Interview with Matt Dawes, chef of Bull & Beggar and "Indian Supper"

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A few weeks ago, our Spicewalla squad was lucky enough to join up with The Bull & Beggar and chef Matt Dawes for our first partner dinner. Chef Matt and his team stepped out from their usual French parameters for one night, to create a menu inspired by Matt's long love affair and history with India and Sri Lanka. 

It was an impressive and comprehensive shift for one night from a chef and kitchen that has become known for offering all the richness and meat-centric delectability that classic French cuisine has to offer. Instead of beef tartare and oysters there was biryani and sour fish curry, and it was done with the same care and excellence as a normal night at the restaurant.

Spicewalla stocks the spices in the kitchen at The Bull and Beggar, and the experience is always one that leaves you feeling a slight embarrassment of riches at the decadence you've consumed, so go if you haven’t been. But, in the meantime, read on to learn more about the genesis of this "Indian Supper."

Mikey: So, let’s talk about India. How did you end up being interested in going, how old were you, and how did it happen? Had you been traveling a lot before?

Matt: No. When I got on the plane to India I had never actually been on a commercial flight before.

Mikey: What? Not even domestically??

Matt: No. I had not left the South. My uncle was a pilot and had a Cessna. So we went everywhere on that for family vacations. It was back in ’96 and it was one of those giant planes with two stories. I was 20 years old, got drunk on the plane and got sick in Charles De Gaulle and kept going. I was interested in India from a young age I guess because my father, who was a psychologist, and sort of an old school analyst was interested in religion, Buddhism, Hinduism, Zoroastrianism, the whole sort of, um, playbook from India.

Mikey: Had he been to India?

Matt: He had not. He met Ram Dass in the late 60s and began meditating.

Mikey: Was he a bit of a hippie, your dad?

Matt: No, he was a psychology super nerd. And you know that Ram Dass, before becoming a spiritual leader, was a Harvard psychologist.

Mikey: So he kind of got into it through that? 

Matt: Yea. And, I think as a young man I think I was both trying to… you know what? it’s classic psychology. I was trying to impress my father, and I had many of his interests, which I think I maintained because we are similar people, but Warren Wilson offered a semester in India with a month in Sri Lanka attached sort of as an introduction to South Asia. So the first thing we did was fly to Columbo in Sri Lanka, stay at an ashram one night, and then they drove us out into the jungle and dropped us off in a village for 2 weeks. Just immersion. So, I was in a dung hut. Through Warren Wilson.

Matt Dawes in India

Mikey: That’s cool. You were just studying what was taught at the ashram, or what exactly?

Matt: Village development. Gandhian economics. And we were expected to glean whatever we could depending on our own special interests. The professor was in India and he was with us that first month, then he let us loose in India. And we had months to just travel around, and we were supposed to keep an intense journal. Daily entries. And at the end of all of it, we turned in all our journals, and he gave us a grade on how well we experienced India. It was so non-structured, that some people really could not perform for this professor. But I happened to be one of his sort of acolytes for the whole four years I was in school. Because we had no instructions, but if you did shoddy work he would give you hell about it. So, third class train tickets all over India. I had $2,000 for four and a half months traveling around. And then, after school, I went back because I still had some contacts with some of the people in the ashrams from before. And, some of my friends I convinced to go who hadn’t been, and some who had. And we went back in 2000, and I stayed for six months into 2001. And just went everywhere into South India, Himachal Pradesh, some of the places I’d been before, back to Sri Lanka for Christmas, all over. But at that point I was interested in food, much more than I was the first time.

Mikey: So, the first time around, you’d say it was more about the psychology, philosophy, getting to know India?

Matt: It was also one of those experiences that sort of blew my eyes wide open. Having, like I said, not been anywhere. I was young, impressionable, traveling, all the sensory experiences and the food. But, it was like a four and a half month psychedelic experience without drugs.

