Excerpted from Central PA magazine, May 2002
There are two things you will never find on your table while dining at Brian Kents in Hershey salt and pepper shakers. Its owner/chef Brian Matlicks attempt to prevent what he calls a "kneejerk reaction" to season food before actually tasting it. And its just one of the many unexpected details that Matlick believes have been the key to his two-year-old restaurants success.
Even though its six hours before the restaurant opens for dinner, Matlick and his sous-chef, Josh Easton, have already donned their chefs whites and are busy preparing for tonights crowd. Potatoes for garlic mashed potatoes are boiling in a deep stainless-steel pot. A pile of white asparagus is resting on a table, ready to be washed. Easton prepares a soup stock, occasionally pausing to rouse poblano chile peppers roasting in a skillet. Matlick dashes downstairs to spy on a mound of rising dough and to check his supply of homemade ice creams and sorbets, in flavors such as banana, chai, pineapple-champagne and green appleginger. Every single thing sauces, stocks, desserts, soups, dinner rolls is made from scratch, by hand.
"Im pretty much a purist in all aspects of cooking," Matlick says as he chops a red onion into tiny, perfect squares. "I believe in salt, pepper, real butter and eggs. I dont believe in margarine or any substitutions."
Matlick doesnt believe in heat lamps, either. Like salt and pepper shakers, heat lamps are a ubiquitous presence in restaurants and noticeably absent at Brian Kents. "Heat lamps are evil," he says pointedly. "The only thing theyre good for is heating plates. They dry out sauces and overheat the food." Dishes at Brian Kents are cooked, sauced, then immediately delivered to the table.
A native of Palmyra, Matlick, 32, dropped out of West Virginia University after three years to attend the Pennsylvania School of Culinary Arts in Pittsburgh. He has lived and cooked all over the country, including Kentucky, Hawaii and Atlanta, where he met his wife, Crissy, who helps Matlick manage the business end of Brian Kents. Crissy gave birth to their first baby in March, a girl, whom they named Bronwyn.
"We wanted something unusual, unexpected. Its Welsh," he says of his daughters name, tapping the side of the refrigerator where her photograph and sonogram picture are taped.
He makes another trip downstairs to check on the dough, returning with a hulking raw tuna loin. One of his stints was as a fish butcher, and he cuts all of the restaurants fish himself. Its shipped from Boston, and Matlick receives the fish the day after its been caught. Speedy delivery is key, so Matlick can inspect the eyes and gills for freshness before cooking it that night. He eases a knife into the deep mauvecolored flesh with the skill of a surgeon, slicing generous fillets for chili-and-cumin-crusted tuna. He scorns the French tradition of miniscule portions of food. "If youre going to feed someone," he says, "feed them."
Matlick works an average of 13 hours a day, five days a week. His nature is to go above and beyond the expected, and the word "shortcut" is not in his vocabulary. He doesnt have to spend nearly $300 for a pound of Tahitian gold vanilla beans, or use Ecuadorean niño bananas, to flavor his ice cream. He doesnt have to bake his own bread every morning, or cut his own fish. He doesnt have to grow his own herbs in a garden out back. He doesnt have to use mostly organic vegetables from a pricey grower near Philadelphia. But his food wouldnt be as good, and his customers wouldnt be as happy and he knows it. "I go to every extent at every level," he says. "I do things no one else thinks of doing."
Patrons dont come to Brian Kents just for the food. Eating there feels as if youve been personally invited for dinner in the Matlicks home. The three cozy dining rooms seat only 38 people. Members of the wait staff never have more than three tables at once, so service is intensely personal. Matlick readily admits to being "obsessive" about customer satisfaction and comfort.
"I always wanted to have a speakeasy where you had to know someone, and when you came to the door, you had to say the password," he says, walking across the creaking hardwood floor of the main dining room. "I also wanted to have a restaurant where all the chefs in the area come to, and thats what Ive created." He notes that chefs personal time is so limited, and when his peers choose to spend free evenings at his restaurant, "thats the biggest compliment of all."
Back in the kitchen, Matlick gingerly removes the silvery skin of a Chilean sea bass, revealing white, delicate meat underneath. He cannot imagine being or doing anything else. "I always wanted to come back [to Central PA]," he says. "Everybody told me it wouldnt work, that Hershey cant support fine cuisine. Everybody fought me every step of the way right down to the salt and pepper on the tables."
He shifts his concentration back to the fish for a few moments, then looks up and around his kitchen, his domain. "I created what I wanted, and it turned out exactly the way I wanted," he says. "Its fantastic to realize your dream."
934 E. Chocolate Ave., Hershey
Reservations strongly recommended
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