Ever since he discovered long-distance cycling at age 13, Matthew Accarrino has been hooked on the sport.
“There’s this inherent sense of freedom,” he says. “The ability to go wherever you want, on your own power—it’s this incredibly liberating experience.”
As a young adult, he cycled competitively, with laser-focused plans to hit the pro circuit—that is, until a freak accident dashed those dreams completely. Cooking, he would soon discover, was one of the few things that offered the same kind of boundless freedom.
As he looks up to talk to me while torching sturgeon fillets by the dozen in the middle of Friday dinner service, it’s hard to imagine him destined to be anything else other than a chef.
The details of the accident are grisly: One day in high school, Accarrino abruptly broke his leg while playing Frisbee with friends. He lay on his back in the ambulance, aghast, eyes transfixed by his right leg twisted the wrong way. Unbeknownst to him, there’d been a benign bone tumor growing in his femur since birth, and it had shattered his right leg, leaving him six inches shorter on that side in an instant. He was whisked off to surgery, but not before being warned that he might wake up without a leg.
The leg survived with a bone graft, but what followed was months in the hospital and two torturous years spent at home alone rehabilitating. Confined to his house, he discovered one way to pass the time: televised cooking shows. With the help of Julia Child, Jacques Pépin, and a fresh-faced Emeril Lagasse—TV chefs who taught him how to sear steak and spatchcock chicken,—he found purpose during those bedridden years.
With the help of Julia Child, Jacques Pépin, and a fresh-faced Emeril Lagasse, who taught him how to sear steak and spatchcock chicken, he found purpose during those bedridden years.
After walking again, he tried to return to racing, but regaining his form was an uphill battle. In a moment of heated emotion, he flung his bike off the back porch of his house and weighed his options. “I thought, what else am I good at? What else do I know how to do? There wasn’t much, but there was cooking.” He wrote a letter to Lagasse, who offered him a stage in the kitchen at Emeril’s in New Orleans.
In the restaurants that followed—Charlie Trotter’s, Rick Moonen’s RM Seafood, Per Se, and Craft—he quickly found that cooking mirrored cycling in many ways. “Cycling’s about getting from one point to the next as fast as you possibly can. Cooking’s about getting from one point in a recipe to the end with as few steps as possible. To get better, you just have to practice.”
Since 2009, Accarrino has been the chef at San Francisco’s SPQR, earning both a Michelin star and a JBFA “Best Chef: West” nomination thanks to dishes like apricots and ice lettuces over a charred vegetable sauce, served with a burnt flour cracker, or handmade fettuccine with abalone “alfredo,” enriched with abalone liver, then topped with fried garlic and bottarga.
Two years ago, he picked up cycling again, and now splits time between cooking and racing. In accordance with his 100-percent-or-nothing attitude, the 37-year-old cycles ahead of the pro teams on the Tour of California and the Gran Fondo Giro d’Italia.
“Someone burned a tray of vegetables, and it became the most amazing sauce,” he says. “I look for opportunities where there may appear to be none.”
From his mom’s beef stroganoff, to Roman chef Antonello Colonna’s porcini risotto, here are some of the dishes that inspired Accarrino to beat the odds time after time.
