Dan Mattern probably isn’t the first person to have an epiphany in the desert, but unlike a participant in Burning Man or a raver near Joshua Tree, Dan Mattern arrived at his decision to become a professional chef without the aid of mind altering substances. The native of Cook County, Illinois, was cooking for an outdoor education school in Arizona at the time, and he soon after moved to Los Angeles to attend culinary school. Working for Mark Peel and Nancy Silverton at Campanile eventually led to employment with Suzanne Goin at Lucques and A.O.C. He experienced a brief stretch in Portland, cooking for clarklewis, before returning to L.A. and working as executive chef at AMMO alongside pastry chef/girlfriend Roxana Jullapat. Earlier this month, they opened their very first restaurant, Cooks County, partnering with barbrix co-owners Claudio Blotta and Adria Tennor Blotta. We met Mattern at Cooks County on November 15, and he better explained his connection to the kitchen and culinary philosophy.
Going back to the beginning, do you have a first dish you ever remember cooking?
No, I think my first experience in restaurants was in a Middle Eastern joint. I remember the owner used to make these sort of magnificent mezze platters that had all kinds of pickled eggplants and turnips and fresh herbs and marinated beans and things. I was kind of like, “Wow, this is different.” From what I grew up eating, Midwestern food, this was very different flavors and freshness that I hadn’t really seen before.
What was that restaurant and how did you come about working there?
It was called Café Soriah and it was in Eugene, Oregon. When I was in college, my roommate was a chef and offered me a job to help pay the rent, as it were. I just kind of fell into it and loved the restaurant life.
This was at the University of Oregon?
University of Oregon, yes.
What were you majoring in there?
Political Science, like all great chefs.
What was your very first night like working in Café Soriah?
It was interesting. I never realized how hard it was to wash dishes. The first few months I worked there, I was a dishwasher, which in hindsight I’m really glad about, because you realize how important that job is, how demanding, and how low the pay is. It was a little stressful.
At what point did you get in the kitchen?
Just a couple months later I started working in the salad station and helping on those mezze platters I talked about. From there the rest is history.
From Café Soriah, what was the progression?
After Café Soriah, I left and moved to Arizona, where I was working as a food buyer and planner for an outdoor education school that did backpacking, canoeing, rock climbing, and part of my duties there, I would have to cook for these groups when they came through the base. I really saw the reaction they had to well prepared food. Part of it was that they had been camping for two weeks and hadn’t had any fresh vegetables or anything, but it really sort of clicked in my head, “Wow, this is really powerful,” and I really enjoyed being a part of that experience. From there I decided I’d really like to get more into cooking full-time.
That was the turning point when you knew you might do it for a living?
It was. From there I moved to Los Angeles and went to culinary school and as I was working there, one of my instructors had been a chef at Campanile restaurant. He put me in touch with Mark Peel and Nancy Silverton and I started working there. That’s where I really sort of found my focus.
What’s the criteria for a dish that goes on your menu at Cooks County?
The criteria definitely falls into seasonal, try to be as up to the minute seasonal as we can, and something changes a little bit every day. We like to keep it fresh.
What would you say some of the hallmarks of your cooking style are?
Grill, for sure. Fresh. Reliant on a lot of fresh produce and fresh herbs and definitely simplicity, not a lot of manipulation. Sort of try to take the best ingredients you can and prepare them with care, and don’t screw it up. That’s what we try to do.
Would you say that you’ve had any mentors over the years?
Definitely a lot of mentors. Both Mark Peel and Nancy Silverton, as well as Suzanne Goin, really helped to shape my career, kind of held my hand and taught me quite a bit.
Did anything surprise you about opening your own restaurant?
INTERVIEW CONTINUED ON THE NEXT PAGE
November 29, 2011 at 4:21 PM
Have enjoyed two meals already, including the pig leg on the first visit. Really like the ambiance – casual, yet not too industrial.
Not that far from Sherman Oaks over Laurel Canyon to Beverly, left turn 2 blocks, park, eat!!!