The first time I ever went to a world class, out of my league restaurant, was at the urging of Matt Murray. He and his girlfriend had come to town to visit me and my boyfriend in New York, and insisted that we go to one of the city's best restaurants, something my timidity and my wallet had never let me do before. We tried to dress up as best we could. My boyfriend and I put on our best thrift store chic, and Matt put his pink hair in a ponytail and donned a dress shirt and tie.
When we arrived, we were treated like the scum of the earth we obviously were. "Would you like a glass of champagne to start?" The waiter asked snottily, and we looked at each other, giddy, like kids at the grownup's table, and nodded. "Yeah, sure," I squeaked, and we all laughed a little. Matt rolled up his shirtsleeves to reveal his heavily tattooed arms. We were there, and we might as well have fun.
The waiter came to take our order, and as he went around the table, you could feel his attitude change. He must have expected us to order salads and salmon instead of mid-courses and organ meat. When Matt, in his deep voice, ordered the foie gras as his twenty-something dollar appetizer, the waiter's smirk became a smile.
After depositing our order in the kitchen, the waiter came back to the table. "Which ones of you are cooks?" he asked. We identified ourselves: Two cooks and two servers. The waiter began to interrogate Matt, his questions becoming quite philosophical. "But what do you want to do with your food, where do you want to go?" Matt's answers, thoughtful and passionate, kicked us up about 12 levels in the customer importance ranking, and we were treated like royalty for the rest of the evening.
The level of service we got that night, the extra courses, the transcendent food, is something all of us have carried with us ever since. For me, it was the cementing of my budding restaurant obsession. For Matt, it was an insight into the way food, a dining experience, could and should be. It fanned a fire that was already well lit in Matt, a desire to be that good, to aim that high.
In the days leading up to Christmas, the Triangle's restaurant community lost a young chef of great promise. Matt Murray, the Magnolia Grill's chef de cuisine and the former sous chef at Elaine's on Franklin, died in his home. It appears the cause of death was a hemorrhage caused by a condition that Matt shared with his father, who also died as a result of the condition. He was 29 years old.
I have never known anybody more food obsessed than Matt. He spent his vacations making pilgrimages to restaurants around the country, gathering menus, writing smart-assed and loving critiques of the meals he ate, just for the fun of it. He was prone to calling friends late at night, then keeping them on the phone for two or three hours, debating the merits of different kinds of salt, complaining about restaurant politics, or talking excitedly about the restaurant he would one day open. At his best, Matt was one of the most talented, hardest working cooks I have known.
Matt came to the Triangle from Cambridge, Mass., where he had attended culinary school. He worked first at Il Palio, and then at The Carolina Inn. It was at Elaine's on Franklin that he really hit his stride, where he was promoted to sous chef within the first year that he worked there. Bret Jennings' style inspired Matt, and his influence is still seen on the menu at Elaine's. In May of last year, Matt became the chef de cuisine at the Magnolia Grill under Ben Barker, a move that he hoped would teach him and help him on the path to one day having his own restaurant.
At a memorial gathering held at Elaine's on Jan. 4, Bret Jennings spoke about Matt as a friend and co-worker, and he had this to say about Matt as a cook: "His demands as a cook made me proud to work with him. If it wasn't good, Matt would want nothing to do with it. He would do his best to improve on ideas and prep until he was satisfied with the end result. Cooking is one thing that Matt could do better than 99.9 percent of humans on the planet, and he found comfort in the kitchen. His talent to create and execute, and his excitement over a successful dish made him as happy as anything else. Matt surrounded himself with everything culinary and never spoke of a career outside the industry."
Matt was more than just a good cook. His friends and family lost an incredibly big-hearted, funny, and whip-smart man, a caring friend and an excellent dining partner. But all of us who care about food have lost the chance to eat Matt's cooking and benefit from seeing what he promised to become--a shining star in the future of the Triangle's restaurant community.
For the tenth year running, The Triangle Wine Experience will be taking place between Feb. 19 and 21. Wine dinners will take place all over the Triangle to benefit the Frankie Lemmon School and Developmental Center, a non-profit public preschool for children 3-6 with developmental disabilities. All reservations should be made through the Triangle Wine Experience at www.trianglewineexperience.com.
Bloomsbury Bistro will be holding a cooking class entitled "Bistro Favorites" on Monday, Feb. 2. Class participants will learn how to prepare four courses, with dishes selected from the restaurant's menu. $75 per person includes dinner, wine, tax and gratuity. For reservations, call 834-9011.
Cosmopolitan in Cary will be hosting a four-course prix fixe dinner for Valentines Day. The menu will include a salad, choice of appetizer and entree, and a dessert sampler. The cost is $65 per person. Call 380-1327 for reservations.
There will be free shuttle and trolley service from Mo's Diner to the BTI Center on the evening of Valentine's Day. The BTI center is featuring the North Carolina Symphony, the Carolina Ballet, and Les Miserables. Mo's will be serving their regular menu. Call 856-9938 for reservations.
Pop's will be offering a prix fixe menu for Valentine's Day for $35 per person. The menu will be three courses with a glass of champagne. For reservations call 956-7677.
Four Square would like to welcome their new sous chef, Andres Macias. Andres comes to Four Square from the Briar Creek Country Club, where he was the chef de cuisine.
Pazzo in Southern Village will be offering a special prix fixe menu for Valentine's Day. The dinner will include four courses and a glass of Prosecco for $45 per person. For reservations, call 929 9984.
Margaret's Cantina is holding a Valentine's Day poetry contest. You can win a free dinner for your Valentine by submitting a "Cupid inspired" poem 4 to 14 lines long. Drop your submission off at Margaret's Cantina in the Timberlyne shopping center, or e-mail it to Margaret@margaretscantina.com by Feb. 14. Prizes will be awarded in four categories: romantic, humorous, for mom, and all over best poem. Winners will be announced the week following Valentine's Day. Please include your name, Phone number and e-mail address with your submission.
Lantern will be celebrating the Chinese Lantern Festival the week of Feb. 2-7 with lots of Asian street food, traditional Chinese New Year dishes and a whole dining room filled with red dragons and glowing paper lanterns.
For the 23rd year in a row, Squids will be hosting the annual Heart Association breakfast on Friday, Feb. 13 from 7 to 9 a.m. This is a charity event that raises money for the Triangle Chapter of the American Heart Association, and 100 percent of the proceeds go to the association. Tickets are $15 and can be purchased in advance or on the day of the event.
The Fearrington House Restaurant is holding a cooking retreat on Feb. 1 and 2 with chef Cory Mattson. The cooking class will focus on creating a romantic gourmet meal for Valentine's Day and is part of a package that includes dinner, overnight accommodation, and a gourmet breakfast. Call 542-2121 for details.
The Inn at Celebrity Dairy in Siler City is hosting a special Valentine's weekend special. If you come for the four course Valentine's dinner, your stay at the Inn will be 25 percent off. Dinner for two and overnight accommodations for less then $200. Call 877-742-5176 for reservations or more information.
RestaurantBeat runs the fourth week of every month. Have some food news to pass along? Contact Besha Rodell at Beshalebax@aol.com.