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The Iron Chef Matthew Ona

Jul 2, 2021

Editors Note: Chef Matthew has been all over Shanghai. Many of you have had his food, whether it was at Kathleen’s 5, Napa, Shook!, Truck Stop Grill, or even most recently as Executive Chef Director at THE CUT Concepts. A few of you might have even cooked some of his steak dishes or even seem him on TV.

Here he is on... 

His Start in Shanghai 

I’ve been here for 11 years. Originally, i was at the Napa in People Square behind the JW Marriott, which I got from being an Executive Chef at a winery [Peju] in Napa Valley, California.

Before that I was all over the place. I got my start when a chance encounter got me a stage (pronounced stahj for the uninitiated) with a wonderful lady named Chef Clare Clark, an MOGB winner in the UK -- like the MOF in France, y'know it’s a royal thing.

Before I came to China I was at Harbor Island, one of the smaller Islands in the Bahamas. And before that, I was in Los Angeles cooking at a private country club. And before that I was in Atlanta, Philadelphia, and New York.

So yeah, I kinda went in reverse order there, giving you the tenet version of how I ended up in Shanghai.

Matthew doing a ringside dinner at Peju Winery. 

My first day and month were surreal. Philippe Huser [Napa's owner] picked me up from the airport and we were in his Mercedes driving into People’s Square like ballers. Then a month later was our first Chinese New Year. That was back when fireworks were still allowed everywhere. And it was EXPLOSIONS in EVERY direction for a WEEK straight. The picture from our book was taken from our balcony.

Shanghai F&B a Decade Ago 

Back then there was so much interconnection, with an “old guard” of Shanghai expats that were here for decades. I was coming at the tail-end when customers and investors were wanting to try different things. Like sous vide was becoming popular. 

The market for Western food now is very mature. Now with the advent of rapid social media like WeChat, the market changes a lot faster. Before, market changes happened every 3-4 years? Now, it changes about 12-14 months in terms of hot spots and new trends. You have to keep reinventing.

A Stint at Kathleen's

How did I end up at Kathleens 5? Well I always make the joke, that I got tired of traveling to so far Napa, that’s why I went over to People’s Square (literally a block away). It was great people, great building. Kathleen, I will say this about the lady, she has an amazing eye for picking great locations. She’s got now Kathleen’s Waitan, Bistro, etc. [Kathleen’s 5] The venue that it is now, Roof325, it doesn’t have the glass roof anymore, but you can sit outside, still on nice days, you have real amazing views of People’s Square.

Which kinda maybe my first love of Shanghai, People’s Square.  For the years, I’d walk through and see the ayi’s find matches for their nieces or nephews.

 Shook!, the 88rmb Bund Lunch, and Malaysia

The guys at Shook! had come to Kaltheen’s a few times, and that’s when they and the Swatch Art Hotel invited me to head up Shook! on the Bund. I started the infamous 88rmb lunch on the bund that drew crowds and helped the restaurant in generating several millions in RMB each month. It was because the lunch created crowd of "lunch travelers", who then converted into dinner customers, who then converted into commercial deals for renting the whole terrace for events. People in F&B diss the “low-cost entry” deal. But it worked for us on the Bund. I remember we had these young millennial expat managers, bringing in their bosses, or CEO’s visiting Shanghai for lunch. The next thing you know, the CEO’s are showing up for lunch and dinner on their own. It worked.

From there, I went down to manage the flagship restaurant in the capital Kuala Lumpur (KL). It was massive, it had four kitchens, it was like an army. It was a good experience, nice weather and all but I missed Shanghai. KL is a little monotonous, and getting around KL is a nightmare. In Shanghai you want to get somewhere quick, it’s no problem, but in KL, just a district away can take two hours. And there aren’t the same amount of fast paced opportunities like there are in Shanghai. So we came back.

From in the Kitchen to in Front of the Camera: Enter the Iron Chef

Yeah, so I was in the equivalent of Iron Chef here in China. How I got into it? Had people come to the restaurant, I would do a tableside salad or something, and we just got to talking. [See the Episode where Matthew appears here]. 

We went down to Dongguan, shot it in a brand new hotel. Of course, it’s a Chinese banquet kitchen, so its an entire facility dedicated to Chinese cooking. And then there’s the Western cooking spot with four burners that don’t work and a small table. It was funny, cause the local Chinese chefs loved bantering together. There was a French camera man, and I kept looking straight into the lense and say things like “You’re watching CCTV2 lets get cooking”, so everyone started laughing.

I hammed it up, we did like 50 or a 100 of them. 

I'm also in this major Chinese film coming out called 1921. It was just released and outdid Hollywood releases.  It’s about the founding of the Chinese Communist Party, and has a lot of China’s big stars in it. The talent scout for the movie was eating a lot at Roof325, and one time I did a tableside presentation.

A part came up where they needed someone with…. a physique such as this [laughs] to play a Russian double agent.

I said “Absolu…DUH, yea”.  

I got to play across the main actor played by Huang Xuan.

I've got a book coming out too. It started a few years ago with Matteo Orlandi, owner of M2! Studios. He’s the first guy I worked with on food photography, For the legendary Truck Stop Grill out in the desirable destination of HONG KOU.  

One day I had looked at another Chef’s cookbook that I had worked with in New York, and… it was so bad. And I thought, no way, if this guy has done a book… why don’t we just do a cookbook inspired by the dishes I’ve done over the last 10 years. It was a great way to look at the culinary journey I’ve had through Napa, the Bahamas, Japan, Malaysia, and obviously Shanghai which is a bulk of the book.

Eating Around Town

We have always been long-time Shimachi fans, fantastic japanese joint in Xintiandi. For Italian, for us its still Gianluca Sefafin’s food at Atto Primo… its phenomenal. The way other Italians… you  know like Matteo you ask, “How was Atto” and they just look off into the distance all nostalgic, and they’re like “it’s like my grandma’s food”. That’s about how people talk about when he cooks, he’s one of my personal favorites in Shanghai.

Chris Pitts is great too, loved his cooking at Hiya, Table No. 1, but he’s taking up daddy duty and isn’t in a kitchen these days.

And, ya know… now that Cheesecake Factory’s in downtown, who doesn’t like going there? Of course, Mr & Mrs Bund is still after all these years, a place I return to. I had a tuna tartare there like two weeks ago, honestly it was unbelievable. Chef Paul, if your reading this, it was is just amazing.

Clossing Message to Shanghai?

What can I say Shanghai? I love you. It’s been one of the best times in my life being in Shanghai. This place hasn't become my second home like for some people. After years of traveling, this is just where I call home now. The opportunities that can happen in a single day, I feel is unmatched in anywhere in the world. Getting to cook in restaurants, getting published, being in a movie that's crushing records, damn this city is where its AT. The biggest thing I can say to Shanghai is... I love you. And I bet I'm not the only one who feels this way. 

TELL EVERYONE

[Shanghai Famous]:

Shanghai Famous is a SmartShanghai column focusing on people out there in the city makin' the scene. They're out there around town, shaping Shanghai into what it is, creating the art, culture, and life around us. We asked them what's good in Shanghai. We asked them what's bad in Shanghai. We asked them to tell us more, more, more about their wonderful selves.

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