In 15 Questions, we strive to uncover the inner workings of a chef’s mind. From the ingredients, techniques, and philosophies they’re obsessed with to the exciting dishes and projects they’re working on, 15 Questions gets to the heart of what we all know is true: the kitchen is where the magic happens.
Only six months into its tenure, seasonal darling Gravitas is turning out to be the crown jewel of Ivy City (or D.C.’s neighborhood on the rise). We caught up with chef-owner Matt Baker to talk about the secrets of the chef’s counter, how it feels to be a pioneer in an up-and-coming area, and what’s still to come (hint: the dreams of this produce-obsessed chef will soon be realized).
Resy: You’re from Houston, a city with its own exploding food scene right now. What about your upbringing there motivated you to become a chef?
Matt Baker: The biggest motivator was the diverse ethnic cultures and cuisines. My family, they certainly love to cook at home. But even more so, they love to experience food from other cultures, and Houston is a place that allows you to do that to the fullest. In any standard week, it was very normal for us to do dim sum on Sundays in Chinatown, followed by a taqueria for breakfast one morning, followed by a steak dinner cooked at home, followed by Thai or Vietnamese, and then the best Indian or Halal food you’ve ever had in your life. The other side of it is the hospitality culture [that’s innate] to Houston. People want to take care of you, and they want to introduce you to what they’re doing, and they want to open their doors and their arms to you. I loved that aspect of the city and of the community growing up.
You began your career in Miami after Johnson & Wales University, and from there landed in Singapore… how did your time abroad affect the way you cook?
Singapore was where I had my first executive chef position, and it was an eye-opening opportunity. I had to learn a lot on the fly that I wasn’t really prepared for. Aside from the culture, the people, and the food—the street food is amazing in Singapore—the ability to travel to places like Thailand, to Malaysia, to Indonesia, to China, which are only an hour or two away by flight, was equally important for my time there. Whether [I was] having a humble bowl of wonton noodle soup [prepared in] a tiny hawker stall by a 60-year-old man who’s been making that same dish his whole life, or on a beach in Thailand eating green papaya and raw mango salad with crunchy, dehydrated shrimp on top, the authenticity of cuisine had a giant impact on me.
What made you move to D.C. and open a restaurant there?
In D.C. I saw a lot of similarities to Houston in terms of diversity. It’s a very open and inclusive community, which was definitely a big draw. Another thing that was really important once I sunk my teeth into the food scene here was the proximity to local farms and local ingredients, some of which are the best I’ve ever worked with. That’s something I’d never experienced before. Singapore doesn’t produce any of [its] own goods or products at all; everything is imported into the country. Working there for three years, I took a different approach to cooking—looking at catalogs and going online to order stuff that would arrive five days later. In D.C. I pick up the phone, or somebody comes to my back door, and [we] have a conversation about their products, which they just pulled out of the ground yesterday or . . .that morning. Or, [they bring me] something they just caught in the wild, in the Chesapeake Bay. To have that connection. . . and to hear their stories and have relationships that are cohesive was something I’d never experienced before, and I fell in love with it immediately.
Gravitas’ slogan is “inspired by the seasons, influenced by tradition, driven to create.” What exactly do you mean by the middle piece: “influenced by tradition”?
That’s my philosophy in cooking—it’s where I come from as a cook. I’m classically trained; I love traditional cuisine. I love traditional French cooking; I love traditional Italian cooking. I grew up in an American household, and I love traditional Americana cuisine. So, my approach is to take those influences [and ask]: how do we put our own stamp on [them] while using the best seasonal ingredients that we can? I take traditional concepts and traditional techniques, and I look at them through my own creative lens.
Could you explain a dish on the menu at Gravitas that you think encapsulates that philosophy?
We do a gruyere agnolotti. That’s a traditional Italian pasta. I don’t know of many Italian chefs that are working with a Swiss cheese for their pastas. The approach I took to the dish [is rooted in] an Italian flavor combination called cacio e pepe: a classic butter-cheese pasta [with] a little bit of black pepper. I wanted to create that same mouthfeel, unctuousness, richness, and simplicity, and add a little bit more complexity to make it really unique on the plate. I think gruyere is a really interesting and complex cheese, so I said let’s start there—with a filling of potatoes and gruyere. We then do some melted leeks for savoriness and sweetness, top everything with some shaved scallions and chives, and [finish with] grated Parmesan cheese over the whole thing. Everything is coated in a really creamy butter sauce. We top it with a truffle foam, and then we make an ash chip out of burnt vegetable ash that looks almost like a veil or a spider web—it’s jet-black.
Who are some of the purveyors and farmers that you work closely with?
- Tuscarora Organic Farms for produce
- Autumn Olive Farms for pork and lamb
- Rappahannock Oysters and War Shore Oysters
- Irwin Brothers Mushrooms
- Anson Mills for rice and grains
Do you have a favorite winter ingredient?