Mom’s Beef Stroganoff
I don’t know that we had beef stroganoff that often, but it was definitely one of the things that I remember that my mom used to make really well. She had all these international aspects to her cooking, even though beef stroganoff didn’t have anything to do with her background. It was really creamy cubes of beef, and the beef was always so tender. At that age, I had no idea what beef stroganoff was. I never concerned myself with how it was made, or what was in it. I just knew that it tasted really good, and that she always made it the same way. In that sense, food became a comforting thing, through memories like that. That’s why I think I probably gravitated towards the restaurant business. (Photo: Flickr/Kim Mc)
Grandma’s Sicilian Pizza
My grandma came and made pizza for my third-grade birthday party. She lived in Boston at the time, and she brought her own pans and San Marzano tomatoes to make the pizza. Everybody was getting pizza delivery for their birthday parties, and I was kind of pissed—why can’t I get the same thing everybody else is getting? Why does grandma have to make the pizza? I hated it at the time, but I look back and realize that the Sicilian pizza she made was the benchmark for all pizza moving forward. That was a pretty exceptional effort on her part, to come and do something special. I couldn’t tell you what was on the pizza in third grade, but I remember the texture. It was one of those doughs that was light and airy, and has a good amount of olive oil in it. I remember what it felt like to eat it. I found a place that has pizza that’s really similar to it in Long Island called Umberto’s. Every time I eat their pizza, I still think about that memory. (Photo: Flickr/Jason Lam)
Grilled Octopus at a Diner in New Jersey
There was a Greek restaurant that my parents used to take us to when we were kids. It was a diner, more or less, in New Jersey where I grew up. It was the first time that we had avgolemono (the Greek chicken and lemon soup ), spanakopita, and feta cheese. It was also the first time I had octopus, grilled and served with lemon; the most basic, simple flavors. I got used to eating that food and enjoying it. I think that plays into my life now, where my openness to new ingredients or tastes or ideas comes from being very open to it as a child. Every once in a while, we’ll get kids in the restaurants, and it’s the same kind of thing. A nine-year-old girl will say, “I’ll have the fettuccine with sea urchin.” They ask me for it by name, and it’s very sophisticated. That’s got to bode well for them in terms of having a very rich culinary experience in their life. (Photo: Flickr/Klearchos Kapoutsis)
Jacques Pépin’s Spatchcocked Chicken
I used to watch the Jacques Pépin technique show [The Complete Pépin]. I remember one particular episode where he said, “Today we’re going to spatchcock a chicken.” It was that whole thing of cutting and laying the chicken flat. It makes it cook completely differently because you’re exposing way more surface area. I asked my parents, “Can I get a three-pound chicken next time you go to the grocery store?” and did it that day. I still do that a lot. Even if the guys are making staff meal, I make them spatchcock because it cooks a lot faster. Seeing that kind of stuff taught me to be technique-focused. (Photo: Flickr/Mike McCune)
White Truffle Risotto at Lespinasse
I love truffles. They’re such an easy ingredient to work with. One of the first places I had them was at Lespinasse in New York City. My mother took me to eat there, and Gray Kunz was the chef. It was the mid-’90s, when I could walk again and was interested in cooking. I think my mom took me there as sort of a favor to me, to let me experience that. We ordered truffles; we just kind of splurged for it. I didn’t even know what they were. Next thing you know you’re eating this thing, going, “Wow, that was amazing flavor.” We had a white-truffle risotto, the simplest of all dishes. I remember getting home and dad seeing the bill for dinner. It was probably the most my family had ever spent for a meal for any amount of people, let alone two. He was like, “What the hell is a white truffle, and why does it cost $250?” (Photo: Flickr/Blue moon in her eyes)
Tasting Menu at Charlie Trotter’s
One of the best meals I ever had was near the end of my time working for Charlie. One of the waiters came up to me in the kitchen one night and said, “Hey, would you like to see the dining room? Take off your apron.” I just followed him. There was one empty table in the middle of the dining room. I sat down and had a 25- or 30-course meal, with wine, and tasted all of the things I had never tasted in the time that I was there cooking. He spared no expense. I tasted foie gras for the first time there. It was akin to the truffle experience. It was one of the most amazing meals I’ve ever had, knowing nothing and going there and being blown out of the water. To this day, I’m thankful. Clearly that was him, providing that for me. I let him know before he passed away how much of an impact that had on me, but I don’t think he knew at the time. It’s something that comes to mind when I have people in my kitchen who are just beginning [and experiencing] those formative moments. (Photo: Twitter/ChefChumba)
Foraged Porcini Risotto from Antonello Colonna
I worked in Italy pretty early in my career at Antonello Colonna, this restaurant outside of Rome. I would go with the sommelier on the back of his Vespa, and he would take me to forage porcini mushrooms for the restaurant. He would say, “Hey, there’s porcini down there. Go get some, and we’ll use them.” Somehow he knew. It was like, “Wow, you can just get this from this spot in the woods, and then bring it to the restaurant and cook it?” That’s foraging, but I didn’t know it was called that.
