Albuquerque lost one of its best chefs last week with the untimely death of Matt Brewer, owner of Café Bodega (4243 Montgomery NE). Matt grew up in Farmington, and used to joke that he was headed for a career as a professional bowler until he discovered food. After several years at various restaurant jobs in Albuquerque, where he worked his way up to become chef at Café Oceana, Scalo and Prairie Star, Brewer migrated west. After graduating from the California Culinary Institute, he was mentored by Chef Cory Schreibner at San Francisco's Cypress Club. Schreibner introduced him to the rigors of California's nouvelle cuisine, a movement which combined the freshest possible local produce and proteins with international ingredients, in uncommon combinations.
Matt never tried to be chic or trendy because he didn't have a pretentious bone in his body. A hallmark of his innovative style was the roasting of meats in a wood-fired tandoori oven, something he did because he loved the way it cooked meat, not because it was fashionable (it wasn't). His plates were complex but not contrived; some of my favorites were his curry sauce with roasted vegetables in filo pastry, and his oysters with applewood-smoked bacon, crêpes and crème fraîche. Ingredients ruled on his seasonal menu.
After returning to New Mexico from California, Brewer and wife Barbara opened the much-loved Café de Las Placitas. I met them when I was hired as a server there. Barb did the bookkeeping and managed the dining room with a “just so” attention to detail that was remarkable. I'd worked with many fine chefs and managers over the years, but I had never encountered anyone quite like these two.
Their pride of ownership and desire to be the best at what they did had a trickle-down effect on the entire staff. We wanted to rise to the high standards they set, and those standards were very high indeed. Everything was prepared with the best possible ingredients. Fish was flown in from both coasts, and remarkably, everything was made from scratch—including the crème fraîche, pastas, desserts and sourdough bread.
I've seen Matt and his masterful sous chef, Rochelle Woolard, serve over a hundred dinners with no other kitchen help, no small feat I can assure you. They moved in a controlled balletic chaos without the frenzied knife-throwing, name-calling nonsense I've witnessed in many high energy kitchens. When I talked to Rochelle the other day she mused, “Matt was a joy to work beside, and he was a great human being, no matter how hard it was with just two of us on the line. It didn't matter if we were serving the King of Spain or my sister, his plates were always perfect, and that's what I loved about the man.”
Matt was a great chef, but also a kind, generous friend and a loving father. He was always there for his friends, whether it was fixing an ancient car, moving tons of gravel to landscape a yard or helping lay a tile floor—all of which he did for me. I remember watching him at a picnic, playing with his sons. It was hard to tell who was having more fun, him or the kids. Matt Brewer was an all-around great guy and he's already greatly missed.