Mikey: You know its funny I’ve been going to India since I was seven years old. The first time I went was 1989. I remember being immediately like “this is my home” - this is where I belong. total anarchy, animals in the streets. This is it. I love it, I’ve arrived. But you strike me as not the most extroverted guy. You’re a bit of an introvert. In my experience people like that that go to India have a hard time. But you seem to have forged such a bond with India. Do you feel like it happened right away?

Matt: It did. And I think part of that was the first time I was young and didn’t have a lot of money, and I was under the sort of tutelage of this professor who I was enamored with. And we did things in a way that if I had gone later in life I might have had more apprehension about. Like, we stayed in the worst hotels. Rode in the third class sleepers. But it was the people I was meeting. And the sort of magnanimous cultural expectation of strangers and guests are treated in an unbelievably generous and open way. And on the second trip, sort of became the modus operandi just to go to somewhere where there hadn’t been a lot of backpackers, meet people, generally make friends with someone, go meet their family, and then they would invite us to dinner, or invite us to stay with them, and we would stay for five or seven days with the family, way out of the sort of tourist route. I didn’t go see the Taj Mahal, or to Agra, or any of that until this last trip. So, I was having one on one interactions, or very small, nuclear reactions. So, being an introvert it was ok for me. And then the loud crowds, you can disappear. Culture shock was actually coming back from India the first time, it was like I was kind of wanting to go where there were more people, so I could feel more anonymous

Mikey: I think I found often coming back from India this crazy sense of isolation that is everywhere in the West.

Matt: And people in India, they’ll just ask you anything. I was raised in a sort of, what I came to recognize only as I met people from different backgrounds, is a pretty straight laced bourgeois southern family where we don’t really talk about anything. And certainly not religion and politics, and money. But, in India someone you just met on the train would ask you how much money you make or some guy asked me what my favorite time of day to make love was. Morning, afternoon, or night. He was just gathering information.

Mikey: You said the second time you went back you were more interested in food.

Matt Dawes in India

Matt: I tried to get into as many kitchens as I could. It was sort of strange. That was one place where I didn’t expect, but found people sort of pushing back. Part of that is just that in houses and villages its women cooking. They were used to being in the whole family setting and not one on one and it was a little uncomfortable for them, but I persisted and learned some things.

A funny thing that would often happen when I was staying with a family would be once they realized I was interested in cooking, the matriarch would be like, “We are going to cook a special meal for you. We are going to make spaghetti.” And then it would be like lo mein noodles with curried ketchup. It would not be good. But it would be in my honor.

Mikey: So, had you been into cooking before you went on that trip?

Matt: Uh, I guess I have always sort of cooked. It took me a long time to realize it was something I should do, but this was the 90s and I sort of caught the crest of the breaking wave. I never watched the food network or anything but chefs were starting to become cool. But I cooked I had no real professional experience. I sort of auto didactic it all. I became more and more obsessed with cooking at home. I also got a liberal arts degree and a humans studies with a concentration on society and the individual. Which didn’t turn out to be profitable right away. [laughter]

Mikey: But you had been interested in cooking. 

Matt: Yea, I cooked, I threw dinner parties, even back to high school. So, the first trip to India in college, I helped cook this giant meal in Sri Lanka and I was frying papadams in this big vat of coconut oil over an open fire and burned my hand and it didn’t heal for 28 days because it was the tropics. And like two days later after getting to Gujarat it was like totally healed because it was dry there. And I had a guy teach me how to make chapati up in Kuala Manali because I was there in the winter and I was the only guest in a hotel so the cook let me hang out with him. But the second time that was more like a purpose instead of an interest. And after I got back I went to culinary school. And found out I didn’t need to go, but I was already enrolled. Everything they were teaching me I had a pretty good knowledge of, I just had zero confidence. I also had this mythical image of what a professional cook was that they must know 1,000x more than I had been able to glean cooking on my own. 

Mikey: Which you found to be false? 

Matt: Yes. And now I would tell any young cook or anyone interested not to go.

Mikey: Did you finish? 

