Seven Questions with Chapman's Sous-Chef Matt Larkin
Larkin is organizing a five-course dinner at Chapman’s Eat Market that will celebrate Juneteenth with dishes adapted from Edna Lewis’ “The Taste of Country Cooking.”
About a year ago, Matt Larkin joined the German Village restaurant owned by BJ Lieberman as a junior sous-chef after living in Southwest Asia for six years. In addition to line cooking at Chapman’s, Larkin pitches ideas for special dinners and helps to execute them. For a recent Vietnam Week dinner series, Larkin drew on his experience living and cooking in Vietnam. Larkin’s latest idea will come to fruition this month when the restaurant hosts a two-part celebration of Juneteenth, a holiday honoring the end to slavery in the United States. In this phone interview, I talked with Larkin about Chapman’s plans for Juneteenth and one of its culinary inspirations: the American chef and author Edna Lewis. You can read more about Larkin’s culinary career path in the July issue of Columbus Monthly. (Tickets for the Juneteenth dinner are nearly sold out. Make your reservation here.)
Why did you pitch the idea of a two-day Juneteenth celebration?
The earliest celebrations for Juneteenth, way back during Reconstruction in the 1860s, were voter registration drives. That was what was most important to those communities at the time was registering people to vote for the first time. That they would have a say in their own lives. … I think that is so important and that's something that I want to continue to honor, because those conversations are still as relevant today as they were [more than 150] years ago, just as relevant as they were during the civil rights movement. We're still having these conversations about police brutality and voter suppression and gentrification. We haven't solved these problems, and there's still a lot of work to be done in this country. That's kind of the main motivation: To host an event that would kind of raise awareness for these issues. Specifically, for me as a chef, food justice and land sovereignty are very, very important to me. So that's the angle that we wanted to take. ... [We're] doing an event that focuses on food, just to show that we can feed our communities and we can keep our community safe and happy and healthy. I think Juneteenth is a perfect day to celebrate those issues.
There are two parts to the restaurant's Juneteenth celebration. First, what can you tell me about the lunch on June 17?
We are planning a free lunch event with All People’s Fresh Market on Parsons on Thursday the 17th. The inspiration for that was really the Black Panther Party and their community survival programs. I think that's such a cool idea, and I think it's something that gets overshadowed in a lot of the conversation with the Black Panther Party. Growing up, in terms of what I learned in history class and history textbooks, it was always about their conflicts with the police and their strategies towards armed resistance to the state, which is definitely a very important part of their whole message, but it wasn't their whole message. They did a lot of really great community work in terms of opening up health clinics and helping people with legal services and these free food programs.
What do you plan to serve for lunch?
We're going to serve Hoppin' John, which is a traditional dish from the Carolinas. It is a rice and beans dish. ... It's a very African tradition in terms of ingredients and preparation. ... I think it is a really cool idea that all of the ingredients together form a complete protein to give you a full, nourishing, balanced meal. All of the ingredients also help support the soil. So, the [peas] add nitrogen, which helps grow the rice, which helps grow the brassicas and kale and greens that go into it. It's a very healthy and very sustainable dish, which is something that I think is really cool to share with people and teach that history. … We will be there on that Thursday from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. with pre-packaged meals that we're going to prepare at Chapman's and then bring over and help distribute.
For Juneteenth (June 19th), Chapman’s is putting together a five-course tasting menu in the style of the late Southern culinary icon Edna Lewis. How are you hoping to honor her legacy through the dinner?
One of the things I really love about Edna Lewis and her writing and her books is how much she honors local produce and where she comes from. I mean, she was doing farm-to-table before farm-to-table was ever a thing. That's just how she was raised. So, we want to adapt the recipes from her book "The Taste of Country Cooking" using as much local produce as we can, which is another great way I think to raise awareness of what we do have available to us in Columbus. There are so many great urban farms and local farms, whether it's South Side Family Farms or the Bronzeville Growers Market that are actually growing amazing produce within Columbus.
Do you think Edna Lewis has gotten the kind of recognition she deserves?
Definitely not. I think that's another one that Southern food in America has a very white face on it. Even at Chapman's, BJ [Lieberman] and Wes [Grubbs] both worked for [chef] Sean Brock for a very long time [at Husk]. And no disrespect to Sean Brock. I think he's an amazing chef and, from what I've heard, he seems like a really great person. He's super talented, and I think he deserves all the credit that he's gotten. But at the same time, I do think it's strange that for so long, even if you look at the James Beard nominees for Best Chef South, it was mostly white men. And that's a culture and a cuisine that is largely if not entirely rooted in slave cooking.
Most people in the food world at least know the name Alice Waters, and she's kind of given credit for the whole farm-to-table movement where I think Edna Lewis was doing this way before Alice Waters. Alice Waters even said as much. She wrote the preface for a "The Taste of Country Cooking" and said that Edna Lewis inspired her, and was a large inspiration for her to do what she did. I would just like to kind of raise that awareness to make sure that people do know the name Edna Lewis, and I think it's changing. [Lewis] is getting a lot more awareness.
This isn't the first time Chapman's will host a themed dinner. This year, the restaurant put together a dinner series that explored Vietnam—an idea that you pitched. How did that menu come together?
We did eight courses. Each one was tied to a city. … There's a street in Hanoi that's known as “barbecued chicken street,” where it's just street-side grills and everyone is making the same thing, chicken and ribs, and it smells incredible. ... Mui Ne is a city on the southern coast that is well-known for seafood. ... So, I knew I wanted to do some kind of shrimp dish. I came up with the cities and the key ingredients I wanted to highlight. ... The overall dish I kind of conceived, but then the final execution was very much a team effort. It was so much fun. Just having all those ingredients in the kitchen and cooking all week, it started smelling like the kitchens I remember in Vietnam. It was a nice reminder of all the things that I missed so much.
Finally, Chapman's opened amid the pandemic as a carryout only restaurant. It just opened for regular, a la carte service for the first time—not takeout, not seated dinners with set times. What is it like to be back to some semblance of normal at the restaurant?
It's great. Feels good. It's so cool just to see people sitting at the bar again. We have such a beautiful bar. BJ and the whole design team did a really good job putting the space together. So, it's just fun being able to walk out of the kitchen and hear a busy dining room and see people sitting at the bar. Kind of the old rush and routines that we all remember from two years ago. It's been so long since anyone in that kitchen has done that kind of service. We're all very happy to get back to what we remember.