Unionville's Phil Moran interviews the chefs at our outlets and restaurant clients. These pieces are not intended to be restaurant reviews. Rather, they showcase the relationships we have with others in the local food and wine industry.
This first piece highlights the longstanding relationship we have with Matt McPherson of Matt's Red Rooster in Flemington. We enjoy working with Matt and others who appreciate the value of fine wine, good food, and great meals shared with friends and family.
~Stacy Brody, Operations Coordinator, Unionville Vineyards
When Flemington native Matt McPherson came home to open his own restaurant Matt's Red Rooster Grill, his intention was not to create a great grill room. Like most CIA (Culinary Institute of America) graduates, Matt’s grounding was in classical sauces, nouveau and French techniques. His intention was to bring those refinements to his hometown.
At that time, ten years ago, Flemington was a thriving center of discount shopping (a business now eviscerated by the growth of the internet). Although white tablecloth, American and Italian cuisine, was already thriving, the world of “sauciers” and cuisine focused on sauté specialties hadn't penetrated rural West Jersey. Matt, who had honed his skills with the great Chef Ed Brown in the “Sea Grill” in Rockefeller Center, planned to build on that experience. He anticipated sautéing the finest fish, veal and local vegetables, then crisping those creations in a high heat oven and imparting a light wood smoke nose and flavor.
In Matt’s words, what we know today as “Matt’s Red Rooster”(an American Grill Room) and the area's unquestioned source of the finest grilled chops, aged steaks and quickly charred fish, was a serendipitous creation.
When I was planning the restaurant, I spent a week in Seattle with the intention of purchasing a wood fired oven. I wanted a wood oven for the very high heat I needed to quickly crisp, glaze and finish the dishes I envisioned. I stayed for a week and cooked with all the manufacturer’s equipment lines in their test kitchen. It was only after I had the opportunity to work on their high end wood fired grill that I realized this was what my cuisine needed.
It took some time and experimentation with the grill to get exactly what I wanted. I now burn a mix of oak, apple and cherry wood. At the Rooster, we go through 3-4 cords of wood each week.
Matt tells us although he is the first professional chef in the family, cooking at home was an event, not a chore, an event in which the entire family participated. My father was regularly behind the stove, cooking not just for the family but for the Flemington Elks and in charitable events.
For Dad, “cooking for others was his way of dealing with stress.”
By the time Matt was 16, he knew he wanted to become a chef. Matt enrolled in the culinary program at Hunterdon Central H.S., and Gary Peabody, the head of the program became a mentor. At that time we were not all pushed towards obtaining a college degree. I thought I could complete high school and get started on my career. Mr. Peabody had other ideas. He took me up to CIA knowing before I did that there was more to this business than just practicing in front of a stove.
CIA was a turning point for Matt. In the first two years the curriculum was entirely culinary arts. By the time those two years were over, I knew how much I didn’t know and stayed another two years to obtain a B.S. in Restaurant Management.
After school, Matt moved to NYC to increase his skills with the highest level of talent. He was recruited by Chef Ed Brown to re-open the Sea Grill in Rockefeller Center. I learned a lot at the Sea Grill: how to design and fit out a restaurant, hiring, training and motivating staff and a million other things. Ed Brown is a master motivator as well as a great chef. From the beginning my compensation package was tied to the number of stars we received from the major reviewers. Living in NYC, I needed every penny of a four star bonus. The key to that bonus was not only brilliance but consistency with every dish, every night. That is not easy, particularly when you are delivering 500 covers an evening.
That training, that learning, (if not the 500 covers in this 90 seat restaurant) shows at the Red Rooster.
Although the basic concept is grilling the finest beef, chops and fish, the “saucier” comes through, as there may be as many as six sauces available each night.
As Karla Cook noted in her New York Times review: Standout appetizers included an appealingly fragile pan-fried crab cake with a sweet roasted red pepper rémoulade; a composition of roasted red and golden beets with goat cheese and a balsamic-chive drizzle; and an intense mushroom soup with a base of chicken stock enriched and brimming with roasted wild mushrooms and a touch of cream. Another treat was the wood-fired romaine heart, its tender exterior yielding to crunch and smoothed with a parmesan dressing, a smattering of grated parmesan and the lingering flavor of wood smoke.
Other favorites were a Griggstown Farm charcuterie platter that hit all the right notes with its grilled chicken-apple sausage, house-made truffled chicken liver pâté and slim slices of Manchego cheese; and the poblano pepper stuffed with pulled pork (the source of that outdoor aroma, perhaps) in a delightfully gloppy pool of aged Cheddar, salsa and a lime-sparked sour cream.
The Artful Diner’s review focused more on the entrées available on the night of their visit: Entrées highlight Mr. McPherson's love affair with the grill. And should you entertain a passion for finny fare, the grilled whole fish of the day (branzino during my two most recent visits) -- which may be served intact or filleted in the kitchen -- is clearly the way to go. The skin is crisp and crackling, the flesh marvelously moist, and the accompanying lemon caper butter stunning in its simplicity. The grilled scallops, a daily special, were also quite nice....
