Matt Conroy is the Executive Chef at The Little Prince in Soho, New York.
Tell us a little about how you got into cooking professionally.
I grew up in Lawrence, Massachusetts, north of Boston. It wasn’t a really food focused upbringing, but my Grandfather was a good cook. He had ten kids and was good at making do with what he had. He made great soups and stews and when people would ask for recipes we’d laugh because he would just always say ‘to taste’. I got my first job in a kitchen when my neighbor, who worked at a diner, was looking for someone to crack eggs on the weekends and that’s how I ended up cooking.
How did you end up working for Tony Maws?
I first read about Craigie on Main in Food and Wine Magazine. It was a place I knew I wanted to work, but I didn’t have the experience necessary at that point, so I took a job in Vermont and really learned the basics and worked my way up to become a sous chef. We closed for six weeks every year and I used the time to go work for Tony for free. At the end of it, he offered me a job, but I went back to work one more season in Vermont before starting at Craigie.
Working for Tony was the hardest year of my life. It’s one of the places where you hate it at the time and then you miss it for sure. I learned a lot about technique and discipline and attention to detail. Tony was always saying ‘Never compromise’ and that’s something I’ve taken to heart and try to instill in my cooks.
How did you come to New York?
I had done Boston, and New York was the logical next step. I knew Alex Stupak from connections in Boston and knew what he was doing in New York with Empellon. I was not interested in Mexican food, but I was interested in his style, so I came to New York to work for him. Alex’s plating is beautiful. I learned a lot, especially about attention to detail and plating, but it was also interesting to see how a [trained] pastry chef approaches a dish. I also learned a lot about chilies, which don’t factor a lot into French cuisine, but I know I can go for a chipotle chile, when I want to add smokiness to a dish, without a lot heat.
How would you describe the food at Little Prince?
We’re definitely a French Bistro at heart, but we don’t limit ourselves to traditional ingredients. I get inspired by what’s fresh in the market, and try to use the whole animal as much as possible. With chickens, it’s usually paté from the liver and stock from the feet. I feel strongly that nothing should go to waste.
In November we started a Sunday Supper Series as a chance for me and my sous chef to be creative. It pushes us to put our heads down and create new dishes. Sometimes they make it onto the menu. Recently, we started with the goal of creating a vegetable focused starter and came up with a dish of roasted carrots and burnt vinegar honey. It was really well received and stayed on the menu.
What ingredients are you excited about right now?
Salt Cod is an ingredient I’ve been playing with a lot. It’s very traditional French, and it can seem boring, but it can also be interesting. For a recent dish, I started with a salt cod fritter and at the end of the day, sea urchin is really eggs, so I created an aioli out of it.
What are your essential kitchen tools?
A sharp knife is one I have to have. And you don’t have a sharp knife without those stones. Also, I always keep a pepper mill at my station and a Kunz’s spoon for basting, saucing and tasting.
Who have your mentors been?
Aside from Tony Maws and Alex Stupak, Rogan Lechthaler of Downtown Grocery in Ludlow, Vermont taught me a lot about charcuterie. I think he runs a great kitchen and was the first chef I worked for who focused on using local products. Being in Vermont we used lots of great local farms.
Favorite places to eat and drink in New York?
I live in Brooklyn, and on my day off I usually go around the corner to a Mexican place Antojitos Mexicanos and get a torta. I’ve been to Estela twice, which is rare since there are so many restaurants in New York City. I feel the menu is really suited to a cook’s taste. The food is really well balanced with just enough salt and acidity. I also like Roberta’s a lot. I know I can always get a great pizza and some really interesting appetizers.
In my hometown, there’s a place call Harrison’s Roast Beef. It’s a simple sandwich of house roasted beef, with cheese and some special sauce, but every time I go back I want one of those.