SPRINGFIELD, Vt. — Nick Matush’s global experience, hometown roots and love of music make the talented young chef uniquely qualified to revitalize the Hartness House’s restaurant in Springfield.
As soon as he was hired last spring, Matush began renovating the bar area, previously known as the Governor’s Room and now simply the Hartness House Tavern.
“I spent my first two months as a general contractor,” he said. Meanwhile, he was preparing breakfast every morning for the hotel’s guests. In recalling that hectic time, he said with a grin, “I didn’t leave here, but I didn’t live here.”
When the tavern reopened in July 2015, “we were flying by the seat of our pants,” he added.
Since then, the tavern — which is open for dinner Thursday through Saturday and brunch on Sunday — has slowly been building its reputation.
Matush describes the tavern’s cuisine as “locavore pub food.” The locavore movement is all about forging closer connections between farmers and consumers to support the local economy and promote healthy, delicious food, and that’s just what Matush has been doing.
He also refers to his style as “vibrant world cuisine” and said, “I like big, bold flavors.”
Matush began his career by studying culinary arts at the River Valley Technical Center in Springfield. His first job was at the Morning Star Café (now 56 Main Street restaurant). The owner, the late Robert “Mac” McIntyre, was an important early mentor for Matush, who quickly progressed from dishwasher to line cook. He met other chefs through McIntyre and then went to work at a restaurant in Ludlow.
But Matush soon realized that he couldn’t advance as far as he wanted unless he went to culinary school, so he headed for the New England Culinary Institute’s campus in the British Virgin Islands.
After he graduated, he got a job in Taos, N.M., with award-winning chef Joseph Wrede, who now has a restaurant in Santa Fe that serves “elevated New American fare…in a warm setting with a refined farmhouse feel.” It’s easy to see that influence at the Hartness House Tavern. Matush’s menus (which he changes frequently) include items such as butternut sage fettuccini, crispy skin salmon and pork belly tacos. And the room is a pleasing combination of rustic and modern furnishings warmed by sunlight through the large windows.
Matush also worked at Little Palm Island Resort and Spa in the Florida Keys with Luis Pous, who melds Cuban and Asian cuisines, and Rafael Perez, whose G.K. Bistronomie in Miami serves up traditional Peruvian food with a modern twist.
But Matush was always itching to learn more and move up. He didn’t want to be stuck as a chef de partie — or third in command behind the sous chef and head chef — so he went looking for a sous chef position and found one in Tortola, British Virgin Islands. He said he spent an intense two years there, and by the end, “I wanted out of the industry.”
Restaurants in the Caribbean import most of their raw ingredients because there are so many tourists to feed, and the limitations can be frustrating. So Matush left the chef world behind to go to Ecuador and then the Caribbean island of Dominica, where he worked on remote farms and had an opportunity to observe the often lopsided connection between farmers and the food industry.
When he returned to the United States, he focused his interests in a new direction — pickling. Known as the Mad Pickler, he grew his own vegetables, pickled them and sold them at farmer’s markets. (Although he no longer operates as the Mad Pickler, large jars filled with vegetables in a rainbow of colors line the shelves behind the tavern’s bar.) To supplement his income, he took a job at Stemwinder in Ludlow and spent three ski seasons back in the kitchen, which reawakened his passion for cooking.
He could have stayed at Stemwinder, but his friend Genevieve Johnson was doing some marketing for Hartness House and convinced him to meet with the owners, who wanted to try something new with the inn’s bar. Once Matush was onboard, he in turn encouraged Johnson to take on a bigger role at the inn. She is now general manager.
His goal for the tavern is to rely on local producers, and if he can’t find something locally, it at least has to be organic. “It’s my way of protesting against big agriculture,” he said, adding that his bosses are supportive of his approach.
In addition to food, he’s passionate about music. In describing his decision to take on the challenge of essentially building a restaurant from scratch, he said, “It was a great chance to create something in my hometown and get a food and music scene going.”
The tavern hosts live music performances on Thursdays in the inn’s living room, which has space for dancing. Matush’s goal is to offer great food and danceable music, and he pointed out that people always have the option of staying overnight at the inn.
“I love music, and I want to create a party scene” and eventually attract ever-bigger musical acts, he said, adding that it was always his dream to combine his passions if he ever had a restaurant of his own.
He has two cooks now: Dyllan Battiest and sous chef Benjamin Minifie. Matush said they’ve been busier since Minifie joined the team, and he can feel the momentum building at a place he aptly called “one-of-a-kind in Springfield.”
The tavern serves dinner Thursday through Saturday from 5 – 9 p.m. and brunch on Sunday from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. For more information about upcoming music events, go to Facebook.com/HartnessHouse.