White sweet potato. It’s less sweet than a traditional sweet potato, but it’s much creamier and [has] a bit more starch. It almost has a natural nuttiness or toasted spice flavor to it that comes out naturally when you roast it. I [like] to then caramelize it to bring out all the natural sweetness. I love it in purees, I love it in soups, and its velvety [texture] lends itself to ingredients like foie gras. We have a dish on the menu right now where we pair [white sweet potato] with braised short ribs. It’s a really versatile ingredient, it’s absolutely delicious, and it’s something you can only get for two to three months out of the year.
Did your decision to offer customizable tasting menus stem from your focus on seasonal ingredients?
I always knew that for my first restaurant I wanted to do a fine dining concept; that’s the traditional path a lot of chefs take to make a name for themselves in this industry, and that’s the path I wanted to take myself. So. . . how do you take the feeling or the sense of fine dining food and make it approachable to the everyday diner? That’s been the goal of Gravitas since day one. Do I want diners to come in and for me to tell them what they’re going to eat that day? Or do I want diners to come in and have control over their meal and their experience? The [latter is] where I settled: I’m making the experience customizable by putting the menu in guests’ hands and letting them choose the path they want to go. [That way, I’m] speaking to everybody—to the modern day customer. In today’s society, you have a lot of guests with different dietary restrictions who make different lifestyle decisions about what they eat. I don’t want to have a restaurant that excludes anybody or makes anyone feel different at the table by having [fewer] options. The approach we take at Gravitas is to make the menu customizable so you can choose what you want, and the menu is always 50% vegetarian.
How is the experience at your chef’s counter unique?
It accommodates just two guests at a time. On Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays we do two turns. These guests get to watch all of the night’s dishes come out; they literally sit right there at the pass and get to see the chef expediting, garnishing, plating. The chef’s counter is my opportunity to work on dishes I want to express my creativity in; [it’s] also an area where we can lavish and indulge our guests a little bit while they. . . see the production of the kitchen. The menu at the chef’s counter is a progressive, fifteen-course menu that starts light and builds up. Some of the dishes have been in my repertoire for a while; others are [comprised of] ingredients that I love, but just wouldn’t make sense. . . in the dining room.
What is an example of a course that might be served at the chef’s counter?
One example is that in the dining room, we’ve never done a family-style dish. We do a dish on the chef’s counter that’s family-style: a terrine of foie gras, tuna tartare, and caviar with Parker House rolls that are freshly baked and [come with] caviar service accompaniments. The dish has a lot of pomp and circumstance . . . there’s a lot that goes into bringing it to life, and it’s built to be shared between two guests. On the dining room menu, two guests sharing the same thing, would go against our model of letting each guest decide what they want.
What would you say is distinct about the space, and how does it power the experience you’re providing at Gravitas?
The space was a former tomato packing factory. Original brick walls, original steel beams, original glass windows. For me, [the space] went hand-in-hand with my cuisine— free-flowing, really open, and fully transparent. We designed the restaurant so that when you walk in you can see directly into the kitchen. I wanted to create that . . .outlook, to be able to see the energy in the kitchen every night. Because we work with a lot of vegetables and local ingredients in the restaurant, we wanted to bring a lot of greenery and plants into the space. So we have sustainable, year-round plants everywhere—in planter boxes, terrariums, and hanging pots throughout the space. And as a further extension of that [greenery] we are launching a rooftop garden and bar in March.
How will the rooftop look and feel?
It’ll be a 1,200 square foot garden that will do a lot of the heavy-lifting for the menu in terms of produce. We’ll be doing bi-weekly harvests of the garden. The other portion of the rooftop will be an indoor-outdoor cocktail bar and lounge that will emulate what we do in the dining room at Gravitas.
What will you plant first?
With the first season being March, definitely all kinds of peas and beans and squash and zucchinis and peppers—all of the traditional stuff that you’ll find in the springtime.
Gravitas is located in Ivy City, a developing neighborhood. How have you seen it change since you started this project?
It’s been a little bit of a slow process . . . The streets have been beautified, sidewalks have been cleaned up, plants and greenery and trees and grass have been brought in. Even right now, I’m looking outside, and the whole street [is decorated] with Christmas decorations, which isn’t something you’d see even a year ago. You’re seeing more people down here, more foot traffic, more people in the streets. There literally is not a night that goes by [when] people come to our restaurant and don’t say, “I gotta tell you, we got out of the Uber, and we were like, where the hell are we?” And these are people who’ve lived in D.C. their whole lives—it’s just a neighborhood that they wouldn’t traditionally go to. I think [it’s] a really cool thing to be able to expose people to this neighborhood and show them what [it] has to offer.
What surprises you the most in terms of the response that Gravitas has received so far?
Individuals’ willingness to travel. You always hear the adage that if it’s good enough or if you’re talented enough, people will come from near and far. So, I think that’s been the biggest surprise . . .I talk to diners and some of them come from 20-30 miles away on a nightly basis to experience what we’re doing. I think that’s really unique and special, and it’s pretty cool to talk to people [who] are making that journey just to try [my] restaurant.