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Chef Matt Louis: New England Winter at the Beard House

Eating at the James Beard House is a special experience, one made even more special recently by the flavorful creations at Chef Matt Louis’s New England Winter Dinner. Louis is co-owner and head chef of Moxy in Portsmouth, New Hampshire where he serves New England tapas, an unlikely yet wildly successful combination. The Beard House has a warm, family atmosphere yet at the same time is an institution of haute cuisine, which matched Louis’s style perfectly.

 

The meal proved impressive from start to finish. Chef Louis prepared many unique hors d’ourvres, like Hasty Pudding Frites with Moxy’s house sauce or the house made Red Cocktail Dogs with New Hampshire Swiss Cheese, Raye’s Mustard, Chestnut Mushrooms, and Bacon Marmalade. Louis noted the deep history of Hasty Pudding that stretches all the way back to the Native Americans living in New England who first introduced it to European settlers. The dish was updated by applying a crispy application and turning it into a frite to be enjoyed almost like a French Fry. Louis also played upon the quirky tradition of red hot dogs in Maine, and included this New England custom as well.

 

During the main meal, the oyster stew stole the show. Louis again noted the history of oyster stew as a New England mainstay brought by many northern European settlers. In many seaside New England towns, shellfish were abundant and oyster stew often featured more prominently than turkey at holidays like Thanksgiving. I had high expectations for the stew because, as a native New Englander myself, my grandmother served oyster stew every Christmas Eve, and my aunt now prepares the same traditional dish every year. Louis exceeded my expectations with a deliciously creamy, salty, rich, and balanced dish. The home-like atmosphere of the Beard House combined with the stew brought me immediately back to my grandparents’ dining room during the holidays.

 

Chef Louis’s second course also drew upon a New England tradition, baked beans. He used his unique touch to update the dish while keeping it local. The addition of Maine lobster to the baked beans made for a delightful contrast. The dark, rich, earthiness of the beans was balanced by the light, creamy, buttery fluffiness of the lobster. The duo worked perfectly together and created an intensely delicious dish.

 

My final favorite of the evening came from one of the dessert offerings. Louis employed a forager to gather local black birch sap that became central to the Baked Alaska. All of the desserts were decadent and delicious, but his take on the Baked Alaska produced a special result. Similar in taste to maple syrup, a New England specialty, the black birch syrup had the same sugary sweetness, but with a slightly bitter and earthy aftertaste. By coupling it with the rich creaminess of the ice cream and fluffiness of the merengue, Louis created a delicious melody of flavors.

 

A native of New Hampshire, Chef Louis boasts an impressive résumé of culinary experience. After graduating from the Culinary Institute of America, he spent time at numerous restaurants including The French Laundry and Per Se under Chef Thomas Keller. Louis also worked at Wentworth by the Sea Hotel and Spa, where he initially came up with the idea to open his own restaurant in Portsmouth. After spending time in high-end restaurants creating fine dining experiences for guests, Louis realized he preferred cooking in a more casual environment. “I wanted to open a type of place where I liked to go eat, one where I feel comfortable. When I looked at what type of restaurant that was, I knew there was a common thread of really fun, really exciting places where you still get good food with expert technique.”

 

Not quite ready to jump into his own venture, Louis went to work in New York with Chef Rich Torrisi of Torrisi and then Chef David Chang of Momofuku Ko. In his words, he discovered that, “these places have personality, they have an identity, they have a purpose, and they have a reason behind what they’re doing. They all have a common thread, and it got me thinking about my own mission.” Louis realized he loved the idea of a Spanish tapas-style restaurant, but did not feel comfortable cooking Spanish cuisine. Instead, he looked to his New England heritage and culinary expertise, along with the abundance of local products with which to cook, for inspiration. “I’m in New England,” notes Louis. “I have New England products, I have New England history and culture, so then it started taking shape. I thought, let’s apply that really casual, fun, kick your feet up tapas-style restaurant with heavy New England influences.”

 

Since opening Moxy, Louis has received outstanding reviews from Food and Wine, The Boston Globe, and North Shore Magazine. Though he had previously cooked at the Beard House as a prep chef, this was his first time there as the featured culinarian. “It’s going to be incredible,” he said before the meal began. “The first time I saw the piece of paper come through with my name on it I said ‘whoa, that’s my name,’ it’s different now.”

 

When I spoke to Chef Louis a few days before the meal he sounded busy, yet confident, and extremely happy – and why shouldn’t he be? Being invited to cook at the Beard House is a huge honor for any chef. “I’m going to try to really enjoy it,” he told me, “because moments like this, we’re lucky when we get them. You never know when you’re going to get another one, so you have to embrace the moment while you have it.” If his rendition of the New England Winter at the Beard House is any kind of portend, Chef Louis will probably have many more incredible moments to enjoy in his culinary future.

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