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Umami Chef Matthew Anderson believes simplicity is key to success

Umami Chef Matthew Anderson

Umami Chef Matthew Anderson

 

by SUE REID

In a 100-square-foot kitchen in Chagrin Falls’ downtown historic district, award-winning Chef Matthew Anderson is keeping it simple.

In his straight-forward, signature style, the 42-year-old executive chef and managing partner at Umami presents with beautiful simplicity seasonal, local Asian-inspired fare with a twist.

That twist is made clear in his ability to build flavors — one brilliantly upon the other. The result is what packs the intimate restaurant night after night — dishes with incredible intensity and depth.

“I build a lot of layers,” the New Hampshire native explained of his style, using as an example the restaurant’s ever-popular goat cheese dumplings. “It’s just gnocchi and four ingredients,” he said of the dish, which includes mushrooms and a miso mushroom vinaigrette consisting of sesame and temari.

It was in his formative years that this simple style formed. “I remember clear images of my mother cooking,” Mr. Anderson said. “She grew up in New England cooking real simple fare. “Your mom’s cooking is always the best,” he added.

Mr. Anderson, who found a comfort level in the kitchen early on — calling it a place he felt he truly belonged, is a graduate of the New England Culinary Institute. He came to Umami in 2010, presenting an ever-changing seasonal menu, as well as core staple dishes, including sushi and a daily sashimi feature. The Shaker Heights resident proudly supports local and sustainable purveyors whenever possible.

His daily seafood specials depend on what is on the pier that day, Mr. Anderson said. “It’s that simple. A lot of my seafood comes from Hawaii and a lot from the East Coast. At this point, I’ve cooked every fish in the ocean. I like seafood because it’s got such a story to tell, and it’s so ridiculously fresh. I just got a rock fish in that was in the water 24 hours ago in Maryland,” the chef said in this interview held on a late winter morning, just prior to the lunch rush. “You have to get jazzed about that.”

Enthusiasm also resonates in his voice when he speaks of the connection he makes with farmers and purveyors of meat. “A couple are willing to work with me designing feed for the hog,” he gave as an example. “It’s cool to have that connection.”

A former International Culinary Arts and Sciences Institute instructor, Mr. Anderson’s early training in the kitchen involved getting a glimpse of the full cycle. At the Tabard Inn, the farm-to-table restaurant in Washington D.C. where he once worked, they would slaughter the cow and “as a chef, you were responsible for finding a use of the whole beast.”

“That has always been huge for me,” he said of completing the cycle. “You can’t be aware if you are just a cog in the wheel. You have to understand what it takes to get food on a plate and have a reverence and duty to cook it in a way that shows it in its best light.”

Dinners at Umami are full of everything fresh — spring’s menu will be marked with soft shell crabs, ramps, morel mushrooms and asparagus – but also include comfort in some of the mainstays, like the udon noodles and roasted hangar steak with house-made Kimchi.

“I’m trying to give the customers a fair product at a reasonable price and a memorable meal,” he said of his daily goal. “I don’t want to change the world or the dining scene, but just make people happy.”

What makes a good chef is someone who listens, he noted. “By the time you call yourself a chef, you have to be fairly good at what you do. You also have to be a bit humble and give customers what they want.”

Umami has a healthy base of regulars and a great night for Mr. Anderson is a full dining room of happy people. An average Saturday night at Umami will involve 75 reservations. The cozy and intimate bistro seats 32. It’s the smallest restaurant in which he has ever worked, Mr. Anderson added with a smile.

It is also the place where he remains extremely hands on in every sense of the word (he even cleans the kitchen and washes the dishes — “there’s nothing I won’t do!”). Donning his signature baseball cap and warm smile, Mr. Anderson can often be found interacting with customers. He knows many by name.

He works alongside a small, but extremely knowledgeable and friendly staff, who work as a team to make the Umami experience a memorable one and to provide a consistency of product that has drawn diners from near and far.

“I don’t consider myself a big chief, and I’m happy to play in the background,” said Mr. Anderson, who is humble to a fault. He was voted one of the best chefs in America last year by Peer Review and his dining room is often filled with fellow top area chefs, which Mr. Anderson takes as a compliment.

“I don’t go out to eat much,” said the father of two young daughters who is also a seasoned marathon runner, “but I’m honored chefs will come here. There were five or six chefs eating at my restaurant one day. That’s pretty special.”

What is the future of Umami? It may involve an expansion someday, the chef said, adding that the Village of Chagrin Falls has been an amazing spot to call home.

“Everyone here is so supportive,” he said. “We like being unique and different in the Valley.”

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