Gracie’s has become a downtown staple known for its impeccable service, rotating menus and detailed touch points. What other restaurant’s valet leaves a bag of freshly baked cookies in the car for an after-dinner treat? Helming the kitchen is executive chef Matthew Varga, a Johnson & Wales alum who, prior to Gracie’s, worked at Mill’s Tavern, Raphael’s and Trattoria Simpatico. We sat down with Matthew to talk about his creative process, the restaurant’s rooftop garden and those tasting menus.
How’d you get started as a chef?
I’ve worked in kitchens since I was 15 years old and washing dishes. I love the camaraderie and the artistic, creative ability that you can have while cooking and the satisfaction of taking raw ingredients and working with your hands to create something tasty and beautiful that makes people happy.
How frequently does the menu at Gracie’s change?
Our à la carte menu changes about six to eight times a year and our tasting menus change every week or two, depending on the availability of products that are in season and what our farmers are bringing us.
What inspires new creations?
Travel inspires me a lot. I was in Paris recently, and that had a big influence on my spring menu and it’ll have a big influence on my summer menu as well. This past October, I spent time in Prague, Budapest and Nuremberg, so those Eastern European flavors really inspired my fall and winter menus – lots of braised cabbages, slow-cooked duck and pork. I do have a plan to travel through Italy later this year, so I imagine my time spent there will inspire my upcoming fall and winter menus. I like to think what we do here at Gracie’s is globally inspired and locally acquired.
Any ingredients you’re currently crazy about?
I love asparagus. A lot of chefs say ramps and I’m a big fan, but I think there are a lot of other, lesser-known ingredients, like black locust flowers and wisteria flowers, which are only in bloom for two weeks and they’re all over Rhode Island. You can make fritters out of them, they’re great for seasoning butters if you’re making a sauce and they’re delicious sautéed with peas. Spruce tips are a great utilization of a wild edible, too.
What are some of the most popular items on the à la carte menu?
The Russet Potato Gnocchi Carbonara, the Crescent Farms Duck and the Baby Greens Salad never come off the menu. And funny enough, with all of the options we have on the menu, Pat’s Pastured Chicken and Sausage (artichokes, broccoli rabe, new potatoes, black garlic puree and savory jus) is probably one of our biggest sellers.
Tell me about Gracie’s rooftop garden.
The rooftop garden was started in 2007, which was the same year I started at Gracie’s. It’s located on top of the Peerless Building, and we grow everything from tomatoes, eggplants and peppers to strawberries and a large variety of edible flowers and herbs. We also grow some stuff – like chamomile, lemon balm, lavender and other tea ingredients – for Ellie’s Bakery. It’s very rewarding for my team, as well – not just being able to pick fresh vegetables and garnishes for their service but also teaching them how much work actually goes into the turning of the beds, the seeding, the waiting, the harvesting, the cleaning. I find that my cooks are more appreciative of the ingredients coming in when they see how much work goes into growing and producing these vegetables.
When it comes to the dishes, we really try to let the ingredients speak for themselves. The tomatoes, for example, will never see refrigeration. They’ll be served around the same temperature they were harvested at. I think it’s very important to not take away the essence of the item and to really let the ingredients speak for themselves.
194 Washington Street