I’d collect all the porcini, and we’d clean them up, wash them, and trim them. Only the most perfect parts could be used for the dishes we were making in the restaurant, and there was always trim. So we would eat porcini risotto for staff meal every day. I got so sick of eating porcini risotto. All my sous chefs [at SPQR] get excited because a bump of porcini will come in. If it rains, you’ll get a whole bunch that’ll come in for a few weeks, and then it’ll be gone again. (Photo: Flickr/atlnav)
Arctic Char with Lentils at Oceana
At Oceana [in New York, where I worked under Rick Moonen], the standards were really high, and the kitchen was small and really busy. You can imagine those are all things that can work against each other in a certain way. We had this arctic char dish. Underneath it was parsnip purée, and it had lentils that we braised in red wine and lobster stock. I would have to prep the lentils, and I thought, this’ll be enough, so I won’t have to make this tomorrow. The idea was that you’d prep half your kitchen one day, and the other half of your kitchen the next day. But every time I would prep the lentils, we would sell so much that I would be back the next day prepping lentils again. That dish just became the bane of my existence, but it taught me a lot in my career and my life about the discipline of hard work, and never having the project being done. That experience at Oceana really ingrained in me what I could expect. Ever since then, not feeling that kind of pressure is not normal. You need to be able to economize every movement. It’s a mountain that you have to get on top of, how stressful the restaurant business really is—and then once you do, it’s not really stressful anymore. You learn total multitasking. My brain is always going 1,000 miles a minute, and you just get used to it. In a sense, I probably relish it. (Photo courtesy lucyd*)
Smoked Pasta at SPQR
When I first took over at SPQR, it had a Roman theme, but no one really told me that I had to keep it that way. I was there for a day or two, and said, “I realize this has already been defined, but I can’t be somebody else. I’m just going to be myself.” I just started making the food I was going to make. That was it.
But at the same time, there’s a portion of who I am that wants to please. It’s part of the reason why I’m in the hospitality business. So I thought, what are dishes that might have a Roman origin? Carbonara is bacon and black pepper—thick and smoky—so we’ll smoke some pasta. Sea urchin’s from California, and I like sea urchin. Carbonara has egg in it, and sea urchin roe are the eggs of something. We started putting soft-poached quail egg on top. That became my nod, along with one or two other things, to that “Roman” aesthetic that predated me.
Unfortunately, sea urchin has become so popular. I hate to think I was ever a part of that. The only sea urchin available right now is from Japan and from Maine. And why would I bring an ingredient from Maine if I knew that there was one in California? But then if the California one’s gone, does it make sense to start flying the product around? It goes against who I am as a person. So we’ve taken it off. There’s no ingredient that we always use, no menu item that’s always on. It’s always an evolution. (Photo: SPQR)
D’Osvaldo Prosciutto at La Subida
There’s this amazing prosciutto making family, D’Osvaldo, in Friuli. They smoke the prosciutto over verbena and cherry wood. I remember going there and tasting it with them, thinking, “Oh my god, this is the best prosciutto I’ve ever had in my life.” The verbena doesn’t come through specifically but there’s this incredible aroma and sweet flavor to the prosciutto. The hams that they make are all accounted for before the pigs are even harvested: You walk into their aging room and every single ham is tagged with a family name or a restaurant name.
There’s a restaurant called La Subida near there, and they get their prosciutto from D’Osvaldo. It’s this quaint, countryside, family-run atmosphere. It’s not super casual but not super formal; it’s the perfect balance. You get the prosciutto and Josko Sirk, the patriarch of the family, comes over carves it table-side while he talks to you, mostly in Italian. You’re having this amazing, very personal experience in the restaurant.
I’ve always said that one day I want to get myself access to a ham like that and being able to do that for people who come into the restaurant, which is part of the reason the Berkel is there at our restaurant. There are a lot of people who come into the restaurant that we know and we give them a couple slices of ham—it’s usually a special ham that La Quercia is making for us. (Photo: Flickr/Marco De Fanti)