Life According To... Victor Matthews

Victor Matthews has had a sparkling culinary career in Colorado. Here, the 42-year-old master chef talks to 5280 about tossing pizzas, fine dining in Colorado Springs, and why Colorado's food scene is underappreciated.

April 2010

My first restaurant job was when I was 14 years old; I got a job at a pizza place as a dishwasher. Washing dishes isn't very flattering to the ladies, but there was a guy up front tossing dough, which seemed like a much cooler gig. I washed dishes for two years, and eventually started stirring pots, and at 16 I was in the window tossing pizzas.

At 18, I was at a used bookstore and saw a cookbook called Take Twelve Cooks, about these British master chefs. And I was just fascinated by this picture of a salad of sliced avocado with black currant vinaigrette. I had never heard of either of those ingredients, and it just blew my mind.

The number one question I get is why I moved to Colorado Springs. After being in New Orleans and Houston, I was tired of the South and the heat. I wanted my own place, with nice weather and mountains, so I went online and came across a place called the Pub and Grub in Green Mountain Falls, near Colorado Springs. I had never set foot in Colorado before, but I came out and just fell in love with the place—it was a 40-year-old log cabin with a huge fireplace. I bought it and reopened it as the Black Bear Restaurant, which was the place's original name, a year later.

When I moved here, dining left something to be desired in the Springs. There's just not enough people here into fine dining, so you really have to drive people to the restaurant.

Back in the early part of this decade, there were a lot of state cooking competitions, and chefs from Colorado Springs kept winning. People asked, "Why not Denver? Or Vail? Or Aspen?" And it's because in Colorado Springs you have to fight so hard. A lot of chefs here are psychos—you have to be totally dedicated. It's a battlefield.

Food Network backfired because you have a huge quantity of people who think they know something about food.

A great chef or sommelier is an individual—the idea of a mass-production university is ludicrous. A school has to be set up like Juilliard—hands-on, with instructors that aren't just reading from a book. Our instructors are whooping ass on the line every night, and they will teach you to whoop ass on the line. That's the point of Paragon.

Colorado's food scene is vastly underappreciated. Our lamb is legendary—if you go to New York, or Paris, or Tokyo, they're eating Colorado lamb. It's just better. We also have insane beef credentials, and beans, and high-end potatoes from the San Luis Valley, and some of the best mushroom foraging in America.

We're one plane hop from both coasts, so we can get anything in the world quickly. Colorado is partly in the Southwest and the Heartland, and we have some big cities and the mountains. We have everything in America with the exception of the oceans, and because of that we also have freedom. If you're in Boston, you have to do things like Boston. If you're in San Diego, you have to do things like San Diego. But since we're all muddled up, we're able to do whatever we want.