CHEF: Matt McPherson
RESTAURANT: Matt’s Red Rooster Grill
Photography by Thomas Robert Clarke
Put a meal or a cookbook in front of chef Matt McPherson and interesting—and unexpected—connections begin to emerge. A self-described dyslexic with a mind that is “all over the place,” the chef-owner of Matt’s Red Rooster Grill recently managed to freeassociate his way from a pizza-and-Coke lunch to Cherry Coke Short Ribs—a dish that became an instant hit at his Flemington restaurant.
When creating a new dish, McPherson takes steps to get into the right creative mind-set. He sets himself up in his restaurant kitchen during off-hours, clears his mind of business concerns, shuts off his cell phone, cranks up the music and dives into the process—beginning by collecting diverse ideas and inspirations, eventually compiling them into a dish that is uniquely his own. That search often begins by looking through cookbooks to find small bits of inspiration. “I’m a very visual person,” McPherson says. “I’m looking at pictures and ingredients. I am pulling ingredients from here, here, and here and putting together a dish.”
Facing down an array of culinary inspirations and possibilities could easily overwhelm most people. McPherson, however, thrives on information overload. “It gets my mind going. I’ll literally have ten pieces of paper going and I’ll be constructing three or four different dishes at once. It’s kind of crazy but that’s just how I work.”
The first spark of inspiration for Cherry Coke Short Ribs came at a weekly chef-manager meeting. Pizza was the lunch item that day, and McPherson accompanied it with his go-to pizza pairing: Coca-Cola. He had been thinking about adding short ribs to the menu, and the lunchtime soda sparked an idea: How about braising short ribs in Coca-Cola to give them a sweet punch? A shipment of exceptionally flavorful cherries served as the inspiration for a cherry-infused demiglace sauce. Combining these two ideas, he created a layered, smoky short-rib dish, which relies on the sweetness of cherries and the sharpness of Coke to cut through the rich demi-glace finish. The ingredient that makes these short ribs extra delicious is time.
After giving them a char-smoked flavor by searing them over a wood fire, McPherson braises the short ribs for five hours in a Coke–veal stock mixture. They then sit in the braising liquid for 24 hours—a crucial step that he says allows the meat to absorb the flavorful liquid. McPherson tweaks this dish based on ingredients he has on hand, using different varieties of cherries or replacing fresh cherries with Italian cherries preserved in syrup. “Sometimes you need a little bit more cherry, sometimes you need a little bit less—depending on how sweet they are or what result you’re looking for,” he says. “That’s the fun of cooking to me—to be able to change, adapt and create new things.”
Matt’s Red Rooster Grill
22 Bloomfield Ave., Flemington