Pastry Chef Matt Kelley
Rover's | Seattle
Hailing from Seattle, Washington, Matt Kelley occasionally enjoyed baking as a child, but never envisioned doing so professionally. Through his teens and twenties, he held a range of jobs, including a stint as a milkman and as a professional NASCAR stock car driver, receiving significant attention in the Pacific Northwest circuit before retiring from the sport at age 27.
In 2002, Kelley changed course again, pursuing French pastry and artisan bread-making at the Seattle Culinary Academy. He worked overnight shifts in a local patisserie and made long daily commutes to work as a pastry chef at the Salish Lodge in the mountains of Snoqualmie, Washington. Upon completing his culinary program in spring 2004, Kelley stayed on at the bakery and at Salish Lodge for several months, until his persistent adventurous streak led him to pack up his car and head, on a whim, for Chicago.
In Chicago, Kelley spent over two years as a pastry cook at the Four Seasons, working first in banquets, and then in the fine dining restaurant. His next move was to Bin 36, where he soon took over the pastry department and that of sister restaurant, A Mano, when it opened in 2007.
In 2008 Kelley returned home to Seattle and to the pastry kitchen of Rover’s, one of the city’s bastions of fine dining. He’s a tireless learner who is bringing a breath of fresh air with his innovative flavor combinations and appreciation for modern desserts—all rooted in the basics, of course.
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Heather Sperling: What was your first food job?
Matt Kelley: My first job ever was busing tables on weekends at my Grandma’s restaurant when I was 12. That was in Burian, Washington. I didn’t get in the kitchen area until I started doing pastry, but I’ve been a buser, dishwasher, server—I’ve been in restaurants a long time!
HS: How did you get into pastry?
MK: I went to college for a couple years, and then worked a bunch of dead-end jobs. I had an awakening and I went to the local community college and did a bunch of aptitude tests, and each one of them had “chef” on it. I went to the Seattle Culinary Academy and did a walk-through, and pastry looked like the most fun! That was January 2003, when I started school. I got laughed at the first day because I asked what the dough hook was for. I didn’t know anything!
I started at Le Fournil patisserie in downtown Seattle while I was in school. I was a career-changer at 25, and so I threw myself into everything. If there was a competition, I did it. I got hooked up with a job, so I did it. I’d work from 1am to 7am at the patisserie, and then went to school from 8am to 3pm. It was a nice jump start.
After I graduated I was used to working 16 hours a day. So when I graduated school, one job was boring. So I got a second job at the Salish Lodge in Snoqualmie, Washington. On a whim I picked up and moved to Chicago. I worked at The Four Seasons for almost three years at Chicago; I started in banquets and then moved to the restaurant. From there I went to Bin 36, and then they opened A Mano and a gelateria. That was a full plate, but still a lot of fun.
HS: Who do you consider a mentor?
MK: The most influential person would be Kriss Harvey. I worked with him for about three months at Bin 36. I went on as his sous, and he moved on, and I got his position. I didn’t spend much time with him, but he’s a good source that I call from time to time and bounce ideas off of.
HS: Who are your pastry heroes?
MK: Right now the three that I really keep an eye on are Sam Mason, Pichet Ong, and Johnny Iuzzini. I ended up with a chef job earlier than I wanted to, and once you’re the chef, it’s harder to learn as much. I have no culinary training. I’m trying to start pulling savory in, but I have no kitchen training. Those three seem to be really in the direction that I’m heading and wanting to head; so I keep track of them through books, websites, magazines, and things.
And then you have old school like Jean Phillip Maury, who do amazing things with sugar and chocolate.
HS: How did you end up in Seattle?
MK: We moved to Chicago as a trip—I decided that I couldn’t live in Seattle my entire life. So I talked my wife into it, but it was always promised that we’d come back.
HS: How do you like being back in fine dining?
MK: The fine dining is fun. It’s great working for someone like Thierry. I was worried about him being stuck in his ways, as the restaurant has been open for 20 years, but he’s really enthusiastic. It’s wide open—I don’t really have any rules except to make sure he likes the way it tastes!
HS: How would you describe your pastry philosophy?
MK: Flavor, first and foremost, has to be great. And then just trying to put a turn on the presentation—maybe send out carrot cake that has the familiar flavors, but is totally reconstructed.
HS: Is there an ingredient that you like to use that you feel is underappreciated or underutilized in pastry?
MK: One thing that is underutilized in pastry is salt. I think almost all desserts are under-salted. It totally changes a caramel and chocolate. And savory spices—not too many people go beyond cinnamon and nutmeg. I really enjoy playing with savory spices.
HS: What is a technique that you’re especially excited about right now?
MK: I’m trying to play with sodium alginate, calcium chloride, xantham gum, and all the other hydrocolloids beyond gelatin. I’ve been trying to play with lecithin and xantham to make this foam that I want to make, but it’s hard because there’s really no guidebook to how to do it!
HS: What is your favorite pastry resource?
MK: I love buying books! To this day my absolute favorite is Wild Sweets by Cindy and Dominique Duby. They have so many wild flavor combinations and ingredients I’ve never even heard of.
HS: What’s your most indispensible tool?
MK: Immersion blender and offset spatula.
HS: What are three tips for pastry success?
MK: 1. Organization—work organized and clean, keep yourself organized, keep your recipes in order.
2. Learn from the bad. You need to take notes on the bad as well as the good.
3. Take notes! I always have a notepad in my pocket, and I take notes on ideas, recipes—I have a bookshelf at home with 30 little pocket notepads on it.
HS: What’s next for you?
MK: When I got into this I knew I wanted to try everything to see what I like the most. I’ve done the patisserie, the lodge, the fine dining, the casual. Like everyone else, I’d like to open my own place, but I’m waiting that out until it’s the right time. I’ve always envisioned a place like Pichet [Ong] has, but that’s also the type of place that can really fail. I’ve toyed with the idea of having a pastry shop during the day, then switching it over to candles and plated desserts at night. And Thierry and I have talked about a Rover’s Patisserie.
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