The pork chop roulade is another winner. The meat is pounded thin then rolled with provolone, Swiss, and mixed herbs and grilled to tender perfection. The consummating touch is a heady mushroom Marsala sauce.
Lovers of red meat, of course, also have some very appetizing choices: rib-eye steak with cabernet demi-glace for instance, or peppercorn-encrusted New York strip with tarragon shallot butter. … I opted for the filet mignon. Velvety of texture and grilled to a mouthwatering medium rare, you will find the accompanying blue cheese sauce vividly assertive but not overpowering.
Matt is also a true believer in the power of fine wine to elevate great cooking. I didn't really have a background in wine appreciation until my years at CIA. In school I took a series of wine courses as part of the curriculum. After graduating I went to Napa for 40 days in the dessert, cooking and tasting the finest California wines. It’s funny, I had absorbed a lot in school and in Napa, but I was really just a cork-dork. I didn't get it until I was able to spend a few afternoons at Unionville listening to Cam rhapsodize about the power of fine wine to compliment and even enhance the power of food. That was my “lightbulb over the head” moment.
To this day, ten years after meeting Cam and being introduced to Unionville, Matt remains amazed at the quality of Unionville wines he is able to offer in the Rooster. My overall favorite is the 2010 “Big O”. The power and elegance of that Bordeaux blend is a perfect foil to the finest steaks and chops.
I asked Matt for a recipe to share with the Unionville faithful, and he provided the following recipe for Creamy Parmesan Dressing for his Grilled Romaine, the only dish always on the menu at the Rooster and for Matt the only dish “ I’m sure I've got right”.
Creamy Parmesan Dressing
2 T Dijon mustard
1 Anchovy filet
1-2 garlic cloves
1/2 c shallots
1/4 c olive oil
2 egg yolks
(1/4 c of mayonnaise as a substitute for the oil and eggs)
Pinch of salt
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Desk or vineyard? This is the question I asked myself when making the leap of faith to leave my corporate life behind to pursue my passion for wine. After working in the medical communications space for 10 years, 2022 was the year of epiphany. It may sound old fashion, but I did have a major realization in the beginning of the new year that I was not meant to work behind a desk and chug along doing work that I was no longer passionate about.
My first notion of my interest of wine came during my frequent business trips to Boston about 4 years ago. For the first time I was immersing myself in the world of wine through client dinners, networking events and a lot of self-exploring through Beantown. During this time was my first encounter with sommeliers and wine experts. I was fascinated and intrigued by the expertise knowledge of wine, wine making and learning about the intricacies that goes into producing a bottle of wine. At this moment, I thought about how amazing it was to witness such passion for the craft of wine.
I enrolled in an online sommelier level one course at the Wine School of Philadelphia and began studying and reading everything I could about wine. This is where my 2nd major epiphany happened – I asked myself, the question that I stated in the beginning “desk or vineyard?”
This is the question that started the major stepping stone to my journey. I no longer wanted my wine passion to be in the background – I wanted to be 100% committed and both feet in. Unionville Vineyards was the first winery that popped into my head when I thought about making my “9:00- 5:00” switch. I attended a wedding at Unionville the year prior and loved the atmosphere, the wine and the people. The position that I applied to was half farm work half hospitality. I was instantly attracted to the idea of being out in the field to where it all begins in wine making. Thoughts of my “office” transforming into the beautiful vineyard was something I desired. I was pleasantly surprised to learn that Unionville has multiple vineyard sites with the Coventry site located within Coventry Farm in Princeton being my favorite (love the views there!) Working at the different sites allows you to see how the different micro climates, soil and land impact the vines and fruit cluster growth. Also working in the field to me was the perfect learning opportunity to understand the craft of wine making soup to nuts. Being surrounded by vines that produced grapes such as Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Chardonnay was eye opening to me. I was so used to seeing the finished product of these grape varietals in their bottled form, but actually being able to perform farming techniques on the vines starts to create another level of perspective and appreciation for wine.
One of my favorite farming tasks to perform in the field on the vines is leaf pulling. Leaf pulling is when you remove leaves from around the fruit clusters. The rule of thumb is to remove leaves that are across and below from the fruit cluster. Removing the leaves creates oxygen flow, openness for pesticides to be sprayed and exposes the fruit to more sunlight. I enjoy seeing the satisfying result of a perfectly balanced vine with the right number of leaves removed. Working in the field creates a huge bond between you and your other field peers. You become a family unit and learn how to work together and communicate as a team. To me, this is a very important factor for having a successful vineyard. My experience with people at Unionville in general has been amazing. You have the opportunity to interact with people from all different backgrounds (teachers, college, corporate, etc.) which makes for some great conversations and comradery.
To anyone reading this, do not be afraid to follow your passion and take a chance on doing what you want to ensure your happiness. It was scary to make such a drastic shift from corporate to farm work, especially since the two are extremely opposite ends of the spectrum, but I have no regrets and I am happy with where my career and focus is going.