With an offset spatula, he spreads a thin schmear of butter onto thick slices of soft bread, making sure the butter goes all the way to the edges. He places each slice on the griddle, toasting them on both sides to golden perfection, peeking at the undersides now and then until the precise moment.
Next, he lightly dresses a bowl of lettuces, massaging the greens lightly with his hands to make sure every leaf gets in on the party.
He saws thick slices of just-picked green, yellow and red tomatoes, arranging the rounds like traffic lights on his cutting board.
Warming in the oven are thick slices of candied bacon, sweetened with brown sugar and baked until they infuse the whole kitchen with intoxicating aroma.
Finally, Chef Matt composes the sandwich as gingerly as if he’s building a house of cards.
First onto the toasted bread goes tomatillo and jalapeno jam. Next, a tangle of dressed lettuces. Then the chef balances the thick fresh tomato slices atop the greens, salts and peppers them, then ceremoniously tops them off with two rashers of glistening sugary bacon, followed by the top slice of toast.
The sandwich is a full five inches high, so Chef Matt pierces each side with wooden picks to hold everything together before slicing it diagonally.
Then comes the big reveal. When he spins the two halves around to display the insides, and it’s like a magic trick exposing perfect striations of gold, green, red, yellow and deep chestnut.
If all of that seems like a lot of hyperbole about a simple sandwich, you’re right. In reality, though, it is a pure, almost religious display of a chef’s reverence for perfect ingredients. It is also the culmination of Chef Matt’s day-long visit to The Chef’s Garden to witness firsthand exactly where his farm-fresh tomatoes grow.
The Chef’s Garden’s tomatoes will be the ingredient highlighted in an upcoming “Chef Recommendation” menu at the prestigious Cooper’s Hawk Winery and Restaurants. The restaurant hosts such events throughout the year to celebrate a specific in-season ingredient. As you might have guessed, August’s event is all about fresh tomatoes.
As chef in a “scratch kitchen,” Chef Matt said he appreciates “the care and time it takes” to not only prepare superior food, but to grow superior food. And he received a one-on-one education on that with Farmer Lee Jones as professor.
In the greenhouse, Chef Matt sampled tomatoes (leaning over to bite into them like a juicy peach, juice running down his hands, arms and chin) while Farmer Lee narrated. He explained how tomato plants capture energy, and why growers train tomato vines to climb upwards, like grapes on vines, reaching high above the chef’s head.
The plant rows eerily resemble the high walls of a hedge maze and, as Chef Matt peered down one of the rows, he stopped short. “This is like Harry Potter!” And he delighted at the fruit surrounding him. “Look at that little guy!”
Chef Matt was a quick study, especially after an in-field show and tell in the field where The Chef’s Garden is growing specific tomatoes exclusively for Cooper’s Hawk. The lesson began, of course, with the soil.
Farmer Lee knelt down on the ground and eased back the black covering at the base of a plant, then dug down and brought up a handful of soft, loose soil with the appearance and texture of chocolate cake mix. He invited Chef Matt to do the same.
Filtering the soil through his fingers, the chef said the soil was “very similar to wine country.”
“Oh, this feels so good. And does that smell good!” he said. Then he hollered to the three other men from his team. “You guys should smell this soil! It smells like vegetables. You’ve eaten worse things than this!”
Chef Matt’s worm-eye view of how and where his farm-fresh tomatoes grow further deepened his understanding and appreciation of nature and farmer working in harmony. He witnessed for himself the truth behind The Chef’s Garden’s backbone philosophy of “growing vegetables slowly and gently in full accord with nature.”
“Three quarters of the fields lay fallow,” he observed. “They’re being cared for − for the seasons to come. Micronutrients in the soil, that really starts it off.”
It Isn’t Bragging if it’s True
Throughout the field trip, Farmer Lee did what he does best – boasted about tomatoes like a grandpa does about his grandkids.
He explained how tomato varieties are differentiated by their foliage. He talked about weeds, and how they’re an aesthetic tradeoff to chemicals. He discussed pollination and heat and innovative problem solving. He explained why the farm irrigates with city water. Even though it is legal to use lake or pond water, he’s adamant about not introducing contaminants from an unfiltered source that could upset the microbial balance of the soil.
Being on the farm brought out the country boy in Chef Matt. Like recess after “tomato school,” he and his team elbowed and jockeyed to be first to scramble onto the seat of a vintage 1940s John Deere tractor. They posed for selfies with Farmer Lee. The chef even tapped his inner hayseed and slid a stalk of long dry grass between his teeth.
With the stalk still in place, the chef strolled through the packing facility and saw another layer of how his tomatoes will be cared for, remarking to his team, “See how pristine they do it here?”
And maybe that’s why Chef Matt’s BLT was so tall, because it contained a whole lot more than bacon, fresh lettuce and fresh tomatoes. It was also chock-full of wonder and appreciation and knowledge.
“We’re going to continue to be blessed and thankful to be here and capture what they’ve been doing here for years,” he said. “Our guests have choices. We have to maintain the quality of the product that we use. It a commitment to the quality of the food. People always remember how a dish makes them feel. And it all comes back to the ingredients.”