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Ask the Chefs: Matt Jennings, Tracy Obolsky, and Mike Poiarkoff Talk Maple Syrup and More

Hilary Deutsch

March 21, 2016

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Matt Jennings, Tracy Obolsky, and Mike Poiarkoff

Hailing from Canada and the Northeast, this syrup-savvy team is on a mission to prove that maple deserves a grander role in the kitchen than simply as a waffle topper. On March 23, this exceptional culinary crew joins us at the Beard House for an ambitious dinner as they tap the savory and sweet potential of this beloved regional and seasonal ingredient. In anticipation of the event, we spoke to Matt Jennings, Tracy Obolsky, and Mike Poiarkoff about how maple syrup defines New England, their favorite places to chow down in Boston and New York, and why eating pizza four times a week should be the norm.

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What is your inspiration behind the menu for this Beard House event?

Matt Jennings: Maple is one of my favorite things. It defines us in New England and plays a crucial role in our culture, food, and economy. I have decided to bring a deep expression of Vermont to the Beard House this time—I'll be braising a gorgeous Vermont-bred Wagyu beef short rib in maple. It'll be served with a stew of beef tallow, marrow, bone broth, and 60-day fermented kimchi—an homage to Townsman’s home in Boston’s Chinatown. 

Tracy Obolsky: My inspiration is to celebrate maple in different ways, but I'm also inspired by breakfast.

Mike Poiarkoff: I really wanted to put a spotlight on a condiment that often gets taken for granted in the U.S. I come from a small town outside of Pittsburgh that produces a good amount of maple syrup. I want to do justice to the product and the people that make it their livelihood.

What's a dish on your Beard House event menu that you're especially excited about or proud of, and why? 

MJ: The bresaola affumicata is something we've been working hard to perfect. It's a cured and smoked beef eye round. This beef comes from one of our favorite producers here in Massachusetts. They raise Red Devon—a completely different breed of cattle. The bresaola is smoky, sweet, and complex. ​

TO: I'm excited about the waffle baba because it's something that came to be almost by accident. I was trying to think of a way to use leftover waffle batter from brunch and I thought, "I wonder if you can bake it?" I tried it and it worked! Of course, soaking the waffle cake with maple syrup can only make it better and more reminiscent of waffles for breakfast without actually being waffles for breakfast. Turning it into a dessert was fun, bringing in other flavors and textural components.

What’s your guilty-pleasure food?

MJ: I have a few but I would say my guiltiest pleasure is a big messy burger from Shake Shack, with a black-and-white shake on the side! 

TO: My guilt-free pleasure foods are candy and pizza. I often find myself throwing back a few slices (sometimes with bacon) on the train platform after service—I think I eat pizza at least four days a week, actually. And you can likely find me on my couch after midnight, snacking on any sour candy—the sourer, the better.

MP: Wings. With lots of bleu cheese.

Tell us about the last great meal you ate.

MJ: Recently, I had lunch at Sofra, James Beard Award–winning chef Ana Sortun’s place on the Cambridge/Watertown line. It was so good. It always is. She's one of my favorite chefs (and people) on the planet. Her food is so good—worn and familiar, like your favorite pair of jeans—yet inspired and vibrant with huge splashes of acid and deep spices. I really love everything about her food. 

Who's been your biggest inspiration, and what dish would you cook to thank them? 

MJ: My biggest inspiration was one of the first chefs I staged with and ultimately worked under: chef Anton Brunbauer. Chef Anton showed me what it meant to be great, to be a leader. He would walk into the kitchen and the place would hush to a murmur. He would conduct banquet service like a conductor, standing in front of an orchestra. He was my maestro. I’d cook him something simple: smoked pork loin with chopped cabbage, black walnut blood cake, and maple jus (one of my signature dishes). A little tip of the hat to his Austrian roots. 

TO: One of my biggest inspirations has been my grandmother. She was a talented baker but she passed when I was very young so I don't have any memory of her. I do have her recipes (some handwritten ones, which is really cool) that I've used as starting points for many dishes. I would make her coffee cake, because it's my favorite recipe of hers. 

MP: My father. I’d make him sauerkraut, sausage, and peirogies.​

What are the best places to eat in your city these days? 

MJ: Wow. So many. Boston is blowing up. People don’t think of this city as a culinary destination—but it’s happening. Reminds me of Toronto. So many things happening, in so many neighborhoods. It’s inspiring.

  • Right here in Chinatown, we love going to Shojo, an Asian-inspired, hipster gastro pub (best way to describe it I guess). 
  • Shepard, Susan Regis’s new restaurant near Harvard Square is great. Very neighborhood-y. Wood-fired. Lovely.
  • Santarpio’s Pizza in East Boston is one of my favorite places of all time. In fact, I’m surprised they haven’t won an America’s Classics award yet! They do great pizzas and an incredible mixed grill right in front of you at the counter. 

TO: My favorite place to eat right now is Whits End in Rockaway Beach, Queens where I live. They have a small seasonal menu that changes daily and it's always awesome. I've had amazing pork belly, steak, pasta, and apps—all done in a pizza oven in a small open kitchen. They also offer pizza which, of course, is amazing. I recently had a special salt cod pizza that I'm STILL thinking about. I usually only have time to go out to eat with my husband once a week, at most, and I always make sure it's at Whits. It's something I look forward to.​

MP: Varrio 408 in Park Slope, Brooklyn, has the best tacos in town. And Wangs for Korean fried chicken.

What’s the best advice you’ve ever received, and who gave it to you?

MJ: Honestly, I think it was probably from my mom. She's always told me to be thankful, no matter what. To be gracious and appreciative. I try to instill this same trait to my staff, my family, my sons—everywhere. I think it's so important. Stay honest. Stay humble. And be grateful. ​

View all upcoming Beard House events and book your seat at jamesbeard.org/events.

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Hilary Deutsch is editorial assistant at the James Beard Foundation. Find her on Instagram.