Salt Craft chef favors basic handcrafted foods
By Lou Fancher
Counterintuitive to his state-of-the-art ovens, sophisticated ergonomic design and two decades’ experience as a top chef in high-end New York and Bay Area restaurants, Matt Greco favors basic, handcrafted cuisine.
The 41-year-old Texas native’s first restaurant, Salt Craft, opened in Pleasanton this week. It displays Greco’s deeply personal as well as professional life- and soul-sustaining culinary principles and practices. On the menu: Mom’s Apricot Baked Chicken, lamb pastrami appetizer, whole-grain spaghetti and clams, salads and sandwiches made with house-cured meat and seasonal vegetables; in-house Salt Craft and Brentwood Corn sourdough breads. For breakfast and brunch: egg and cheddar sandwiches, polenta and pecorino baked eggs, Mom’s (sour cream) coffee cake, Salt Craft cola cake, Verve coffee and more.
Greco studied at the Culinary Institute of America at Hyde Park, then refined his skills at Cafe Boulud and Cafe Gray. Tapping into his Southern roots, he helmed award-winning Char No. 4 before moving in 2011 to California to lead The Restaurant at Wente Vineyards. With three sons—7-year-old Holden and 3-year-old twins Frances and Magnus, all of whom are within the autism spectrum—Greco and his wife, Ashley, sought stability.
Becoming chef/owner of a restaurant isn’t the first maneuver most people would associate with a streamlined lifestyle, but Salt Craft is intentionally structured for simplicity. Food falls into tidy categories, importantly, priced accordingly: sides and pastries $5; shared appetizers $12; dinner entrees $27, pasta dishes $18; and so on.
“Price point is a big factor for customers: I’m in the same boat, with three kids. Menus with paragraph descriptions and random prices—it’s hard for me to want to emulate that. I want people to come in, see categories, make decisions, easy, simple.”
Servers are runners who deliver food to Salt Craft’s all-outside eating area, so there’s human interaction but no tipping.
“People will get more bang for their buck. With that, they’re spending 15 percent less.” Greco says two large trellises and heating units will weatherproof the location. “I know people love eating outside and I like that this was never a restaurant but was a house. It’s unique, not just a building with an awning.”
Even so, cozy conditions call for strategy. Ergonomics — flow that keeps cooks and customers happy and kitchens cleaner—are primary. Every menu detail, from the levain starter Greco feeds multiple times each day to the Brentwood corn gently roasted and folded into bread dough to yield light, beautifully golden toast to Salt Craft’s made-from-memory chicken dish and coffee cake receive careful examination and testing.
A desire to eliminate steps has Greco in experiment mode. “Can I cook homemade pasta and my tomato sauce in the oven, instead of a large pot? It’s time, accuracy, less dishes to wash if I can master the techniques.”
Even the restaurant’s name harks back to timeless ingredients and preserved techniques: salt can be tracked through world history from ancient times to discovery of the New World to today’s tables. Craft instantly suggests something home-grown, homemade.
Memories and a belief that flavor is musical—meals are like chord progressions that cluster notes into sweet harmonic melodies—add dimension to his culinary practices.
“Mom was a dietician and always following area chefs. She got a recipe for Cornish hen and changed the glaze to apricot. I don’t have the recipe anymore so I’m recreating it.”
Learning to cook his grandmother’s braised artichokes while working as a celebrated chef in New York, Greco says he had a watershed moment.
“It went against all the technique I’d been taught: stuff the leaves with bread crumbs, braise in oil and water. It was a soulful, evocative dish without a lot of technique.”
Other memories he holds onto defy the microwave 1980s dinners and 1950s industrial-style cooking that his childhood friends were served. Instead, there were meals harvested directly from his Sicilian grandmother’s garden, or barbecued ribs he and his “full-blooded, ranch hand” father cooked in a homemade barrel pit.
“I have to get a smoker,” he says. “I need a Texas element: big cuts of meat. A good barbecue has to be done over wood embers and logs and come straight out.” Whole-smoked duck with light, seasonal garnishes as counterpoint is No. 1 on his “what’s-next” list.
And on his mind is always service; especially to organizations that provide real-life opportunities for people with developmental disabilities like autism, and to customers. “Salt Craft is an option for taking myself and my business to charitable causes. It’s for my boys,” he says. “I put myself behind my plate and say this is my experience and this is my food that tastes good. Eat."