Chef Mateo Roberson – A connection between two continents, ambition, and the search for authenticity.
Forging ahead with heritage technique and traditional ingredients, Chef Mateo Roberson, the American head chef of Carne Bangkok, deems necessary to first look to the past for inspiration.
Cooking great food through an in-depth understanding of the cuisine and the preparation of each ingredient is his key. Diving deep into the delicious past of his dish he wants to recreate as his own is Mateo’s way of refining, reinterpretation and a new style upon tradition.
What makes the Texas-native chef stand out among the foreign chef crowd in the big mango is his speciality in duplicating scrumptious Latin American fare with locally-sourced Thai ingredients; there is a synergy of the ingredients and customs, which is evident in his cuisine.
With his experiences in fine dining restaurants throughout the US as well as in London, Belgium, Cambodia and Thailand, the chef weaves together the culinary heritage of two cuisines with a proficient haute -cuisine technique combined with a profound passion in the kitchen.
Read all about his style of cooking and creative process through our exclusive interview with Chef Mateo.
How would you describe your style of cooking? There’s a diversity of ingredients and culinary ideas, especially those from Thai, America and Latin America, what inspires you?
My style of cooking comes across as regional Mexican/Latin American but with the use exclusively of local Thai ingredients.
Asian and Latin American cuisine has strong, powerful and sensual flavours, and that is a big draw for me. As being an American chef, my cooking techniques tend to be inspired a lot by traditions (historical context, traditional techniques from many cultures but mostly from the cultures I grew up with; Latin America and Asian) and modern techniques. I try to have a deep understanding of the past and how it was used in cooking way before me.
My inspiration came from the flavors I was exposed to growing up. My family has a Mexican restaurant back in Texas and my Vietnamese stepmothers family has a vietnamese supermarket. So I was always surrounded by people who inspired me with this style of cooking.
My first glimpse into Thai cuisine I was very young, my parents would take me to a small Thai teak house for dinner, I can’t remember all the tastes but the hospitality and warmth of the dining room has stayed with me. And that was when Thai cuisine really embraced in my mind.
Is there a particular dish on the menu that will best explain your style of cooking?
Sure. “Oyster, Mezcal and Physalis,” which is first course of a tasting menu.
The inspiration comes from the Mexican tradition of drinking mezcal with sal de gusano (the worm of the agave plant from which mezcal is produced). I make a yellow aqua chile from mezcal, physalis, yellow Thai chilli, Vietnamese coriander, fish and mussel fumet, and a special vinegar.
You stated above that there are more similarities than differences between Southeast Asian cooking and regional Mexican cuisine, can you give us an example to clarify the statement?
For example, acacia seeds or med krathin in Thai. In Southeast Asia, the seeds are eaten in Laos-style papaya salad or with nam prik (chilli relish). In Mexico, this ingredient is called guaje and is indigenous to Oaxacan cuisine. Once toasted, it is called cacalas.
You grew up and trained as a chef at fine-dining restaurants in Texas and throughout other states, followed by working as a chef in London, Belgium, and now Asia for so many years (Cambodia and 4 years being in Thailand alone), how do you think these experiences benefit the essence of your cooking?
I’ve learned the Western and Asian way of working in the kitchen which have benefited me in having open-minded cooking. I don’t limit or attach myself to just the Western or one certain style. Therefore, I’m constantly learning new culinary techniques from many cuisines. What I learned the most from working at fine dining restaurants in the US and in Europe was modern
technique and how far I can push myself in the kitchen.
And working in Thailand, I learn to be confident in the ingredients that are not commonly used in the west and to cook with instinct. So learning how to cook with Thai ingredients really teaches me to find authenticity in each cuisine and to always do my research. As a chef, that’s very important.
You’re currently the head chef at Carne, a meat-fueled restaurant, how does applying Mexican/Latin American techniques into your dishes there help you to embrace your style of cooking?
The foundation of my cuisine at Carne is corn and masa which is the soul of Mexican cooking and is something I grew up with in Texas. When I make tortillas de maiz, I nixtamalize local corn to create masa, which can also be used for many other recipes. This technique is ancient.
Why Bangkok? What impresses you the most about the dining scene here?
As a chef I know one wouldn’t get a grasp of the cuisine by just being there for a short period of time. I wanted to learn more about Thai food and its foundation and that’s why I picked
Bangkok. People here still have a strong connection with their food and ingredients and there’s a large repertoire of food to try and learn about. I’ve worked with great Thai chefs as well as a very knowledgeable owner currently, but I also think I learned a great deal about Thai food from just everyday people that are not necessarily chefs in a professional kitchen. Many Thai women I know still cook a lot at home and when they cook, they cook with ease and feminine instinct, in a way that is so true to themselves and the cuisine.
Mexican/Latin American flavour profiles are not (yet) familiar to the Thai tongues, has there been any challenge in introducing that to the diners?
Regional Mexican cuisine specifically, in my opinion, is the least understood cuisine in Thailand. But what actually is a real challenge for me – more like a disappointment- is that diners now
tend to care more about the gimmicks over the techniques, tradition, and the ingredients with very little thought about what they are eating and the chef is sharing. This unfortunately is a trend in Bangkok. Many diners now are constantly in search of the picture opportunity, new feeds and social media. For me, I do believe in a beautiful presentation, but I don’t believe in meaningless plates. And that’s my main challenge. As for the Mexican/Latin American flavour, I think people are slowly waking up to it. So, I’m trying my best every day to inspire the diners.
How do you find the balance in commingling bits and pieces of multi-cuisine ingredients in a dish?
When I conceptualize a dish, I usually want a source of umami and to find depth, then complexity, and balance. But before I establish that, I would look back to traditions and historical references to see how each ingredient is used in a dish. I want people to be visually and palatably touched by my dish. The smell, the look, the taste, mouthfeel, they are all important. Everything just sort of plays a part in creating a dish – every little detail matters. And this is something I learned from traditional Thai cuisine as well.
Thai cooking teaches me to cook with my instinct rather than sticking to recipes or Western culinary restrictions. That’s the biggest inspiration that Southeast Asian food has on me and it undoubtedly makes me a better cook.
Last but not least, what do you see as an ideal cuisine of your own?
I don’t want to label anything yet but as for right now, I want to continue to refine my cooking style and to keep sourcing for more local ingredients and expanding my knowledge of their uses. That’s my main focus. So my ideal cuisine, for now, would be to use the best of what’s available for me here and to keep improving my taste and improving on the flavors of a dish.
Thank you Mateo.