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The Life of Brian

Excerpted from Central PA magazine, May 2002

There are two things you will never find on your table while dining at Brian Kent’s in Hershey – salt and pepper shakers. It’s owner/chef Brian Matlick’s attempt to prevent what he calls a "kneejerk reaction" to season food before actually tasting it. And it’s just one of the many unexpected details that Matlick believes have been the key to his two-year-old restaurant’s success.

Even though it’s six hours before the restaurant opens for dinner, Matlick and his sous-chef, Josh Easton, have already donned their chef’s whites and are busy preparing for tonight’s 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 apple–ginger. Every single thing – sauces, stocks, desserts, soups, dinner rolls – is made from scratch, by hand.

"I’m 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 don’t believe in margarine or any substitutions."

Matlick doesn’t believe in heat lamps, either. Like salt and pepper shakers, heat lamps are a ubiquitous presence in restaurants – and noticeably absent at Brian Kent’s. "Heat lamps are evil," he says pointedly. "The only thing they’re good for is heating plates. They dry out sauces and overheat the food." Dishes at Brian Kent’s 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 Kent’s. Crissy gave birth to their first baby in March, a girl, whom they named Bronwyn.

"We wanted something unusual, unexpected. It’s Welsh," he says of his daughter’s 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 restaurant’s fish himself. It’s shipped from Boston, and Matlick receives the fish the day after it’s 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 mauve—colored 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 you’re 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 doesn’t have to spend nearly $300 for a pound of Tahitian gold vanilla beans, or use Ecuadorean niño bananas, to flavor his ice cream. He doesn’t have to bake his own bread every morning, or cut his own fish. He doesn’t have to grow his own herbs in a garden out back. He doesn’t have to use mostly organic vegetables from a pricey grower near Philadelphia. But his food wouldn’t be as good, and his customers wouldn’t 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 don’t come to Brian Kent’s just for the food. Eating there feels as if you’ve 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 that’s what I’ve created." He notes that chefs’ personal time is so limited, and when his peers choose to spend free evenings at his restaurant, "that’s 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 wouldn’t work, that Hershey can’t 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. "It’s fantastic to realize your dream."  

Tue—Sat 5—10pm
934 E. Chocolate Ave., Hershey
(717) 533-3529
Reservations strongly recommended


© 2002 WITF Inc.
The print edition of Central PA magazine is sold at selected newsstands and is also available as a member benefit of public broadcasting station WITF, Harrisburg, PA, for a minimum contribution of $45 (seniors and students $25). Become a member online.




Serves 1

For steak:
salt and pepper, to taste
1 baby portabella mushroom
(approximately 3 inches)
3 spears white asparagus (blanched, then shocked in ice water)
2 center-cut filet mignons (4 oz. each)
canola oil

For crab Mornay sauce:
2 Tbs. butter
2 Tbs. flour
2 cups milk
3 oz. Parmesan cheese, grated
3 oz. jumbo lump crabmeat
salt and pepper, to taste

For poblano-cream sauce:
1 oz. smoked bacon, finely diced
1 red onion, chopped
3 stalks celery, chopped
4 poblano chile peppers (grilled, skinned, deseeded, then puréed in food processor)
2 cups chicken stock
2 cups heavy cream
3 sprigs fresh thyme, chopped
3 sprigs fresh oregano, chopped

Season portabella, asparagus and filets with salt and pepper. Coat cast-iron skillet with oil, and sauté portabella until tender. Sauté asparagus until tender-crisp. Set aside. Cook filets in small amount of oil until desired temperature is reached.

Create roux by combining butter and flour. Cook in saucepan for 5 minutes. Add milk and cheese. Stir constantly to thicken sauce. Add crabmeat, then season with salt and pepper.

Sweat bacon in sauté pan. Add onion and celery and cook until translucent. Add puréed poblanos. Add chicken stock and reduce. Add cream, thyme and oregano, then reduce again over medium heat. Season with salt and pepper. Purée sauce in blender until smooth.

Stack filet, portabella, then second filet to create a tower. Spoon poblano sauce around bottom. Lean asparagus spears against side of tower. Drizzle Mornay sauce over top of tower.



* Ice-cream machine required

3 cups cream
3 cups whole milk
2 cups sugar
2 chai tea bags
5 egg yolks

Heat cream, milk, sugar and tea bags to scalding point, then remove from heat. Steep for 10 minutes. Place egg yolks in bowl and temper by adding about 1 cup of hot cream mixture to yolks, whisking, then pouring all into rest of cream mixture. Cook on medium heat for 5 minutes. Cool in pan in ice bath. Place mixture in ice-cream machine for 30 minutes.



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