Fleeing the summit of fine dining, Matt Ridgway swept floors and made prosciutto. Now he’s back, boldly elevating the basics.
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In 2009, chef Matthew Ridgway left New York City jobless and burned out. In a 15-year career that had taken him from his native Bucks County, Pennsylvania, to Philadelphia, Atlanta, Taiwan and Paris, he had scaled the heights of fine dining under two great mentors, the French chefs Jean-Marie Lacroix and Joël Antunes. Schooled in French technique, steeled in the discipline of 16-hour days, he had dedicated himself to perfection and had reached a point where “you’d have 20 to 30 people in the kitchen, cooking for 10 or 15 people,” he told me in a recent phone interview. “Each meal lasted four hours, and people were paying $500 to $600.”
Indulgence on that scale began to seem obscene after the financial crisis of 2008. The investors who poured $14 million into renovating the venerable Oak Room of the Plaza Hotel in New York, bringing in Antunes and Ridgway to run it, let them go following negative reviews and a drop-off in business. Antunes returned to London, site of his early triumphs. Ridgway, just 33, returned to his hometown, moving in with his parents.
“I didn’t want to see food, cook food, have anything to do with food,” he told me.
Obviously, he has changed his mind about that—for which we can all be grateful. But the change didn’t happen overnight, and the alloy that is the Pass—from its butcher-block tables and creaking floorboards to its takeout-only charcuterie counter and $38.50, three-course menu, which changes every week—was forged in the furnace of his experiences.
You get the feel of this Hunterdon County BYO when you sit down in one of its 38 slate-blue wooden chairs, unfold a paper napkin and peruse the small, market-driven menu, usually limited to five appetizers, three entrées and four desserts, one of them often a local cheese.
Dish descriptions are minimal—usually just the names of key ingredients or the traditional preparation employed. On our first visit, each of our three appetizers was outstanding. A dish simply called “portuguese-style tuna” (the whole menu is lower-case) turned out to be a layered salad of flaky tuna confit, sliced hard-boiled egg, sliced tomato and fingerling potatoes cooked in duck fat, dressed in an appealingly pungent lemon, garlic and tuna-oil dressing. A crusty, warm brioche filled with steamed razor clams marinated in garlic and lemon was called “garlic brioche alle vongole.” In “onion daube pickled beech mushrooms,” the daube—a traditional French braised meat stew—was made with short rib, sweetbreads and chopped onion and stuffed into a hollowed-out whole roasted onion, topped with pickled beech mushrooms. On our next visit, excellent “chanterelle chawanmushi,” a traditional Japanese egg custard made, in this case, with chanterelles, was topped with a mound of enoki mushrooms and a sesame-soy dressing.
In these and other dishes, you sense Ridgway and Paul Mitchell, his sous chef and co-owner, recoiling from the cult of the celebrity chef. “I’m a cook,” Ridgway said. “When people call me chef, I say, ‘Call me Matt.’ I’m okay with that. It’s great that the industry is in the forefront today, but people just take themselves too seriously. In the end, it’s just food. We’re not curing cancer.”
To Ridgway, the title chef has become devalued. “Everyone in the industry is a chef today,” he said. “There are only two chefs in my life [on whom] I bestow the honor of the word chef—Jean-Marie and Joël.”
Jean-Marie Lacroix, then executive chef of the Four Seasons Hotel in Philadelphia, hired the 19-year-old Ridgway in 1995 after he graduated summa cum laude in culinary arts from Johnson & Wales. Ridgway worked his way up from the employee cafeteria to saucier at the hotel’s top-rated Fountain Room. After working together as consultants for restaurants in Paris and Aix en Provence, Ridgway and the master returned to Philadelphia. In 2001, the former acolyte became chef de cuisine of Restaurant Lacroix at the Rittenhouse Hotel.
With Lacroix about to retire in 2004, Ridgway took a job in Atlanta, where he soon went to work for Joël Antunes, who would win the James Beard Award for Best Chef Southeast the following year. So eager was Ridgway to work with Antunes that he agreed to start over as a prep chef. He quickly ascended. Together, they went to Taiwan to redo the menu of a restaurant there and arrived in New York in 2008 for what proved to be the ill-fated reopening of the Oak Room.
