it's a combination. We are saturated with everything. We even make it very dark so you can't take pictures in here. And when people still take pictures and post them I'm like, "Why did you put this picture up, it looks terrible!" I wanted to eliminate all those gimmicks.
How do you foster an environment that your chefs will want to be a part of for a long while? We're trying to create a structure that is nice and sustainable, so we teach them structure and how to work smartly in the kitchen. Most of the time in the kitchen it's like running without a head—you put too much pressure on yourself and forget about thinking. There is a discipline for our way of working, but I want to have fun. And it's very gratifying to have a team that we can be proud of.
Simplifying and being present seem to be important to you. Is that a personal struggle, too? You try to simplify in life, yes, totally. But it's a constant struggle. We were talking about the constant coaching, like, if we say the word "problem," we are making a problem. If we say "issue", it's an issue. We are all complicated, and we all make things more complicated than they actually are and don't notice, you know?
The way you're thinking through things and that recognition is pretty deep and sorta spiritual for such an early stage of a restaurant. I've been fucking up so much! You try to learn, and teach the people around you not to make the same mistakes that you did. Everybody has their own path in life, there's not much you can do, so here we just try to keep it tight and provide a challenging environment that is realistic. That evolves. And it's difficult but... I forgot what we were talking about. Oh, yeah, the spiritual thing. I had a very interesting thing this past weekend, so I'm a little out of it...
Can you share? No, I can't! But it was pretty spiritually intense.