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Interview with JBF Award Nominee Matt Rudofker of NYC’s Momofuku Ssäm Bar

Elena North-Kelly

April 26, 2016

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After rising through the ranks at Vetri, Daniel, and London’s Fat Duck, Matt Rudofker caught the eye of industry titan David Chang, who has given him executive chef duties at not one, but two anchors of the international Momofuku empire, Má Pêche and Momofuku Ssäm Bar in New York City. We chatted with the 2016 Beard Award nominee for Rising Star Chef of the Year about the most enticing new dishes on his menus, his favorite local haunts, and a precarious competition in the Ssäm Bar kitchen. 

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JBF: Your first cooking gig was at Vetri in your hometown of Philadelphia. Were there any great lessons from that experience that have shaped you as a chef?

Matt Rudofker: I learned quite a lot of great lessons there, but the two things that always stuck with me are:

  • At the end of the day, the food just has to taste really good. You can try and use fancy techniques and ingredients, but the food ultimately just has to taste great.
  • Fancy tools are great, but the tools themselves are not what are most important. Ultimately, the real test is if you can use and care for them properly.

JBF: Can you tell us about a dish on each of the current Ssäm Bar and Má Pêche menus that you’re really excited about and why?

MR: Our menus change frequently, but right now there are two dishes that I, personally, really love. First is the trout dip with chicharrón that we serve at Má Pêche. It’s a simple dish with a lot of flavor and texture in one bite. Over at Ssäm Bar, I really like the octopus salad with black garlic and lotus root that was just added to the menu and features variations of temperature and texture. The dish balances the sweetness from the black garlic sauce with the freshness of Chinese celery and the acidity of the pickled lotus root.

At the moment, our Ssäm Bar guests seem to be most excited about the sardines on toast (sardines with hearts of palm, sake, and chickpeas). It’s an example of what I always aim for when cooking: dishes that may appear simple, but are complex in flavor and technique. Dave would likely call it the best dish I have done.

JBF: One of the things we admire about the Momofuku empire is its culinary lab. Can you tell us a little bit about the process of working in tandem to integrate any new products or discoveries into the menu?

MR: The Momofuku Lab products have really opened up a new flavor palate to work with. It’s been a great collaborative process. We’re currently developing a dish with beet hozon, and I’m excited to discover new ways to integrate products into our menus.

JBF: You’ve held classes on a variety of topics, from a specific ingredient to a flavor profile. What was the goal or inspiration behind these classes? 

MR: One of the most important things to me, and one of the biggest responsibilities of my job, is the education and growth of our staff. Classes are a way to expose staff to new flavors and ideas. Most recently, I hosted a sake class for our team. I think that classes are just one component through which our staff can grow.

For me, as the executive chef of both Má Pêche and Ssäm Bar, my job goes far beyond executing the menu. One of the things I’m proudest of is seeing the growth of each individual on the teams. It’s been amazing for me to watch the professional growth of Ian Davis and Nick Wong, the two chef de cuisines of Má Pêche and Ssäm Bar, respectively. Jorge (Olarte), Jaimie (Liu), and Jed (Smith) originally started as line cooks at Ssäm Bar and are now all sous chefs at our various restaurants. These are just some examples of people who have grown with Momofuku, but there are many others who are now sous and chefs at restaurants around the country. I really think they’re the future of the company and the industry. Mentorship and professional guidance are the most important things I do outside of running the restaurants, and I’m happy to both teach and learn from my team. I’ve been fortunate to have so many great people—Marc Vetri, Michael Solomonov, Daniel Boulud, and now David Chang—mentor me, and I really want to be able to do the same for others.

JBF: We read that you have an unconventional “knife sharpness” competition in the Ssäm Bar kitchen. How did that come about, and what happens to the loser? 

MR: We actually haven’t played this game in a while, but the basic premise was that the competition was to see if anyone could get their knife sharper than mine. The thing, though, was that I could only complete with one hand. If they won, I owed them ten pushups. There was no penalty if they lost once or twice. If they challenged but lost to me three times, I would get to shave their head with one of my knives. No one ever challenged me three times.

JBF: What are some of your favorite places to dine out in New York City when you’re not working? And what do you like to order?

MR: I go to the NoMad Bar most frequently and order shellfish and crudité. Their cocktail program is really awesome. You can also probably find me sitting at the bar at Gramercy Tavern. I love Michael and Howard’s food, and the wine and beer lists there are phenomenal. For some late-night sushi and sake, you can catch me at Blue Ribbon Izakaya

Learn more about the 2016 James Beard Awards.

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Elena North-Kelly is managing editor at the James Beard Foundation. Find her on Twitter and Instagram.