When internationally celebrated, Michelin star Kiwi chef, Matt Lambert gets an urge to follow his passion pretty much nothing can stand in his way.
Freshly returned to New Zealand in 2020 after 15 years in the United States, – seven of them owning his own Maori-inspired, award winning Michelin star restaurant in New York, – Matt has always been a man on a mission.
From the early age of 11 as a West Auckland kid, Matt began making moves to achieve his dream. “I’d always cooked at home with my mother and grandmother and I always wanted to be a chef so when I was 11 I chased down an apprenticeship in Henderson restaurant, Michael’s.
Here he started out washing dishes before leaving school in the fifth form (Year 11) to get some cookery qualifications at AUT. Unfortunately, Matt’s grandfather died before he finished his course and the family moved to Wellington where he eventually got to complete his studies at Whitireia Polytech, aged about 17 or 18.
Already a driven and ambitious young chef, Matt spent three or four years running a café-style kitchen on his own. “I had an attitude of not wanting to be told what to do and I liked the freedom,” he says. “Luckily I had a boss who let me have it.” Matt was regularly serving 30 to 50 covers by himself off the boss’s menu back then. “You learn a lot doing things badly,” he says.
His ambition was to own his own restaurant by the time he was 21. A stint owning a cafe in Wellington with his mum saw him learning a lot of lessons the hard way. “I realised I had a lot to learn so I headed to Auckland where I met my American wife, Barbara.”
By Matt’s mid-20s they were off to the States where he worked at John’s Café in Barbara’s home patch of Connecticut initially where they saved for their wedding before heading to the big time in Manhattan.
Here Matt made his mark quite quickly, landing a job with AvroKO Design and its soon-to-be 1 Michelin star restaurant Public. “I’d been there eight months and was about to leave to go to my first Michelin star restaurant and we got one star so I stayed,” he says.
There he remained as chef de cuisine until the urge to own that restaurant became too great. In 2013 at the tender age of 30 or 31 Matt launched his Kiwi Maori-inspired restaurant, The Musket Room, on the same street as Public.
“I really liked the creative aspect of owning my own place. It’s less limited.”
However, opening your first restaurant in The Big Apple is no mean feat for a Kiwi boy. “It was certainly the big time and pretty challenging. I was doing what I wanted to do, how I wanted to do it. People like it or not and they did,” says Matt, who describes his food as simple, honest and very intuitive, seasonally inspired. “My dishes were pretty technique heavy, using a lot of influence from New Zealand, highlighting New Zealand ingredients that landed in New York providing they were good quality.”
Neo bistro was the catch phrase back then – the beginning of the gastro bistronomy era. “It was about stripping back the snobbery aspects of fine dining, the fancy settings, white table tops and crystal and becoming food technicians using amazingly presented ingredients. People loved it.”
It was a relatively new concept there back then. Dishes incorporated the likes of New Zealand Mountain River venison and Ora King Salmon. Matt became renowned for his own quirky, fine dining version of the Kiwi favourite, the humble pie. His pavlova was deconstructed and put back together as only a top chef could do, featuring passionfruit curd, whipped cream and fresh passionfruit. The venison dish rarely changed. When you’ve found a winner, why change? “I found the flavours of the botanical wheel of gins, like juniper, teamed well with venison.” Matt’s salmon is ever changing but his overarching theme is cured in salt, sugar and a citrus blend for 24 to 48 hours, lightly pasteurised and gently cooked at 60degC.
“I’m pretty into presentation. I’m not very good at drawing and painting but I do like making food look very good.”
The Americans just loved his concept with his whole tasting menu themed around Maori legend and story, ocean meeting land. “Over there it was paua not abalone, sea urchin not tuna.”
It took just four short months for Matt and The Musket Room to earn a Michelin star. “Everything Michelin wrote about me was New Zealand,” he says.
With Rodd and Gunn providing good Kiwi uniforms for Matt and his American team, a strong relationship was brewing. He worked with Rodd and Gunn developing the menus for its two Lodge Bars (Queenstown and Auckland) for three or four years before the lure to head home last year became all too much.
Matt, Barbara and their two sons, Pierce, 10, and Elvis, 5, packed up, after Matt and Barbara had spent 15 years living in the States, and returned home to Auckland in November. He’s now executive chef for The Lodge Bars nationally and loving it. “I really enjoy working with them. There’s a huge growth potential for the future,” he says. I’ve done a lot of cooking and running restaurants very successfully. “It’s time for the next level, overseeing venues, teaching and mentoring more cooks.”
While the Covid crisis wasn’t the main reason he returned it was just time. Now 40, he’d earned a Michelin star, scooped American’s Rising Star Chef Award, the International Chef Award at the World’s Best Chef Awards – one he may have had a second go at if the borders were open.
Not bad for an Auckland ‘Westie’.
“It’s all been pretty sold. I’ve always relied on myself for inspiration. If you don’t love it don’t do it,” says Matt.