Matt Sargent was a construction worker for a quarter century, but about four years ago he "hit the burnout stage" and began setting a career change in motion. The Warren resident knew he wanted to enter the food world — but in a market like the Mad River Valley, which fluctuates dramatically depending on tourist flow, opening a restaurant seemed daunting.
So Sargent began cooking up six- to eight-course meals in pop-up locations around the state and dubbed them "Phantom Dinners." The monthly events were advertised through social media; once 30 people had signed up, he would reveal the location. Over the years, Phantom Dinners have been held in fields, barns and other spots around Vermont.
"It was a litmus test," Sargent says. "Do people like my cooking? Do people respond? And it really took off. People really responded to it."
This summer, Sargent is moving to slightly steadier locations with "Chloe," a brand-new food truck that's been showing up in Waitsfield the last several weeks. In July, the Phantom Truck will pull into Burlington locales and elsewhere.
So what prompted a self-taught, fortysomething guy to enter the food-truck biz? Seven Days grilled him to find out.
How did your family eat when you were growing up?
We ate a classic mix. Both my parents worked, so there were times we were eating TV dinners and SpaghettiOs, but my parents loved to cook, as well. So one night we'd be having a TV dinner and the next night my dad would be grilling a leg of lamb. There were five of us in the family, so we'd each take a turn one day a week, so it took the burden off them. Of course, as a kid, oftentimes that meant I'd open a can and make a grilled cheese, but I was always cooking and testing and tasting.
Were you always a foodie?
They didn't call it that back then. You just liked food.
As a child, were there any foods you thought were gross?
I went through the same phases as a lot of kids. For a while I wouldn't touch tomatoes, I thought they were gross. Now I love them, especially in the summer. For a while I hated anything carbonated.
Name three foods that make life worth living.
Watermelon has to be one of them — to this day I'm known as a complete watermelon junkie. Häagen-Dazs' Vanilla Swiss Almond ice cream, and I apologize to Ben & Jerry's profusely, but I love Häagen-Dazs! I really love a wood-roasted leg of lamb, and I think that may go back to my dad. I love any kind of roast lamb, but especially one that's been wood roasted.
Have you ever eaten something truly weird?
Insects. My folks once, I forget where they went, but they came back with these vacuum-sealed cans of salted grasshoppers and chocolate-covered ants. You had to peel back the lid of the can, and it popped. I remember eating these salted grasshoppers and ants and thinking they weren't actually horrible. I wouldn't say they were good, but they were edible.
What's the last thing you ate?
A really good piece of sourdough toast with butter and marmalade I made a couple nights ago from oranges and Meyer lemons.
What foods are always in your pantry?
Beans of many types, because I love playing around with beans. I love my pressure cooker, because it makes life easier for that kind of thing. I often have some kind of pork and a half-eaten watermelon in the fridge. In the summer, if I don't have a watermelon in the fridge, I don't feel like life is right. Our family is very fruit driven. There are some City Market plums in there, too.
If you could have any chef in the world prepare a meal for you, who would it be?
You're trying to impress somebody with your culinary prowess. What do you make?
I might challenge them a little bit with some grilled baby octopus, which has become something I really love. I [also] think I'd be looking at proteins. I'm kind of known for my wood-grilled or wood-roasted meats. I don't go in to the super-technical dishes, and that's in part because I'm still learning, but also because I'm not drawn to them. By and large, I'm just really drawn to high-quality ingredients and not messing them up. I think that might be a product of my age. I didn't go to culinary school and work my way up through a restaurant. I don't have an inclination to really impress people; I just want to feed them.
What's the dish you'll be remembered for?
A properly cooked steak.
What's the worst dish you've ever created?
I did a really not-great version of ramen once. I was trying to teach myself how to make a proper dashi and I just used so much seaweed. I got all the pork and vegetables and stuff, but I messed up the broth — it was way too salty and seaweed tasting; then I overcooked the ramen and the pork that goes on top of it. So we sat down, and I was really excited by all the work I'd done, and took a few bites, and it was, like, "Wow ... that sucks."
Describe your best meal ever.
There's a restaurant in San Francisco called Nopa, and one of the best meals I've ever eaten was sitting at the bar at Nopa, ordering a continuous stream of stuff off their menu. They do things tapas style, which is my favorite way to eat. This is how I'd imagine a little candlelight bistro in Spain — and everything they served to us was great. There were peas and mints in butter sauce, and it was delicious; pork belly in sauce, and it was great. Plus the fact that we were sitting at the bar, having really nice cocktails and chatting with the bartender — it's just the way my wife and I like to eat out.
And your worst.
Anywhere in Florida! My mother's going to kill me when she sees that. When we were down [in Orlando] getting the truck, I googled, "Where in the world can you find good food in Florida?" In Orlando it's all geared toward tourists. But where my mom lives in Sarasota, there are some good restaurants, and Miami is one of my favorite places to eat.
What's your favorite cookbook?
I really like Ad Hoc at Home by Thomas Keller, the French Laundry chef. A Platter of Figs [and Other Recipes] by David Tanis and Alice Waters. And the Tartine Bakery & Café cookbook. Though most of the time when I look at cookbooks, I'm really just looking at the pictures. I might look at the description, but I mostly just look at the concept and run with it.
If money were no object, what kind of restaurant would you open?
Small, 40 seats or less, a relatively open kitchen to interact with the guests a little bit. Oh, and a wood-fired or open grill.
What's your favorite beverage?
The things I drink are water, coffee, beer, wine and cocktails. My favorite beverage is probably a really nice glass of wine, but a really good beer would be a close second, and a really good cup of coffee would be a close third.
What kind of music do you like to listen to in the kitchen?
A pretty eclectic mix. The predominant style would be kind of honky-tonk alt-country — I do not like pop country at all — bands like Son Volt. I have a long history with the Grateful Dead, so I play the Dead a lot. And a lot of old-man music like Neil Young and classic rock like that. And if I'm alone, I blast Nine Inch Nails.
If you weren't a chef, what would your job be?
A traveling food writer.
What's your most embarrassing favorite food?
Soft, white bread. I rarely have it in the house, but if someone gives me like, a baloney sandwich on Wonder Bread, I'm gonna love it. Or a close second would be a McDonald's Filet-O-Fish. I only allow that once a year or something.
— Chef: Matt Sargent
— Age: A couple of months shy of 50
— Restaurant: Phantom Truck
— Location: Location: Mondays and Tuesdays, lunch and dinner behind Bisbee's Hardware next to the Mad River Green in Waitsfield; Thursdays, lunch at the Cabot Creamery offices in Waitsfield; soon-to-be-announced dates and locations in the Burlington area, beginning in July.
— Age of restaurant: a few weeks, but Sargent's Phantom Dinners have been taking place for nearly four years.
— Past experience: garde manger, the Common Man, Warren (December 2011 to May 2013)
— What's on the menu?: Three to four dishes, rotating weekly. Last week's menu: Vermont turkey meatballs served in a bowl with couscous, chickpeas, cabbage, broth and homemade marmalade; vegetarian sloppy joes, made of lentils and farro; and Vermont smoked ham with green beans, posole (large kernels of corn) and a chicken-broth base thickened with cornmeal, served with mango salsa and a fried egg.