San Diego Son
How an Encinitas native became chef at the world’s best restaurant.
Matt Orlando left San Diego 15 years ago. From his humble beginnings at Chart House in Cardiff and later at Fairbanks Ranch Country Club in Rancho Santa Fe, Orlando worked at Thomas Keller’s Per Se in New York and eventually became head chef at what’s often considered the best restaurant in the world: Noma, in Copenhagen. He recently opened his own restaurant, Amass, also in Copenhagen. We asked him to look back at his roots in SD.
How did you get into the industry? My first real job was at a pizza place when I was 14. When I turned 16, I worked for Chart House. It was right on the beach. I could get off school, go surf, and then go right into work.
When did you consider cooking as a professional career? Working for Francis Perrot [executive chef at Fairbanks Ranch for 15 years], I heard all the stories about the places he worked in Paris. I wanted to experience what he experienced.
Do your San Diego roots influence your cooking? Working with Francis, we’d go to Chino Farms all the time, but I actually had more exposure to California products when I was in New York. At Thomas Keller’s Per Se, I did all the produce orders. We would buy from the Santa Monica farmers market and it would be overnighted to us.
People say San Diego has some of the world’s best produce. In Copenhagen our seasons are very defined and very short, except for winter. I don’t think the products are necessarily better in California, but there are more and they are available for a longer amount of time.
When you’re back home, where do you like to eat? We went to Blue Ribbon Artisan Pizza. All the pizza was super seasonal and fresh. We also visited The Flying Pig. At both those places, you could tell people in the kitchen really cared about all the food.
Crave anything in particular? Mexican food. Crave is an understatement. My go-to is real tacos: stuff like al pastor, going to a place where you walk in and order ten little tacos.
You were Noma’s first head chef. How’d you get co-owner Rene Redzepi to hire you? I was sous chef at Noma for two years. I wanted to open my own restaurant. Rene said he’d keep his ears open, then he called me back a week later and brought me in as head chef.
Congrats on opening Amass. How does it compare to Noma? The flavors are much bolder. Everyone says, “I can really see the American coming out in you.” We have a dish where we cook carrots in carrot juice, then dehydrate them, and rehydrate the dehydrated carrots in reduced carrot juice. Stuff like that, making the ingredients stand forward.
What have you learned in your new role as chef-owner? I’ve learned that cooking is the easy part. Everything else about a restaurant is more difficult. When you’re in the kitchen, testing dishes, in service, you shut everything else out. Staff issues, lawyers, money, you step away from that for a few hours and do what you really love to do, the reason you opened the restaurant in the first place. Cooking is the most enjoyable part.