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It was an unconventional way of getting Matt Horn to where he is today. The road to becoming renowned chef and pitmaster and author of the recently published Horn Barbecue Cookbook has not been without its challenges and setbacks. But the forward-thinking chef doesn’t address the adversity and trials he’s faced. Instead, he admits he willingly accepted her.
Horn, owner of Horn Barbecue in Oakland, California, and one of Food & Wine Magazine’s Best New Chefs of 2021, is entirely self-taught. While many newcomers apprentice to an experienced pit master to learn the craft, it was vital to Horn that the results be organic when he decided to continue the business. He’s done all his own experimentation, from testing different woods to exploring the full range of cooking temperatures and times. Unlike most chefs, the only restaurant he has ever worked at is his own. He is fully committed to developing his own taste and style of the foods he loves. He is often quoted as saying that part of his decision to embark on this journey was that the only food he could ever imagine eating every day was crickets. That passion hasn’t waned, though it’s taken a path very different from that of most pit masters, starting in an area not traditionally known for crickets.
“I’ve learned from obstacles and continue to grow in this industry,” says Hörn. “None of this was easy and I still face challenges every day. It’s how you respond to those challenges, and I approach them with grace and class. There were other things I wanted to do in life, but the BBQ chose me. It found me That’s the beauty of grilling and the connection it has with people. I was touched and inspired by this wonderful type of food that consumed me today and I want to have the same impact on our restaurant guests.”
He had his “Aha!” moment starting a fire in his grandmother’s backyard. Watching the flames and smoke, the meditative nature of fire, the need to focus on just one thing and let food guide you on the path to your best self, and most importantly, the collaborative nature of how grilling brings people together , that’s what it is has him captivated. “More than any other job, this job allows me to touch people and create memories through the food we offer,” says Hörn. “Barbecue is one of the older cooking methods in our culture, so we want everyone who enters the restaurant to create a new memory that connects them to the past.”
But grilling can also polarize: each region thinks theirs is the best, each pit master and backyard warrior believes in their process. Starting Barbecue as a trading company requires a certain personal strength. “I think it can be difficult for the industry as a whole to live up to what the public expects of a chef while still honoring the tradition of grilling. Especially in a region that’s not exactly known for barbecues,” admits Horn.
Ultimately, he says, it all comes down to communication: “I’ve definitely taken the necessary steps to try to educate our guests about the food we prepare, its history and the intentions behind what we do . I’ve dealt with doing justice to a chef’s extractions by staying true to myself. In a situation where I face challenges, I try to do everything for our guests and set a good example.”
Grilling is inherently a demanding practice. Long hours, often overnight, of attentive observation, it is not a quick process nor one that invites multitasking. And, in many ways more so than some other sectors of the culinary industry, it takes an even greater toll when it comes to finding a work-life balance. Self-care is becoming even more important, says Horn. “After a long day, I usually listen to Andy Williams. There is something beautiful and timeless about his voice. It helps me refocus while enjoying a cigar and a glass of red wine. It is important to be conscious of stillness and to find peace in what you are doing. When it comes to work-life balance, I think the challenge is finding a way to make sure everything in your life works coherently.”
When it comes to his menu, his greatest innovation is knowing when not to innovate. “I try to stick to traditional dishes. Most restaurants have a seasonal menu. We change some side dishes, as well as our desserts, but in terms of our proteins, we try to stay true to our smoked meat offering. I want to be the best in everything I do, and that’s exactly the standard I hold by. Everything that is served here has to move me emotionally. When deciding on a new menu item, I have to be convinced by emotions. One of the dishes I’m most proud of is Granny’s Potatoes. The dish is a tribute to a very important woman in my life and I love honoring the women who have made me who I am today.”
Ultimately, it is his passion and commitment to continue developing and growing as a person and as a chef, which he believes best serves him and his company and which has enabled him to successfully overcome the challenges of the past few years . “I always strive for excellence and that is reflected in everything I do in life. It is a constant pursuit of perfection to achieve greatness. Although our restaurant has been open during the pandemic, we have done our best to ensure our guests feel safe and comfortable upon leaving. The pandemic impacted the entire industry but we decided to keep our doors open and I felt like we were doing what was best for ourselves and our people.”
The pandemic also activated his philanthropic side. “During this time we have been focused on doing what we do, which is feeding people. We founded the Horn Initiative, a nonprofit organization dedicated to advancing food and social justice, and creating food security for those in need in the Oakland community. In addition to raising money for the community, the Horn Initiative has distributed thousands of meals to first responders and community members in need, and has worked with the Golden State Warriors Home Court Assist Program.”
While Horn, like most in the industry, has been able to stay focused during the pandemic, he continues to feel the effects. “We are definitely understaffed and we feel that as a restaurant. But we focus on and empower the people who want to be here, because they are the ones who show up every day and speak up for our vision and what we want to achieve as a restaurant.”
But despite everything, he still has high hopes for the industry. “What I hope to see more of in the industry is improvements in the way employees are taken care of. My thing is connecting and caring for people and being a vessel to create opportunity for everyone in this industry. It has always been my mission to put the community first. I feel like coming out of a pandemic the only way to go is up so I don’t think there are worries. In the spirit of moving forward, people at my level share a responsibility to serve as role models and empower the next generation of chefs and restaurant owners to pursue their passion for cooking.”
All of his experiences have given Horn some perspective when it comes to the next generation of people entering the industry. “Put on the blinders and stay focused. Never forget where you started and make sure you stay true to your vision. No matter what challenges you face in life, just keep walking because obstacles are inevitable and they will come. Keep moving forward and remember the WHY behind what you are doing. When you are pursuing your purpose, adversity is irrelevant. I would take a second to close your eyes and think about what brings you joy and meaning. When it comes to cooking and feeding people, I would say go after him.”
He has no regrets when it comes to pursuing his culinary dreams and hopes the current climate doesn’t make other people hesitant to pursue their own. “You have to be resilient and have tough skin in this industry. You have to be able to persevere and you need patience. I am very passionate about what I do and what I devote myself and my time to. Tomorrow is not promised and time is such a precious commodity. It should only be invested where the heart lies. I love BBQ and I love this industry and I show that through the food I feature there.”
Matt Horn is the Executive Chef at Horn Barbecue in West Oakland and the author of Horn Barbecue: Recipes and Techniques from a Grill Master. The Horn Barbecue is nominated for the 2022 James Beard Award for Best New Restaurant.
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