Foodie Confidential: All fired up for pizza

SINGAPORE - After spending six years in the kitchens of fine-dining restaurants, chef Matthew White was burnt out from what he calls the "insanely intense" job, with different cooking methods and fancy plating techniques.

The 35-year-old American chef has worked as a sous chef at the now-defunct Michelin-starred seafood restaurant Seablue by Michael Mina in Atlantic City and glamorous Las Vegas restaurants such as CUT by Wolfgang Puck at The Palazzo and Michael Mina at the Bellagio.

He says: "Customers can be critical of everything from the taste to presentation, especially when they are paying more than $500 for dinner. Everything has to be perfect. The kitchen runs like an orchestra, so you need to drink five shots of espresso to be ready."

Feeling rather worn out, he decided to turn his attention to more down-to-earth fare such as pizzas. He worked as an executive chef in Zavino, a pizzeria in Philadelphia, for about a year.

He says: "There is no crazy attention to presentation. I focus on creating accessible dining options. I like the camaraderie that goes with dining and pizza is a universal food that everybody seems to like."

The Seattle native, who is single, is the co-owner and chef of Alt. Pizza, a seven-month-old pizzeria in Suntec City. It offers what he calls "American hybrid pizzas".

Dough for the crust is made with three types of flour - from Italy, France and Belgium - fleur de sel salt and organic yeast that is used for brewing beer.

He says his pizzas are different from the traditional Neapolitan-style pizzas served at Extra Virgin Pizza in United Square and Asia Square, which he started in 2013. He was headhunted by The Lo & Behold Group, which owns restaurants such as The White Rabbit in Harding Road, to set up Extra Virgin Pizza.

The chef grew up in Italy, Germany and the United Kingdom, as his mother was a chief nurse with the American Air Force. Now 67, she works as a nurse and his father, 65, is a high school teacher in Seattle. He has a younger brother, 33, who is a military officer.

It was a 22-month kitchen stint in Edelweiss Lodge and Resort in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany, that opened his eyes to the culinary world.

He started as a dishwasher and progressed to making soups and omelettes and also picked up butchery skills.

However, armed with an economics degree from the University of Washington, he worked as a stockbroker in Morgan Stanley in Seattle for 101/2 months before calling it quits.

He recalls: "I felt that I was out of my element and had not had my epiphany moment on what I wanted to do yet."

While waiting, he decided to pursue a culinary degree at Le Cordon Bleu Las Vegas and has not looked back since. He says: "Cooking brings people together and I wanted to do something that makes people happy."

What is your favourite memory of pizza?

When I was 14 and living in Italy, I had the choice of eating outside of the military base every other Friday night. I would always go to pizzerias for wood-fired pizzas and lemon gelato.

What are your favourite pizza toppings?

Tomato sauce, mozzarella cheese and basil leaves. I like to order a margherita pizza whenever I test out other pizzerias. You cannot hide bad dough with just these toppings.

You graduated top of your class in culinary school. How were you as a student?

I was more of an instructor to my peers, as I came with kitchen experience. I charged my peers US$10 to carve perfect tourne (seven-sided) potatoes. I was quite a serious student too, as I had to juggle night classes and work as a cook in a country club.

What was your worst kitchen disaster?

Once, a pan in the kitchen at Michael Mina at the Bellagio in Las Vegas caught fire. The entire restaurant was covered in 30cm of white foam. We had to cancel 300 reservations that night. It took three days for the restaurant to re-open and we lost around US$60,000 in revenue a night.

Where should people visiting your hometown, Seattle, eat?

I would recommend The Walrus And The Carpenter bar in Ballard Avenue for its oysters and Dungeness crabs, which are boiled in a fish stock and served with garlic butter and grilled bread. The roasted pepper and sausage pizza at Serious Pie in Virginia Street is out of this world.

What are your favourite local foods?

I like sambal stingray from Smith Street hawker centre in Chinatown; the sambal has just the right amount of chilli that I can take. I also like the black pepper crab from Mellben Seafood in Ang Mo Kio, and ikan bilis for a snack.

What do you like to do on your days off?

I am a cyclist, runner and swimmer. I am part of a 35-member cycling and triathlon team. Every other Saturday, we cycle around the island, starting at Orchard Towers and ending in Sentosa. I like being outdoors, it is a stress-buster for me.

This article was first published on Jan 11, 2015.
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