This article is the starting point of my “4 Chefs to look out for in Columbus Ohio this 2023” blog series and today I am having a conversation with Matt Harper, head chef Comune Restaurant located on the edge of German Village.
Comune was the first restaurant in Columbus where my husband and I felt like home. We found our place and to our surprise, it was a vegetable driven spot. We’ve had dates and celebrated a New Year here; an always evolving menu, and always surprising food.
I want to start this Blog Series with a Chef that is running one of my favorite kitchens in town.
I hope you enjoy.
What’s your name and where are you from?
My full name is Matthew Eric Harper. I was born in Arkansas. It's a very small town called Sedgwick, but then from there moved around a little bit until I landed here in Columbus. I've been here about a year and a half maybe. Yeah, it'll be in August. It'll be two years.
Whenever I first moved here, I was working on an organic vegetable farm. Originally it was out in New Albany area. I wanted to take a little bit of a break from cooking. I've always loved agriculture. I grew up around it, always kind of had a garden and had a passion for that.
I’ve always read or watched on TV that Chefs typically have a very specific realization moment of when they decided to become a cook, so I wanted to ask Matt about it.
Do you remember the exact moment you decided to become a Chef?
I think I’ve always loved jobs that have been strenuous and demanding and that you had to dedicate a lot of yourself to. So, I don't know that there's any specific moment or thing that I ate, but just being kind of introduced into the food service industry and working in kitchens, you must dedicate so much of yourself and your time. And your energy to it. That, I think that's what really kind of connected with me and that's what kind of drew me in and kind of took a hold.
You mentioned that you love the farming aspect of life. I’m assuming that's why you do more vegetable driven food. Do you enjoy cooking animal protein?
I'm not vegetarian. My wife is. So, I cook a lot of vegetarian dishes at home. And especially whenever I go out, I love to eat meat and all of that. Previously, in Philadelphia, I worked at a butcher shop. I have a lot of experience in that -animal protein- realm, but also just as much experience with sourcing. Finding the best ingredients at the best time and really kind of making them shine is just as much fun to me as cutting up a pig and making sausage with it. I think it's always been a priority of mine to make sure that I'm well rounded as a chef, both in meat, veggies, pastries, bread, like, whatever it is that I can learn and get good at, I try to really dive in and put my best foot forward.
Is it harder to design and execute menus at a vegetable driven restaurant versus a “regular restaurant”? or do you think it is a different challenge?
It's a different challenge. I think it is a little bit harder in terms of just creating a dish that is well rounded, because a lot of the proteins, they come with a level of fat that is very hard to replicate whenever you're putting together just a vegetable only dish. So, it's like finding that balance of making sure you can create a dish that's rich enough, that has a certain mouth fill and certain chew while still being really, well, kind of incorporated while incorporating all the ingredients together so they feel cohesive.
Now, what’s your favorite and/or least favorite dish to prepare?
I love cooking Southern food. It just pulls a lot of memories from growing up, which is always great. Chicken and dumplings is something that my grandmother used to always make, so it's very close to me, and anytime I make it, it's just very comforting. As far as things that I hate to make, I would say that I don't necessarily love baking at home just because of how involved it can be. I love baking in the restaurant, but you have a little bit more space to spread out. But as far as dishes that I don't like making, I try to keep an open mind about everything. I feel like the one thing that I really don't like is green bell peppers, I mean, let them turn red!
What is your signature dish and what do you love about it?
I don't necessarily think that I have a signature dish. I try to keep things fresh because as soon as you kind of say, this is my signature at your dish, people expect it from you. And then anything new that you bring to the table, they're always going to try to compare it to the thing that they like the most. Okay, so if you keep things moving, if you keep things progressing, you're never put in a stranglehold, like trying to maintain one single thing the exact same repeatedly.
There is a certain aspect of consistency in the kitchen, but at a certain point, it's like, are you still progressing beyond just doing the same thing over and over? So, there's been dishes that have connected a lot with people. We did like, a watermelon carpaccio last summer that we're probably going to bring back again, but that's not anything that I think we would run yearlong here. At Comune we very much try to cook as seasonally as possible.
If you could say you only had one source of inspiration to cook or create new dishes and menus, what would that inspiration be?
One of the most inspiring things for me is the hard work that the farmers do. That is the foundation of where we start, but then we pull inspiration from everywhere else, really.
I also rely on and get inspired from the kitchen team as well. Everyone in the kitchen are great cooks as well, we work very well together of kind of like, bringing in ideas and then kind of implementing them into the menu is something we all love.
When it comes to comfort food… Any favorites? Cravings?
Oh yeah, I crave! I'm a fried chicken friend. That is something that I will just be like I'll wake up and be like "today I must do it. I must get fried chicken". Doesn't really matter from where. It could be at Popeyes, a soul food spot or a gas station. That's one of those things that very much reminds me of home, and it is very comforting. But I also really love Mexican food. I've been to Mexico multiple times, and it's a cuisine that I've really connected with, and I just see how much love and thought, and time has gone into developing how great the recipes and foods. So that's something that I have cravings for, too. Really good, well prepared Mexican food is one of my favorites.
What is the ONE piece of advice you can give a home cook?
My one piece of advice would be: make sure that your knives are sharp. Buy a sharpener, whether it's a little tiny one that you can just run your knife through or like a wet stone. Just make sure your knives are sharp and it will make everything in the kitchen a lot easier.
I totally agree with you. Now, If you could only eat one dish for the rest of your life, what would it be? Just one dish, not ingredients.
Yeah, yeah, one dish. Tacos. And I'm just leaving it that because I want to think if you just leave it at tacos, then you at least have some flexibility within.
What is the biggest change you have seen in the food and restaurant industry in the past few years?
I think the biggest change that I personally saw is the way chefs work with other people in the kitchen is much more inclusive. When I first started, it was very much of like a hierarchy. It was very much like some head chefs had the mentality of they could really do and say whatever they wanted, even if it was messed up.
I do think we've come a long way from that, at least in my experience. The way I run the kitchen is everybody is first and foremost treated with the level of respect that everyone deserves. I'm trying to foster growth with whoever wants it, if someone's working dishes and they want to learn to cook, then giving them the training and the opportunity to grow in whatever aspect of the job that they want to grow, we all must understand that everyone deserves a chance.
And my last question is, what are you more excited about in 2023? Any specific things or projects that you are excited about?
Obviously becoming a father will be very fun, but I'm also excited to see how Comune evolves with me taking on that additional responsibility of being a parent. And then people here in the kitchen stepping up, taking additional responsibility, having a little bit more freedom to kind of do things and inspire them and play around and to see how we continue to grow through the summer, through the fall, through the winter.
I'm just excited to see Comune continue to grow.