“I am going to turn that fridge off because that sounds fucking crazy, right?” Matt Lambert, the ruddy, barrel-chested Head Chef at NoLita’s Musket Room, fidgets in his seat like a kid that won’t sit still. A girl in the other room turns off the fridge. “That good?” she asks. He nods, focuses. We’re seated at a table overlooking the garden of his restaurant. White light enters from the glass wall, and his cheeks are flushed; he’s sweating a bit, seems nervous, unaccustomed to interviews.
In the world of slick celebrity chefs, his rawness is a relief. Lambert, a New Zealand native now living in New York City, has taken an isolated, remote island’s fare and moved it to the epicenter of food. And he’s had excellent success. The dynamic makes him an intriguing expat expert, and a good source for understanding what NZ food is and why we all should care. Of course, he downplays the whole thing.
“I guess just I was lucky enough to grow up in a very food-oriented family,” he starts. “I did a lot of baking with my mother and my grandmother. They both also did a lot of preserving and, you know, picking their own berries. Then my uncles would be out fishing and getting shellfish and stuff. So I was lucky enough to be involved with getting stuff straight from the source.” That source is West Auckland, on New Zealand’s North Island, where Lambert grew up.
“Foraging comes along as sort of like a tagline, but in the ‘80s, it was just kind of normal. Not really foraging; it’s just getting stuff. So I was lucky enough where I came up in a family that did that, and I am from an area in Auckland which is pretty fruitful… everybody I knew had a mandarin tree, a lemon tree or, you know, grapevines.”
“I guess just I was lucky enough to grow up in a very food-oriented family.”
Food resonated with the young Lambert. At the age of 11, he marched down to the local restaurant, Michael’s, and asked for a job. The head chef chuckled at the request, but told him to come back in a few years. He did. At 14, Lambert started washing dishes at Michael’s, which led to an apprenticeship. After three years of work at Michael’s, he opened his own restaurant with his mom. “I decided at a very early age that I wanted to be a chef, so I figured because I was ahead of the curve in that aspect, I should be ahead of the curve on everything else. So I had a goal in mind to have my own place by the time I was 21, and you know, you’re young and dumb — sort of blind ambition — and it happened and there was no way I was prepared for that, you know?” He ended up leaving the restaurant and heading into Auckland. “Basically, I realized I had a whole lot more to learn.”
He got a job at The Grove in Auckland and also worked with Michael Meredith (now the Head Chef at Auckland’s well-respected Meredith’s). It was at The Grove that he met his wife, Barbara, who is American and also came to The Grove looking for work. “She came to interview for a job there, and then I think a week later we were going out, and then a couple of months later we were married, and then I came back here with her.”
“A girl brought you back?” I ask.
“Yeah, pretty much. I’m a really awesome souvenir,” he says, and chuckles.
The couple moved to Connecticut, worked in restaurants there, then made their way down to New York. Lambert landed a job at Public, and a year in the restaurant earned a Michelin star. He felt he’d learned what he needed, so he started looking to break out on his own. In 2013, he and his wife opened The Musket Room. “I thought, ‘I’ll do a New Zealand restaurant’, and I sort of played to my strengths in that aspect. It was a big gamble, obviously, because not many people know a lot about New Zealand — we just get a lot of jokes about sheep and Lord of the Rings.”
“If I can get a really good quality ingredient from New Zealand, then I will showcase it for the world to see.”
The gamble paid off. Less than a year after opening, The Musket Room earned a Michelin star. “It was kind of amazing. I had a big cry at lineup… I think I showcased New Zealand to the best of my ability and previously, there was nobody doing that. So that’s good for New Zealand, and then, you know, when you are awarded something as sort of prestigious or internationally recognized as a Michelin star, it’s good for everyone, isn’t it? You know? That means people that trained me in New Zealand are pretty good. It means, you know, many things.”
One thing it means is that New Zealand cuisine is competitive at the highest levels. But defining New Zealand cuisine isn’t straightforward. “It’s kind of a touchy question to answer, because realistically New Zealand became a country in 1853, so it has a very young culture. In the mid 1990s, all we were dealing with was Britannia food — you know, stuff from Britain, Scotland and Ireland.” But in the last few decades, things have been changing to highlight the local bounty.
“Everything comes from the island, essentially. Not much stuff is imported. A lot of seafood, obviously, because the coastline… Farming is pretty much the backbone of New Zealand. You can’t drive anywhere without seeing sheep and beef and green pastures.” That means Lambert uses Ora salmon caught off the west coast of the South Island. He sources New Zealand venison over deer from Britain or the US — “I just prefer the flavor, you know — whether that’s sort of food memories from growing up eating New Zealand venison, I am not sure, but I think it’s pretty superior.”
Lambert isn’t intentionally trying to be an advert for New Zealand meat and produce. It just happens to be in his blood, and the flavors, he feels, are worth tasting. “If I can get a really good quality ingredient from New Zealand, then I will showcase it for the world to see,” he says. And so far, the world — or at least New York and the reviewers for the Michelin Guide — has readily accepted what he’s showcasing. And as for the women that taught him to cook? “My mom hasn’t been to America since we opened, actually. She came over when my son was born. My grandmother has. She was over for six weeks, and she ate here a bunch of times.”
I ask if she approved. “Yeah, she did,” he says. “She said that the pavlova was nothing like hers.” I want to know if that’s a good thing. Lambert laughs, heartily, then says, unable to resist the joke, “Definitely.”