Exit Interview: Chef BV Nguyen on the closing of Matyson Byob

I spoke to Chef BV Nguyen on the abrupt closing of Matyson Byob in Center City Philadelphia. He was the head chef there as of February 1st. He started working at Matyson as a line cook the previous spring after leaving Pennsylvania 6 where he was a sous chef. 

When people ask me or anyone else what makes Philly’s food scene great, we quickly go to our BYOBs, the places that have been pushing the scene forward with progressive or just simply solid, rustic cuisine. I was fortunate to get to see how BV managed his kitchen at Matyson, from cooking proteins in their own fat to add rusticity to his elegant plates, to putting pea pods and trimmings aside for veg stock, and the time that went into the richly flavored purees that were the first things to hit several of his plates. I got to try several of his dishes and unfortunately, that’s it for now. 

While it hurts when a good restaurant closes, it’s even worse when the restaurant in question has helped, over the course of 12 years, define the Philly scene. To compound things, it’s being replaced by a grilled cheese chain. 

I pretty much just let an emotional BV Nguyen speak. 

Brion Shreffler: You were doing some amazing food there. You somehow stayed under the radar. And now, the way the closing went down–it’s clearly not sitting well with you. 

BV Nguyen: My biggest thing is the industry standard. Restaurants close all the time. It’s not about I got fucked. It’s not about me. It’s about having a better industry standard.

Ethics.

BV Nguyen. by Jacki Philleo.

BV Nguyen wearing his Penn 6 whites while prepping duck breast at Matyson. by Jacki Philleo.

For instance, Smith and Wollensky, they’re a chain, but their employees had two months notice before they closed. Marcie [Turnie] and Vale[Safran]—when Lolita’s was closing to revamp a few years ago, they a had a space and a spot for every single person that wanted it.

You need a spot? Go to Little Nonna’s.

She made a point to make a space for every person. That’s what makes her a good business owner. The [temporary] closing of Lolita’s coincided with the opening of Little Nonna’s.

When you interview and get hired, there’s an unspoken contract.

Anthony Bourdain talks about his master in Kitchen Confidential.

I don’t have the skills but I have the space.

But as long as the money is coming in I’m going to take care of you. I’m hiring you to make food that brings people in the door. Do the job that brings money into the business. Whether you’re a server, bartender, or chef, bring the money in and we’ll have a harmonious relationship. At the end of the day. it’s an agreement. I take care of those who take care of me. I tell my cooks that.

That’s also for my customers. You come in here, you don’t like something, we’ll find something you like.

That’s for my employees. In the kitchen, the front of house. That’s the business way of looking at it. When you invite people to your house, you don’t ask them for money.

That’s why this tattoo [Chinese characters for leadership as written in a copy of “The Art of War”] is here. You have to be strict. You have to go command your troops. Give them the fight, the inspiration to fight. The reason to cook is to feed your own soul. A true cook does not cook solely for the paycheck. It is a necessary evil. A true cook cooks to make other people happy. They cook for happiness. That’s how I feel. Sun Tzu puts it perfectly. He says you have to rule with an iron fist to discipline those below you to what is important and what it is they are fighting for. You have to love them like your own children.

You had a tight crew that worked well together. It was clear that you also cared about them. 

That is where it is really difficult. At the end of the day employees are employees. It’s finding the right people—that’s what’s so difficult. When you do, you want to hold on to them and take care of them. Learning to kill and be a chef. That’s what you give them. They become disciples to you when you find the right people. That’s something as a chef I had to learn. As a chef, you can’t give everything to every cook because every cook isn’t worth it. Being a chef is realizing where you have to focus your energies. A lot of lost battles is because you tried to fight every battle that comes your way. You have to find and weed out and find who is worth your time. You have to make sure that the guy who is in the trench with you is going to watch your back and not give up. I’ve had people give up. People I put my ideals and time into—dishwashers, line cooks, servers. What makes a good a chef is being efficient. I used to put my time and energy into everyone, being very optimistic. But in reality, not every soldier is the same. Too many are mercenaries. But mercenaries don’t win wars. They don’t’ have heart. They’re there for the paycheck. Obviously, to be a mercenary in the lowest paid industry you’re a fucking retard. You don’t fight this battle every day for money. That money has a limit to it. The heart and the passion, the giving a fuck—it’s insurmountable.