Matt: I did. I went to Johnson and Wales and did the two year program in 10 months. And was done. Then I went to work.

Mikey: Well, so this dinner that you are doing, "Indian Supper," why did you want to do it in the first place? 

Matt: I have a great respect for Indian food, but in some ways its kept me from putting too much of that into my public cooking, because I am weary of being a dilettante. I cook a lot of Indian food for staff meal, but I’ve always sort of wanted to do an entirely Indian menu, and I also am not a "fusion" guy. Or, I lean away from avant-garde as well, I’m not trying to invent wheels.

Mikey: So your food at Bull & Beggar is very much in the French tradition, and very true to that. Where as, what you are saying, you wouldn’t want to bring Indian food into this restaurant, because that’s not what it’s doing, and you would want to do it right. 

Matt: at this point in my life, a forty three year old chef, it has become clear to me, that if I want to experiment, it’s through deepening my understanding of the way things have traditionally been done. Uncovering dishes that have nearly disappeared in almost an anthropological way. We do that here and we have to update it to make it… enticing sometimes. But we do zero sous vie and zero molecular gastronomy. 

Mikey: So is there anything at "Indian Supper" that’s gonna be sort of uncovering old stuff?

Matt: It’s mostly dishes that I have a true attachment to but I’ve researched them for this dinner instead of putting a spin on it. And that’s sort of the way we approach French food. There has to be some concessions made to the fact that we want to source great ingredients and those are going to be in many cases be local and American and regional and we’re not in France, we’re not in Mudarai. It’s having to do it here. But I don’t want in any way ever be considered someone who takes other peoples traditions flippantly.

You find this in nearly every profession, but especially ones where it requires creativity. If you are fully engrossed in cooking in the Indian vernacular and you know your stuff. Then I think you are going to create something new with that in the background and therefore you have a license to do it. But for young cooks, theres an eagerness and sometimes what I hope is not a foolish disregard for learning that sort of thing. David Chang went to japan and engrossed himself and is from a Korean-American background. When he does fusion it’s not…

Mikey: It’s not from a flippant place.

Matt: Right. So, some dishes sort of stick out in my mind from traveling around India, I’ve tried to pull from those for this dinner. The menu is not very large. Im going to have biryani in a sort off South Indian style, but specifically madras/Chennai style. Because that is where I found this one biryani shop that I couldn’t stop going back to. 

Mikey: So did you learn with them?

Matt: Nope, I have looked up biryani in the style of madras and so I hope I do it justice because honestly I’m the only one with the personal connection. So, I’ll be the worst critic. Vindaloo made with pork belly, cooked in no water at all, just vinegar, chilli, and spice. Sort of a very unrecognizable but traditional Goan style. I think vindaloo is sort of a cultural mishap. Its on a lot of Indian restaurants in both the UK and the US. But it doesn’t really resemble the

Mikey: Right, vindaloo in the west signifies “hot” where in in India it means vinegar and pork and weirdness.

Matt: And it's related to adobo, and pretty much everywhere the Spanish and the Portuguese went where they were cooking pork in vinegar as a preservative. Chillies got added as they left the Caribbean.

And there’s one Sri lankan dish that isn’t Indian but has a personal significant for me: hoppers served with coconut sambal and hard boiled eggs in curried coconut broth. It's shredded coconut made into a sambal - pounded with red chilies and dried tuna, and shallots and then you squeeze lime juice and put salt on it.

Mikey: Zoe sent me pictures from your wedding by the way.

Matt Dawes in India

Matt: It was what I would have hoped for to share India with Zoe who had never been. That wedding experience was India turned all the way up. Because we were there for 2 weeks. 18 days. That was complicated. I had been for 6 months and then again for 6 months and then here I wanted to share it with someone and there was no way we could do what I had done in 18 days. 

Matt Dawes in India

Mikey: India is definitely the best when done the way you did it. Spend time in the country with families. Be with people. 

Matt: For sure. Maybe one day her and I will go back and spend months there together. I would love nothing more.

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