As the executive chef of Forbes Travel Guide Five-Star L2O in Chicago’s Lincoln Park neighborhood, Matthew Kirkley knows a thing or two about seafood. He grew up in Baltimore, fostering his relationship for seafood with the help of the Chesapeake Bay. Kirkley quickly found his passion for the culinary world when his father told him to get a job at the age of 15. By 17, he was at the Culinary Institute of America, and a few years later, he was in Chicago working at the now-shuttered Seasons Restaurant at Five-Star Four Seasons Hotel Chicago. He moved a couple blocks away to NoMI at Four-Star Park Hyatt Chicago to work his way up the kitchen ladder. In 2006, Kirkley moved to Las Vegas to become the sous chef at Five-Star Joël Robuchon. It wasn’t long before he made his way back to the Windy City to open L2O in 2008; though, he went on to open Balsan and the now-closed Ria at Four-Star Waldorf Astoria Chicago. The chef returned to L2O in 2011 as chef de cuisine and was promoted to executive chef later that year. His contemporary and innovative approach to seafood is a signature of L2O.
How did you get into the culinary world?
I fell into it. My dad told me to go get a job when I was 15. I ended up as a busboy at the fondue restaurant, The Melting Pot. They ended up having to put me in the back because my work permit would only let me work until 8 p.m. and that wasn’t going to work in the front of the house, so I ended up in the back of the house doing prep work after school. Quickly, the law seemed to not matter when I got into the back of the house and they got the chef. I started staying later and later, which as a consequence made me miss more and more school. I came upon this vocation young, that’s for sure. By the time I was 17, I was in culinary school. By the time I was 19, I was living here in Chicago. I’ve always done this. I can’t imagine doing anything else really.
What inspires you?
It’s that I still feel the need to get better at what I’m already good at. I’ve kind of pushed myself into this niche marketplace. I’ve always done fine dining and French, particularly seafood. I feel like only in the last 12 months or so that I’m really hitting greater heights cooking seafood. I’ve spent so many years cooking this way. It’s funny; I’ve always tried to have a smaller bandwidth with a deeper depth of knowledge to lobster, langoustines. Some guys out there can do Korean, Mexican food; they can do volume. I’ve always stayed in this pocket, which while that might not make me well rounded, I’ve specialized in this for the last 10 years or so.
Every two years, I feel like I’ve only begun to chip the surface when I get a new product or a new purveyor or source fish from a different auction terminal that I’m not used to getting it from. It’s really just that there’s this endless amount of information and detail. It’s about how far you want to delve into something, and I keep feeling like I’m hitting deeper and deeper levels of stuff — a product that I feel like I’ve known a lot about, all of a sudden I feel like I know nothing about it. That’s the pursuit: Keep getting better at it.
I’m lucky enough to work in this temporary medium that I get to start over every day. It’s not winemaking where you get a year in, then it’s in the bottle and then you put it on a shelf and it’ll always be there for 20 years. It’s finite. It goes away every day and then you start again; that’s one of the best parts about it and one of the worst parts about it. When I mess it up one day, I can start over. I always have a chance to get it right again. But that’s the thing, when you have great services, it doesn’t guarantee that you’ll have a good one again tomorrow. There’s a relentlessness to it that while it can be difficult at times, it gives me increasing inspiration to keep doing it because I feel like I can do it better than I did the day before so I keep going.
Did growing up in Baltimore influence you to stick with seafood?
I’m sure that has something to do with it. It really just came from gravitating in that direction that I find fish to be more compelling of a medium. Maybe that’s just because it’s such a different environment from land animals. There’s a tremendous amount more variation in cooking seafood, at least in my humble opinion. It’s really due to the lack of gravity when you come down to it that most animals are buoyant in the ocean. It creates a lot more diversity as far as the type of animal that lives in that medium as opposed to things subject to the same gravity on the land. If you can butcher and cook a piece of beef, you can do the same thing with lamb and pork because it’s all the same relative anatomy via evolutionary gain that we’ve all adapted to the same surface pressure and the same gravity. If you can cut a chicken, you can cut a duck; you can cut a poulard. While there are similar families in the ocean environment, there’s a tremendous amount of diversity as far as animal life. Hence I find that more interesting as a medium for cooking.
What do you think makes a successful restaurant?
Consistency and attention to detail. It’s not about me dreaming up fantastic dishes. It’s about the executions on a day-to-day basis. I try to spend as much time as humanly possible in [L2O], in the kitchen, being the chef at this restaurant. Day-to-day service is very important to me. When you start getting too highbrow about it and start losing sight of that obligation, I think that’s when quality really suffers. It’s about day-to-day consistency and constant reinforcement of those standards.
What are the best things to do in Chicago?
I think that there are some shockingly world-class museums. I absolutely love the Art Institute [of Chicago]. The Renaissance and Impressionism wing alone is pretty breathtaking — a lot of [Édouard] Manets. I really enjoy just hanging around there. I live in the Lincoln Park area and that puts my right by this amazing park system. Just sitting around on the lake is pretty special. It makes us pretty unique as far as the city is concerned. Being out on Lake Shore Drive and the bike path — it’s surprising how outdoorsy it can be in a city as big as this.
Photo Courtesy of Matthew Kirkley