Welcome to the September edition of My Kitchen, Their Table, an interview series with the chefs and culinary professionals who work hard to satisfy our small city’s big appetite. This month we’re featuring an interview with Matt Ginn. Photos and videos will continue to expand on the story throughout the rest of the month on Instagram, so stay tuned.
Matt Ginn never went to culinary school. He went to the “school of hard knocks.” His first restaurant gig was at Spurwink Country Kitchen in Scarborough when he was a senior in high school. Since then, he’s worked in thirteen other kitchens – from dishwasher, to line cook, to sous chef, to chef de cuisine to executive chef.
“I was born in a dish pit and I will die in a dish pit,” he jokes.
Long before he became the executive chef at Evo Kitchen + Bar and Chebeague Island Inn, and years before he was crowned champion on Food Network’s Chopped, Ginn was a line cook at a bustling Outback Steakhouse in Mesa, Arizona. It was there, in the organized chaos of a busy kitchen, that he fell in love with cooking.
Intrigued by Portland’s growing restaurant scene and admittedly feeling a little homesick, Ginn returned to Maine in 2007 where he had his first acquaintance with fine dining as the cold station cook at Five Fifty-Five. He struggled at first, but would eventually go on to become Chef de Cuisine and train at other fine dining restaurants, most notably, L’Espalier in Boston that closed in December 2018 after forty successful years.
Ginn has been Executive Chef at Evo since it’s debut in 2015. The restaurant was named one of Portland’s Best Places for Brunch by Conde Nast Traveler and is one of Zagat’s top 10 Reasons to Drive to Portland, Maine. This summer, Evo went mobile and launched a food truck concept, Evo X, at Fore Points Marina on Portland’s East End. The seafood centric menu offers New England classics with a touch of refinement. Think beer battered fish seasoned with furikake and a lobster roll with aioli, herbs, and Old Bay. Don’t worry, the tuna and chickpea fries are on there too!
Keep reading to find out what makes Matt Ginn’s tuna dish so outstanding, how a chain restaurant has helped shape him into the chef he is today, and what dishes he craves most from other restaurants in Portland. Hint: he’s all about the carbs.
AA: How did you end up in Arizona?
MG: Truthfully? To clean up. I had gone to college, it was 2004, and basically got kicked out for partying too much. I was only three semesters in. My family was shocked. My parents are both from very little means and basically gave me some tough love, which turned out to be the best thing that ever happened to me. A friend of mine from high school needed a roommate in Phoenix and at the time I was working at Outback Steakhouse at The Maine Mall. One of the perks of working there is that you could transfer to another Outback anywhere in the country.
AA: What was it like working at Outback Steakhouse?
MG: It was a really eye opening experience. Initially, I thought I was going to be in the front-of-the-house, but they didn’t have room. We did 600-700 covers a night. When I was at Joe’s Boathouse in South Portland, we did 200 to 250 covers on a busy night.
AA: How did your experience cooking at Outback contribute to where you are today?
MG: Three or four months in, I realized I loved going to work and I started to fall in love with cooking. I enjoyed the adrenaline of working a busy line and the hard work that went into it. Chain restaurants are so looked down upon, especially in places where independent businesses and arts and culture thrive, but they have extremely high standards and great operating procedures that you have to live by. Everything is standardized. “Consistency, consistency, consistency” was their motto. That kind of structure was really beneficial for me.
AA: What are some of your favorite dishes in Portland?
MG: I love pasta and carbs, so that’s where my mind goes immediately, like the bread and butter at Central Provisions. It’s the first thing I order along with my drink. It’s toasted Standard Baking Co. bread served with butter and a warm egg sabayon. They change up the garnish and flavoring, but it’s always delicious. It’s bread and butter, elevated.
AA: Where do you go for a great pasta dish?
MG: One of my favorites is the braised rabbit pasta at Isa. It’s local rabbit cooked beautifully in a nice ragout. It’s usually with garganelli or tagliatelle. Sometimes there’s English peas or a seasonal vegetable. It’s not always on the menu, but they actually message me on Instagram to let me know when it is. I also really loved the braised lamb cavatelli at Piccolo. I think it was their signature dish. It was a very bar setting pasta around here. I think of it when I’m creating a pasta dish at Evo.
AA: What about for breakfast? Do you have a go-to dish?
MG: I love the breakfast sandwich at Palace Diner. That’s probably as rustic as I go. It has this very spicy jalapeño relish and a baked egg. Oh my, it’s so good!
AA: What particularly memorable meal have you had at another Portland restaurant?
MG: There were a couple early dates with my wife, then girlfriend, that were just really memorable dining experiences. One was at Fore Street. The food was great, the service was great, the ambiance was great, and I was falling in love. I vividly remember having their signature mussels and a bottle of Mount Eden Vineyards pinot noir.
AA: Have you tried something new recently that you really enjoyed?
MG: The masa dumplings and black beans dish by Túramali is amazing. It’s a pop-up Mexican restaurant by Carlos Duarte. His food is really delicious and thoughtful. I don’t think there is anything like it in Portland. It shines a light on Mexican food as being a lot more than tacos and guacamole. [watch chef Carlos Duarte make fried chochoyotes]
AA: What are some of your most popular dishes at Evo Kitchen & Bar?
MG: Our menu changes every day, but there are three items that became guest favorites that are always on the menu: the tuna, chickpea fries, and falafel.
AA: Does the tuna dish have Mediterranean flavors?
MG: It’s Japanese influenced, but it’s very representative of what Evo is trying to do with progressive Eastern Mediterranean food. We use local bluefin tuna when available. It’s seared and served raw with a salad of pickled ginger and chiles, fresh scallion, and turmeric oil, garnished with puffed quinoa and toum sauce. [watch Matt Ginn prepare this signature dish]
AA: What is toum sauce?
MG: Toum sauce is a garlic emulsion without eggs. It’s common in Lebanese cuisine. It’s just oil, water, and a shit-ton of raw garlic. We add a little lemon juice, too. It’s a ‘mother sauce’ at Evo. For the tuna dish, we add avocado and lime to it. On its own it’s very astringent, but it works in this dish and with this type of cuisine.
AA: What do you love most about cooking?
MG: One of my favorite things is the team aspect. A kitchen is so much bigger than one person. We’re all here for one goal – to make sure the guest has the best time they possibly can.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
A few notes on the restaurants mentioned in this article…Central Provisions has outdoor dining on Dana Street and is doing takeout, Isa has outdoor dining under a tent in their parking lot and on their patio as well as doing takeout, Piccolo has permanently closed, Palace Diner is doing takeout, Fore Street has both indoor and outdoor seating (under a tent in the Standard Baking parking lot), Turamali continues to their pop-up series, and Evo has both indoor and outdoor seating as well as doing takeout.