Back in Bucks County, Ridgway took a job driving a truck and sweeping floors for a purveyor of sustainable seafood. During his fast-lane years, Ridgway had learned the art of making charcuterie. The owner proposed piggybacking Ridgway’s charcuterie on the seafood the owner sold to high-end restaurants. By the end of 2009, Ridgway had launched his own company, PorcSalt, selling to area restaurants and farmers’ markets.
“It was therapy,” he told me. He was making an artisanal product he was proud of and did not have to be responsible for a staff of 100, as he was at the Oak Room.
He was back in his own element. Growing up on a 2-acre property where his mother had an organic garden and his father raised bees, Ridgway learned early to can and preserve. His boyhood chores included chopping wood, weeding the garden and trying to keep the deer from eating the vegetables. Later, traveling in rural France with Lacroix, Ridgway came to appreciate the little cafés—called routiers, for the truck drivers that frequent them—that serve a limited menu of local fare.
Ridgway looked for a restaurant space on both sides of the Delaware River, and last November fell in love with an 1860 clapboard house in Columbus that was once a country store and more recently a popular brunch site but was vacant and in disrepair. He turned the space into his own kind of routier and a home for PorcSalt. From a 1936 glass-and-porcelain cooler at the front of the restaurant, the charcuterie he and Mitchell make is sold for takeout only. (He told me he will eventually put a charcuterie plate on the menu, but didn’t at first because, “I didn’t want to be thought of as an all-pork restaurant.”)
Far from the classic brigade Ridgway was trained in, he and Mitchell do all the prep and cooking at the Pass themselves. The restaurant is named for the stainless-steel counter where the servers pick up the dishes as the cooks finish them. Every restaurant has one. It’s totally utilitarian, the pass, but also the only place where the back of the house and the front of the house interact once service begins.
“I want people to have fun,” Ridgway said of his pick-three, one-price menu. The weekly reboot of ingredients, he added, “pushes us to stay fresh.” Delivering this high-wire act with top-quality ingredients at an attractive price can be a zero-sum game. With a superb fish like the sockeye salmon costing him $15 a pound, “sometimes the portions are smaller,” Ridgway admitted. “We don’t want to pass on the price to our customers.”
That salmon, poached in white wine and saffron and served with shelling beans, was marvelous even apart from its tour-de-force topping—its skin, fried to an irresistible crisp, placed on top like a long cracker. Equally delicious were hake tempura and porgy en papillote, the latter a small, delicate fillet cooked in parchment with ginger, leeks and carrots, enhanced by a tableside pour of an anchovy, butter and lime sauce. Rich, eggy house-made agnolotti filled with potato and mascarpone were memorably topped with clams cooked in white wine and butter. Skirt steak marinated in soy and oyster sauce came to the table perfectly charred and topped with a sprightly mint chimichurri.
Not everything works. Peking-style squab—brined, quick fried and roasted—came out rubbery. A dish listed simply as “lobster consomme” turned out to be a cold gelée, which I found off-putting, but its greatest sin was a near absence of lobster flavor. House-made fusilli with chopped kale had too little kale and too little sauce, a simple reduction of garlic, lemon, chicken stock and butter.
Ridgway’s passion for French tradition is most evident in his desserts. The cookie-like, almond-flour crust of a Burgundian sugar tarte held up beneath a luxurious cream filling. What the minimalist menu called “fried pastry cream blueberry jam” turned out to be the best jelly donut you’ll ever taste. The filling, encased in pastry dough, is deep-fried, sprinkled with powdered sugar, topped with house-made blueberry preserves and served hot. A decadent éclair filled with chocolate-coffee pastry cream was topped with a wonderful Nutella-enhanced chocolate ganache.
Don’t overlook the chance to end with cheese. There will be just one, usually from a local producer like Bobolink, but a server presents it on a cart, cuts a generous wedge and a crusty slice of excellent bread, and sets them down with one of Ridgway’s transformative chutneys or honey from his father’s hives. That may not be fine dining, but it’s pretty darn fine.