After years of cooking faithful renderings of authentic Italian cuisine at Il Buco, chef Ignacio Mattos crossed the East River and introduced Brooklyn to his "modern primitive" aesthetic at Isa. Now that the restaurant is up for a Best New Restaurant award, we caught up with Mattos to talk about his plating philosophy and cooking in Brooklyn.
JBF: Smoke and wood play a big role in Isa, from the food to the décor. What’s the weirdest ingredient you’ve ever smoked?
IM: One time I smoked some butter, but I can’t remember what it was for. At Isa we have smoked pretty much everything.
JBF: Many of Isa’s desserts are rooted in vegetal and other unexpected flavors. What’s the thought process behind creating a dessert?
IM: Pam Yung, our very talented pastry chef, has a very refined and elegant palate. We all try to collaborate on the desserts; a lot of our dishes are built from very specific ideas. Our sunchoke dessert started with an obsession I had with raw egg yolk and sugar, which I grew up eating. The dish evolved from there and ended up being one of my favorite things.
JBF: You obviously put a lot of thought into how you plate your food. Can you talk about that?
IM: I like to play with forms and shapes, and I find beauty and inspiration in things that most people wouldn’t find attractive. Most people think flowers are pretty, but for me it could be a pile of mud and dirt. All of my plating has to do with the season and what it provides us. During winter there wasn’t a lot around, so the idea was to replicate that austerity on a plate but still keep it interesting visually. Now the season is providing us with more elements, so our plating will reflect that. And, in the end, we still want things to be clean and simple.
JBF: You used to cook in the East Village, now you’re in the Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn. What’s it been like to work in that community?
IM: I really like the vibe we’ve got out here. It’s a very interesting demographic. Not that the East Village isn’t interesting, but it’s been changing and it has become something else. There is an amazing community of very talented people out here, places like Meat Hook, Marlow & Sons, Fatty ‘Cue, Dr. Cow, Bedford Cheese Shop, Uva—the quality that you can find out in this area is really impressive.
JBF: We understand that you probably don’t have time to dine out at other restaurants often, but have you had any exceptional meals over the past year that you can tell us about?
IM: Frej on Wythe and North 11th in Williamsburg was a memorable meal in an interesting setting. My meal at Atera, Matthew Lightner’s place that just opened, was amazing. I also love 1 or 8, the Japanese restaurant that is next door to Isa.
JBF: What are your favorite cookbooks and why?
IM: So many. It’s really hard to pick. I’ve always loved Elizabeth David’s cookbooks. There is something so honest and authentic about her.
JBF: What’s your earliest food memory?
IM: When I was young, my whole family would join around the table on Sundays in the summer. We would make asado (South American barbecue). I also remember my grandmother making fresh pasta with an amazing sauce, which I’ve been trying to replicate but haven’t been able to.