When Matt Martin arrived in Charlotte in 2013, he had a specific plan in mind. Coming from an upscale New Hampshire country club where vegetarian dishes were an afterthought, he approached his new job at Fern, Flavors of the Garden as a stepping stone.
“I thought, ‘I’ll come down here, I’ll learn vegetarian food for a year,” he says. “I was trying to become more well rounded, so that I could be a better asset for another kitchen.”
While the move here was initiated primarily for his girlfriend’s graduate degree, it didn’t prevent the charismatic Martin from jumping wholeheartedly into his new work. When he accepted a line cook position at the vegetarian restaurant in 2013, he decided to forgo meat for a two-week period, to better understand the intricacies of the lifestyle.
As well he did, because he found it an eye-opening experience.
“You don’t have any staples, you don’t have any quick meals, you don’t have any fallbacks. You don’t have a wheelhouse of things Mom made when she didn’t want to cook.”
In the end, he enjoyed more than the culinary challenge. After two weeks he and his girlfriend felt so good that they decided to continue eating vegetarian.
Now two years on, the pair has recently transitioned into the full vegan lifestyle – no eggs, dairy, or honey. And instead of simply adding a vegetarian notch to his chef belt, Martin has embraced this career path fully, remaining at Fern, now as Executive Chef, at the ripe old age of 25.
It seems characteristic of the self-described “highly energetic” chef to throw himself body and soul into whatever current project he may have. Though his trim build and lively eyes announce his youth, he projects an easy confidence for one thrust so early into an executive position. Twice he interrupts our conversation to talk to team members, communicating quickly and effectively before turning back to the topic at hand.
Central Avenue in Charlotte is a long way from the tiny no-stoplight New Hampshire town where Martin grew up.
He started his culinary career at age 12 in his grandmother’s diner, then gathered more experience at standard small-town pizza and breakfast places before entering Southern New Hampshire University’s culinary program. Though he got a first taste of a true brigade-style kitchen at an internship in Portsmouth, the post-graduation move to Charlotte was his first experience with a larger city.
“I was nervous as all hell coming to a city,” he says, but Charlotte appeared “easier to manage, like people here would still know each other here on a first-name basis.”
And manage he did, making contact with Marc Jacksina during an initial visit and meal at Halcyon. Joining the Mother Earth restaurant group gave him ties with Jacksina and Blake Hartwick, but it was Kristi Martin (no relation) of Feast Food Tours who brought him into the fold of the Piedmont Culinary Guild.
“Matt has incredible passion and enthusiasm to his craft,” Kristi explains. “On my food tours, he is always so excited and amped up! It’s easy to see his love of his job and what he’s doing. Guests love him. He was utilizing some local farms, but wanted to take his quality and flavors to the next level. PCG is a great fit to help him with his goals.”
Once again Martin finds himself in a tight-knit community with common values. He was captivated from the first general membership meeting. “You’re sitting there with everyone that you’ve heard about, which I feel like would never happen in Boston,” he says. But more than that, he was excited by the collaborative attitude toward bringing more recognition to his adopted city.
Martin sees opportunities exploding all over the Piedmont.
“Chefs want to be in cool locations where there are cool farms and cool people,” he says. “Being in a big city isn’t going to define you anymore.”
PCG is all about redefining our food system, and no one knows better than Matt Martin the benefits of redefinition.
From cow town resident to meatless maverick, he’s got some transformational flavors of his own to add to the mix.
Profile written by Alison Leininger