This is what I preach to my cooks. The cooks that have potential, that don’t necessarily make it—it’s not because of lack of passion, heart, or skill. It’s because of fear of failing. I preach that to every one of my cooks. My mantra is try, fail, adjust, win. It’s not original. I learned that firsthand from Marc Plessis from Pennsylvania 6. I fucked up dishes—including a duck breast for a food critic. He didn’t flip out. I realized how truly important that was. It’s the menial things you scream about. At the end of the day, what I learned from Marc about being a chef, is you’re ready to put your heart out there to the public and you’re ready to fail, to take their criticism.

When you’re ready to accept that, you can go to step three: adjust. That gets you to step four: win.

Try, fail, adjust, win. When you’re ready to be a chef, you’re ready to put your food out there, you’re ready to take the shit that comes back. You have to be ready to get shit on. Being able to accept that allows you to create freely. Because when you create, you create for your heart and soul. The only thing that holds you back is fear of being accepted about what you do—that paradoxically keeps you from being yourself. We want nothing more than to be ourselves.

It has to line up with what people will buy though. But I can’t be scared to put out new dishes. But a lot of new cooks don’t understand that philosophy. They’re terrified to do something differently from that exact slice, to go off what I tell them to do, because they take pride in what I do. They’re terrified of doing wrong by me. And that’s a good thing. My job is to tell them exactly what to do and to manage.

20150708_213401_resizedBut once they learn enough and become confident in their own skills and learn from their mistakes and watching others, then that’s when they become a sous chef, a general. It takes a ridiculous amount of time. Why is chef yelling at others and not me. You learn fuck tons from that.

I always questions what I actually know. That’s what I teach my cooks. There’s things I don’t know and I want them to learn more. Always a student, sometimes a teacher.

Let’s go back to vacation

Let’s make a quick joke. I never have a vacation until I’m unemployed. That’s how it ends up. There are few chefs who work as hard as I do. That’s how it has worked out for me. My only vacations have been when I’m unemployed. But I’m literally supposed to be on vacation this week.

Now, I’m on vacation…formerly the chef at Matyson Restaurant, now turned into a Milkhouse.

Clearly, it was out of nowhere.

No one knew what was going to happen.

At least I got my food out there. I got to exercise what I was trying to do. I got to experiment and I got to fail a lot. And try things out and fail. That’s what benefited me. Because I now know what does not work. AND then I got a better idea about what does work. And not only about food but with people, with what they see and what they want.

Marcie Turney, she said when I FINALLY got promoted to executive chef after all that bullshit at Matyson, her one and only piece of advice was—and I respect the hell out of her because she owns an empire—which rings so true like what Mark [Plessis] taught me was give the people what they want. You don’t stay open otherwise. But even when you try to make it accessible, even sometimes that’s not enough, and you get shutdown and you become a Milkhouse.

A 12 year institution.

12 years.

And I’m not a big chef. I’m not that awesome. I’m not that cool. But to know that your name is not mentioned in articles and you’re the last chef…it’s sucks but it is also an opening viewpoint to realize that I’m not a big fish, I’m not. I’m not. But this tiny ass fish…I’ve got big ideals. None of those articles [on Matyson closing] mentioned my name but at the end of the day, I have some serious ideals. I have principles that I’ll stand behind. And principles that I’ll run behind. This is my first jump at getting to truly be the executive chef. And, it didn’t go that well. It failed. It’s not my fault. It’s really not my fault. The whole entire system was broken. I mean, you go from $45 tasting menus to $55 tasting menus, which is $10 more per person. It doesn’t sound that much but in the end, that speaks to people. Butch, the owner, he was like, I don’t think people really think about the price.

I was like are you serious. You don’t think people give a fuck about the price?!

Well, you go from my 45 to a 55 dollar tasting menu, people will notice that. And, it showed in the numbers. And that might have been his answer to saving the restaurant quote unquote but in the end, I don’t know if it really helped. But in the end, they weren’t bringing in enough money. We were old news. I came to Butch with many ideas. In the end, he wasn’t willing to change. And that’s what ended Matyson. He wasn’t willing to change the format. You look at the dining room tables, the bare bones floor—worn down.

