Catching Up With Michelin-Star Chef Matt Lambert

Jesse Mulligan catches up with Matt Lambert for a coffee and the lowdown on being a Michelin-star chef in New York

Matt Lambert in his New York restaurant The Musket Room. Picture / Babiche Martens.

In 2013, Matt Lambert became the fastest-ever recipient of a Michelin star, for his restaurant The Musket Room in Nolita, New York. He’d opened just a few months earlier, and had given himself three years to win the accolade. So, Matt says, when the phone rang and Michelin told him the news, “I was like f*** yeah!”

Matt uses that particular word a lot. I’d blame New York but, then, he’s originally from West Auckland so I suspect his mouth was already soapy when he packed up in 2006 and traded Henderson for Connecticut.

It wasn’t the classic story of a New Zealander striking out on his own to take over the world, it was the other classic story of a New Zealander falling in love with a foreigner and following them back to their home country. Matt had been working under chef Michael Meredith at The Grove when an American girl walked in looking for a waitressing job. “I saw her and I was like, f*** yeah!” he explains.

He worked his not inconsiderable charm, and they got together. Then, when Barbara wanted to get back Stateside, Matt went with her. That long distance leap of faith doesn’t always end well but for Matt it was the right move — ten years later Barbara is pregnant with their second child and manages the restaurant. So don’t knock first impressions.

They both work very hard. Matt began planning for his first New York restaurant five years in advance. Three years before opening he already had a website and a menu. You get the feeling a lot of his drive came from the failure of his first solo venture, a place he opened near Wellington with his mum. I think I’m safe in saying he’s the first New York Michelin-starred chef who can credit his success to lessons learnt at a cafe in Titahi Bay.

Plenty of New Zealand tourists eat at The Musket Room, but New Yorkers are the core business. Matt tries his best to use New Zealand produce, of which the salmon has been a particular success as have, of all things, the passionfruit: Matt says our ones are notably superior to the ones grown in the US.

He tries his best with feijoas. I thought they’d go down a treat but, Matt reckons, you have to try and imagine what it’s like for an American to try that tart, unusual fruit for the first time as an adult. “They haven’t been a big hit.”

There is a distinct New Zealandness in some of the concepts — “the pie that’s not a pie”, for example, with a pastry lid and a complicated recipe which replicates the taste of the classic Big Ben gravy. He takes Kiwi nostalgia seriously: once, his Kiwi grandmother visited the restaurant and he made her give his elite pastry team a lesson on how to make a decent caramel slice.

And there is New Zealandness in the ingredient combinations, sometimes subtly and sometimes to a very personal degree. Matt tells me how he used to go eeling at Henderson Creek and remembers the smell that used to hit him when he reached the riverbank — wild onions. While they were fishing, he and his mates would gorge on the berries growing nearby. And so it was that, 20 years later, visitors to his Manhattan restaurant found themselves eating a dish of eel served with wild onions and blackberries.

I kept waiting for him to tell me the usual expat story — that New York is all very well, but that he’d be coming back to New Zealand as soon as his kids were ready for school. I interviewed him on a three week holiday back here, and part of me hoped that he and Barbara were house- or, even better, restaurant-hunting.

But he’s not moving home any time soon. Kids are a factor but in the opposite way — he wants his children to have all the career opportunities you get from growing up in New York. Already his son Pierce, who makes occasional, adorable cameos in the recording of our interview, has a thick East Coast accent and a big city energy. I can see where he gets the latter from.

To be fair, Matt says, he might come back here once he’s ready to slow down a bit. Until then he has plenty to do — a second restaurant at some point, with a “completely different” concept to The Musket Room. And, having achieved a Michelin star so quickly, he’s after a second one of those, too.

For Matt, those stars are the ultimate measure of achievement, though of course they’re not the only measure. The Musket Room’s been reviewed in several other publications, almost always positively. Matt says he’s not worried about the few negative reviews, though like most chefs he remembers criticisms word for word. “One guy said that I was trying too hard,” he tells me, with confusion. “And I was like … isn’t that a good thing?”

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New Zealand Herald

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