What do you call a whirling dervish that’s not whirling? Seated at the cool stone bar of The Punch Room on the 15th floor of the Ritz-Carlton Hotel, chef Matt Carnevale is the picture of restrained chaos.
Boyish in both bearing and appearance, the 31-year old’s apparent youth is belied by the strength of his passion and the diversity of his influences.
Hailing from the DC-inflected area of northeastern Virginia, Carnevale arrived in Charlotte in 2006 to attend Johnson & Wales, though a secondary motivation was “to stay out of trouble.” Having served briefly in the Marine Corps until an injury forced him out, he realized that all his jobs up to then had been in the food industry. Which makes sense for a guy indoctrinated into Italian family kitchens from an early age and exposed to the vast culinary influences of the nation’s capital.
“Being from the DC area, I grew up eating Moroccan food when I was six years old – Ethiopian, Thai, Vietnamese,” says the animated chef, thumping his hand on the bar to accent each one. “My parents worked for the federal government and they traveled a lot, so they were always introducing me to new flavors.”
He earned his first paycheck working the griddle at a public golf course, but as a student at JWU, he had the fortune to network his way into the kitchen of the now defunct Ratcliffe on the Green.
Suddenly the young Carnevale found himself inside one of Charlotte’s premier restaurants under the direction of Mark Hibbs, then one of the city’s top chefs. “I had cooked before, but I had never done any kind of upscale anything,” the young chef recalls, gesturing widely to underline his inexperience.
“I learned so much at that restaurant, but it was old school,” referring to the fiery style of leadership familiar to anyone who’s seen Hell’s Kitchen. Yet he credits that same experience with giving direction to his drive. “I just started gaining passion. Like, what else can I learn? I’ve become obsessed with it.”
His newly awakened passion kept Carnevale at Ratcliffe until its closure in 2010. He then entered the Ritz-Carlton corporation through a room-service position, eventually generating enough positive guest feedback to talk his way into helming Urban Sip, the precursor to today’s The Punch Room. Though he had no control over the menu, a promised renovation finally occurred this year, and in February The Punch Room opened its doors where the menu is now under his full control.
The early clamor was, deservedly, about the arrival of Master Mixologist and fellow PCG member Bob Peters but it didn’t take long for guests to notice that the food emerging from the tiny kitchen behind the bar was equally inspired.
“I pull from everywhere,” says Carnevale, citing his early exposure to world cuisine, as well as the tomes of cutting edge chefs, like pasta master Paul Vetri and Iceland’s Gunnar Gislason. He rises abruptly from the bar to fetch the books and flips through the photograph-heavy pages. “I just love all kinds of different stuff. I like to respect the ingredients, but I also like to step outside the box, too.”
Part of that respect for ingredients dates from his time at Ratcliffe, where he says 80% of their ingredients were sourced within 200 miles of the restaurant. “That changed my life,” he says. Still today, “To me, as a chef, there’s nothing sexier than an heirloom tomato in season.”
Making and strengthening that connection with local farmers is just one reason Carnevale joined the Piedmont Culinary Guild. He speaks admiringly of the Guild’s outreach to the community, whether sharing professional resources or putting on public events. For a relative newcomer, this young chef already demonstrates great insight about his industry.
“From the chicken to the farmer, to the chef, to the customer, we can all change food and make it better.”
Profile written by Alison Leininger