On Corn with Chef Matt Kelly, Mateo Tapas


With the exception of visible tattoos, Matt Kelly is what I would call a chef's chef. By choice, he still cooks in his kitchen. His food is creative without being self-indulgent. And he relies on proper technique and an acute sensibility rather than micro/chemical pyrotechtronics to produce some of the most satisfying, tasty food I've had.    

I'd go so far as to bet that If asked, every chef in the Triangle would name one of his two restaurants, Vin Rouge or Mateo, as one of their favorite places to eat. Matt is so cool in fact that when we conducted this interview, he was just hanging out in Bali.   

How do you best like to represent corn at your restaurant, Mateo?   It's funny, because I've been the chef at Vin Rouge for the past 9 years; when I was growing up I had a French uncle, and we wanted to cook him a really American meal. So we cooked him burgers, hot dogs, and corn on the cob. And when we sat down at the table, he started giggling and said, “what is this?” And my dad, who literally eats only two vegetables—corn and tomatoes—asks him what's wrong. My aunt says, “this is for the pigs!” He had never seen corn on the cob before, so we explained it to him. The French don't eat a lot of corn at all, so at Vin Rouge, we never served anything with corn, because of that moment.   So this is the first year I've served corn in over a decade, so we're pretty excited about it at Mateo. We do two dishes and get our corn from Brinkley Farms (outside of Durham). They have several varieties and we just serve what they have, sometimes a mix of Silver Queen and yellow corn. For this one dish, Elote Asado, we peel the husk off and fry the corn, put it on the grill and take homemade Spanish-style pork chorizo with pimentón and salt and fry it in a pan. Then we cool it down a bit and make a compound butter with lime juice, lime zest, salt, green onion, and chorizo. Next, we slather the corn with it and garnish it with some smoked Chapel Hill Creamery Farmer's Cheese, lime salt, and a lime.   In Spain, they love their beans and most Spanish food is extraordinarily simple. So we try to come up with some dishes that have complexity but still maintain some simplicity. We do a traditional Spanish dish which is chorizo cooked with beans, in a cazuella. It's basically like doing a succotash with chorizo. We use fresh lima or butter beans from Brinkley Farms, and we serve them with corn and some other summer vegetables like squash or zucchini. We take some smoked chorizo in casing and cut one link into one-inch rounds, sauté it briefly just to cook it through and bring some heat into it. We have some succotash that we make with fatty bits of ham, garlic, onions, carrots, celery, squash, butter beans, pork stock, thyme, and bay leaf, and corn. So we sauté the chorizo then add some of that succotash, along with some pork stock and butter. We finish it with chives and serve it in a cazuella (clay dish).    

What is your personal favorite way to eat corn?   I like corn in olive oil but I grew up eating corn and butter, and it's magical. It's just two ingredients but it produces something pretty rad every time. On the grill is my favorite.    

Can you taste much of a difference between white corn, yellow corn and checkered/bi-color corn? Which do you prefer?
  Yeah. I think there's a huge difference. Nearby in Sri Lanka, they have Monsanto corn, which is kind of crazy because people are really hungry and they really need to maximize the space and amount of energy they can produce. I think soil is really important. You have to have good soil and know somebody who knows how to grow corn efficiently and knows how to take care of it. As soon as you pick it, the sugar in the corn turns to starch really quickly, so the freshness of the corn plays a really important part. If it hasn't been stored properly or it's old, that sugar it had when it was picked changes to starch. At the restaurant, we like to cook the corn as soon as we get it, that way once you cook it, the vegetable doesn't become starchy. I like Silver Queen corn. I like the texture of the smaller kernels and typically it's sweeter than other corns.    

What is the best corn dish you've ever had?
  Honestly, enjoying corn on the cob with my dad on the back porch is by far the best corn dish I've had. Actually, one of my other favorite dishes ever was at Magnolia Grill: their twice-baked grit soufflé, with corn with grits, foie gras emulsion, chives, and seasonal mushrooms.      

Mateo Bar de Tapas
109 West Chapel Hill Street
Durham, NC

Vin Rouge
2010 Hillsborough Rd
Durham NC

Hayley Teater is a baker and writer from Greensboro, North Carolina. Follow her on Twitter (@tiptoes86)!