Nibbles and Sips: ‘National Geographic’s Executive Chef Matthew Crudder Talks About His Plans For The Upcoming Farm-To-Table Dinner And Why He Likes To Source Locally’

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Matthew Crudder – Executive Chef at National Geographic.

National Geographic’s Executive Chef Matthew Crudder.

Presiding over National Geographic’s Washington, DC kitchens for over two years, Executive Chef Matthew Crudder draws on his considerable experience. A graduate of the New England Culinary Institute, the 45-year old chef hails from Ann Arbor Michigan, where he briefly attended the University of Michigan before finding his passion for cooking. His resume reads like a primer for aspiring chefs – – The Four Seasons in Las Vegas and Chicago, the Ritz-Carlton in Philadelphia, the Fairmont in Washington, DC and Sodexo clients, AOL, Gannett, USA Today and Fannie Mae. “NatGeo”, as it is fondly called, is currently served by Sodexo who launched their “Local Artisan” program at NatGeo’s headquarters. Crudder had taken a lead role in sustainability throughout his time at Sodexo and eagerly took the lead in this innovative program described as “a locally-sourced sustainable process highlighted by a chef-driven approach to natural cooking”.

On December 4th the Society will host a local, sustainable farm-to-table dinner in its historic Hubbard Hall, the first headquarters of the National Geographic Society, located at 1145 17th Street, NW Washington, DC in DC’s Golden Triangle District.

Inspired by the exhibition “FOOD: Our Global Kitchen”, the evening will feature a guided five-course meal with local wine, beer and cider parings. During dinner Archivist Renee Braden will share the history of National Geographic and discuss its rich relationship with food. Click here to purchase tickets.

Earlier this week Whisk and Quill took the opportunity to speak with Crudder in advance of NatGeo’s exciting event.

Jordan: What are your earliest food memories?

Matthew: Growing up my family kept gardens and I started my involvement at home when I’d hear, “The water is about to boil go and get the corn or go pick the string beans.” Or “If you’d like jam on your toast tomorrow, here’s a bucket. Go collect the blackberries on down by the road.”  So my grandmother and mother were big influences in terms of really fresh all-American cooking. I mean in the more traditional sense as opposed to the concession stand or freezer aisle.

What was your first professional experience?

I started off in an Italian kitchen and fried zucchini was my specialty for the first two days of my training. But the first real dish I learned to prepare from start to finish was osso buco. And it’s still a dish that I love to prepare.

I like Marcella Hazan’s recipe for osso buco.

Well, actually on many occasions when people say they want to learn to cook, the first thing I do is hand them Marcella Hazan’s Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking!

Before I’d even been to cooking school I remember making the first couple of recipes from her book, which gave just four ingredients – – although the results were so much more than that.

Her description of the techniques is what makes her recipes so exceptional. It really helps you to understand how the process should be looking and smelling so you know what you’re supposed to be doing. And then there’s that sense of risk that comes with doing the braise! You put it in the oven and you can’t do any more. You just have to wait.

What style of cooking is your favorite?

I really like what we’re doing now with the “Local Artisan” – – the farm-to-table style program that allows simple cooking techniques and the product itself to showcase the quality of the food. A bit of salt and pepper, olive oil and lemon juice with a properly sautéed or roasted item is maybe all you need – – not hiding things under heavy sauces and sugars and things like that. The food is just so honest and recognizable the flavors really shine through.  And it’s healthier too – – if you’re careful with the oil!

We did a small test for the dinner we’ll be doing next Thursday and we’ve been passing it around the kitchen today to let everybody sample it. It’s just unadorned goat’s milk ricotta. There are only four ingredients to making it. But before we drizzled it with olive oil or added salt and pepper, the response we got, that it was so fresh and creamy and wonderful, was so rewarding.

Can you describe the types of events typical to National Geographic that you create dinners for?

The part of what I love about working for National Geographic is that whatever they’re involved in we’re going to be doing themes based on their event schedules. Everyday I practice and focus on our cuisine using natural products and techniques and then I get to use these adventures on our special events.

We’ve done a man-on-Mars themed dinner and a Spinosaurus themed dinner as well as different cultural menus. For South America we focused on the Amazon and Peru for the “Peruvian Gold” exhibit. There are a lot of opportunities to be creative. I do research to learn about cuisines I might not know about. For example, for a group from Durban, South Africa, I got to dig around on the Internet and source some products to make it as authentic as possible, and our guests really got into the spirit of it.

Can you tell me a bit about the plans for the upcoming dinner on December 4th?

The house made goat’s milk ricotta I mentioned will be paired with roasted and pickled beets. Some of the other elements I want to hold in surprise. In terms of the event it will be a farm-to-table event. But here we are in the beginning of December in the Mid-Atlantic and many things are not growing at this time of year. When we found out about the event we made up some tomato jam at the height of the season for heirloom tomatoes.

I’m not going to serve a local hothouse tomato that doesn’t taste like anything just because it’s local. And I’m not going to say we can’t have tomatoes because they’re not growing in the field near here now. That wouldn’t be what was done in a more traditional setting either. Back then you would have to take the bounty and preserve it in as many ways as you could. So we have a number of items sprinkled around the menu that are taken from this summer’s bounty which we have prepared and preserved – – whether it was by drying or canning or freezing or pickling – – to hold on to the peak of freshness.

We’ll be featuring key ingredients in every dish that have been locally sourced. We have a direct relationship with farmer/owner Greg Keckler of Orchard County Produce in Gardeners, PA who comes here nine months out of the year on Tuesdays. He supplies subscriptions for a CSA we have in the building and holds a farmers market in our courtyard. His quinces, apples, root vegetables, Swiss chard and kale will be incorporated into the menu.

Will there be other local providers involved in the dinner? 

I work very closely with my meat and fish providers to select products that will be readily available locally. The beef we’ll use is Certified Angus Beef but it’s differentiated from other Certified Angus Beef by the fact that the product comes from a “single stream” from a particular small group of farms in Pennsylvania, so the animals are born and raised there. The people that raise the animals also grow the feed for the animals and they’re processed and shipped locally. That’s different from the standard way most Angus cattle are raised. Their entire life span, as well as what they’ve been fed, is all along the line of sight of the ranchers that handle them. So that’s very exciting.

We also will feature some wonderful seafood from the Chesapeake region. And we are working with J. Q. Dickinson Salt-Works from the Kanawha Valley in West Virginia using their wonderful salt. The fact that something so basic can be a hand made product, I think is really special.

We’re not going to say, oh, that product is one county away, so we can’t use it. What we try to share with our guests is the evolution and story of how the food supply evolves and ebbs and flows through the course of the year.

One of the things that we’ve done here is to compare food miles, something I’ve shared on National Geographic Live. We don’t really track it, but we did compare how many miles food travels – – showing how near or far products have to travel when they are purchased from standard sources. So if you are basing it on the availability of food, the radical difference in terms of the miles traveled by the food is a factor of, not tens, but hundreds of miles and we’re very aware of that.

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Read more of Jordan Wright’s Nibbles and Sips Around Town articles.

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