We talked about the respect owed which didn’t come via notice of the closing. How has it affected your front of house?

Butch literally left an email open on a laptop regarding the contract and the new business proposals. Someone saw that—a week and a half ago. I had no idea. That person was like I thought you should know this.

 It’s like, how are you supposed to know.

Ask the owner.

Well, he gives me a fucking smokescreen.

Of course, that person who told me asks him to his face—people who worked for him for eight fucking years. People who had been to his barbeques that he invited them to. They’d seen his house. I have no clue what his house looks like because I’m not privy. But even those people he left out. And those people literally asked him, Butch, is the restaurant closing. Is something going down? Do I need to be looking around? Am I secure with a job to be able to pay for my house/apartment.

Butch: Naaah…it’s nothing. I don’t think the deal is going through. I don’t think this and that.

Complete bullshit. At the end, come Monday, he was lying to their faces.

Two days ago.

They literally asked him. Are. we.closing.down?

I’m obviously not happy about it. But restaurants close. That’s part of my contract–anyone’s contract working in a kitchen. Hey, I did finally get to be an executive chef. He gave me that chance. It just didn’t last that long unfortunately. I got to do my own food though. To be creative. I got to experiment with what works, what doesn’t work.

It just should have gone down differently.

One of our servers he’s worked here seven or eight years. He’s a lifer. And he asked Butch straight to his face: what’s going on. Are we closing? Do I need to find a new job?

And he got lied to to his face. And he’s livid. By someone he trusted. As a friend. He’s been to his house.

When I walked in on Monday morning on my vacation and found out from Matt [Sosalski] my sous chef that the restaurant was closed.

Matt hit me up.: everything you thought BV—yup. It’s true. The restaurant’s closed Monday. I roll in there to get my shit out, there’s twelve people in the dining room. Lawyers from both sides. Butch and Sue’s side compared with the Milkhouse/Philadelphia Pretzel Factory side. Reading over the contract, making sure everything is legit with everyone. Doing what it takes to take over a restaurant.

I’m walking through—I’m not getting that fussed…I mean, I get it, business is business. You’re not making money. You’re not making money because you’re not willing to adapt. I had to walk through the dining room and these people knew who I am. They’re taking over my paycheck. They knew who they are compared to me.

But it’s business.

By the end of the day, Butch could have tried to adapt to the new systems. Put one dollar into marketing.

But he’s set. He’s got his money. He’s got his fucking yacht. He’s set. His shit is set to the extent that he doesn’t have to give a shit about us fucking employees. That’s why everybody is angry with him. He can get close with the front of house people and have them over to his house but he can’t tell them when they ask specifically.

Are we closing down?

To where they can’t plan for the next two weeks. That’s how this industry works—you make money to spend money.

You’re in it because you love it. It’s a byo. It’s not about the booze. You’re not selling alcohol. Where’s the money coming from? It comes from good food. A byo—that’s what drew me to this place.

You talk about Ian Moroney and you talk about Pumpkin Byo.

What draws them in?

Pumpkin is amazing. What are they? Byo. They are not staying afloat because they offer the best cocktails—and that’s where the money is. It’s through cocktails, it’s through booze. You mark that shit up 200, 300%–that’s where your money comes from…if you have an alcohol license.

But that’s not how Ian did it. He’s a good friend of mine and I respect the piss out of him. He got one of the top 5 restaurants in Philly. You know why? Because he does good food. It’s a byo. He also markets. He also stands behind what he does. He’s also the chef/owner [with Hillary Bor]. He figured out what it takes. He marketed his place. That’s why his name is up there. Why the tourists seek that place out. That’s where Butch failed. Not marketing the place. Adaptation is the key to survival. He did not adapt, therefore I could not adapt. The business plan was not there.

Many restaurants close. And many close terribly like this. But in my opinion, you need to be responsible and to have the balls to say something. This employee’s expected to give you two weeks?! I’m expected to give you a month as a chef/manager?! I’m expected to give you this amount of time where you get to make more money and take care of your bills while taking the necessary next steps you need to make. I can’t get the same respect when you close down?! That’s fucked up.

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