Journey to Matū

The Journey to Matū

by Jerry Greenberg

The journey to Matū traces back to my honeymoon when I ate at a steak restaurant in the South of France in 2000.  I took one bite and proclaimed it “the Nozawa of steak.”  I was certain I had eaten great steak before, but that experience reset my understanding.  That bite was the reason I started cooking steak over 20 years ago.

There was just one problem: I live in Los Angeles, which is six thousand miles away. If I wanted to experience steak of this quality again, I would have to learn to make it at home. I made two more trips to France to eat and learn.  The chef, it turns out, wasn’t French—he was from Tuscany—and he didn’t speak English. But the chef’s daughter did, and she kindly shared a few cooking secrets with me. But apparently not enough. The first attempt at replicating this steak back in LA resulted in abject failure. 

Unbeknownst to me, the journey to Matū had begun. 

Over the years, the journey took me places far away – New Zealand, Hawaii, Italy, Japan, Argentina, and Uruguay – but mostly, I spent a lot of time in my kitchen experimenting.  Some old friends joined the journey. New friends were made along the way.  

I was a die-hard dry-aged prime beef fan in those early years. I would cook steaks almost every weekend and would often trade notes with my old friend Mike Odell who loved to cook over an open fire. My first recipes were based on cooking dry-aged, prime grain-fed beef – New York strips over a wood fire and filets on cast iron. Both methods involved tempering the steaks at room temperature, cooking on very, very high direct heat, and finishing in an oven and pan (filet), or just a pan (New York). Slicing before serving was essential. The goal was to produce the most luscious bite possible—the point where the fat had just rendered but the protein fibers had not yet tightened. Harold McGee’s “bible” on cooking was my reference for where that point could be found. In simple terms, the magic happens at a temperature where the steak is red, but with a warm—not cool—center. “Warm red” is what we like to call it.  

In 2005, my friend Lowell Sharon jumped aboard. He was a fellow member of the “dry-aged only” crew. We would buy our Prime dry-aged beef directly from a restaurant distributor. We thought we had figured things out. In a way, we did, and in other way, there was so much more to learn.

One of the biggest changes came in 2009 when my friend Phil Rosenthal recommended grass-fed beef, which almost no one had heard of back then. Lowell and I tried every sample of grass-fed beef we could find—from California, Montana, Idaho, Kansas, Uruguay, Oregon, Washington, Florida and more. A lot of it wasn’t great. But some of it, we found, could hold its own with the best grain-fed steak.    

And then in 2010, we stumbled upon grass-fed Wagyu on a trip to Hawaii. It had the same genetics of Kobe beef, but unlike Kobe, was fed only grass. That beef was the best yet. And it was not dry-aged. How could that be possible? The Japanese don’t dry-age their beef. Kobe beef isn’t dry-aged, neither is Matsusaka, Yamagata or any of the other famous brands of Japanese beef. It doesn’t need to be. 

Wagyu cattle produce meat with a distinct, naturally beefy flavor. In the US, we fatten our cattle on feedlots with far too much corn and the meat lacks the beefiness. Butchers dry-aged beef to “concentrate” the flavors, but after thirty days the beef starts tasting like blue cheese. (If you want your steak to taste like blue cheese, I suggest just adding some blue cheese.)

Wet-aging tenderizes beef, but it doesn’t alter the flavor. (This is true unless you wet age for over 90 days or so, at which point it starts to taste cheese.)  Letting go of our emotional attachment to the dry-aged narrative was not easy, but we let our palettes lead the way. After denial and resistance finally came acceptance. I haven’t cooked a grain-fed steak since – other than for testing purposes.

One Sunday afternoon, I invited my close friend, and now business partner, Nozawa, the legendary sushi chef, and a mutual chef friend over to my house. I cooked grass-fed beef; the chef cooked A5 Kobe beef—the very best Japan has to offer. The Kobe was good. But everyone agreed mine was better. In fact, that was the last time Nozawa has eaten Kobe beef.

The idea of opening a steakhouse was on the table. But the idea of sharing this incredible beef with the rest of the world was just that: an idea. The ranch in Hawaii was too small, and the climate too variable for a sustainable business.

That changed a few years later. We were developing what would become HiHo Cheeseburger when a butcher I knew introduced me to First Light Farms, a collective of New Zealand farmers who raise Wagyu cattle on grass. One bite of First Light and the skies opened. This beef was far superior to any beef I had ever had.

I had to fly to New Zealand and meet the people behind the beef. So off I went to Hawkes Bay to meet the First Light team. It was, in a word, amazing. The company was started with the laudable goal of using New Zealand’s legendary grazing pastures (no feedlots) to create the world’s greatest beef. In the company’s first ten years, they turned their idea into a model of progressive, sustainable cattle farming. Not only did they figure out how to raise and fatten Wagyu cattle on grass, but they also set a new standard for both the humane treatment of cattle and regenerative, climate-friendly agriculture. They fixed everything that was wrong with beef. The cattle were treated well, the farmers were paid well, and not only was the beef astoundingly flavorful, but it was also significantly more nutritionally dense than other beef.

In time, I became good friends with Jason Ross, one of First Light’s co-founders. One day I asked him if he had heard of the guy who wrote the book, Steak: One Man's Search for the World's Tastiest Piece of Beef.  Jason said, “You mean Mark? I know him well.” Jason emailed Mark, told him to hop on a plane to LA and the next thing I know I’m standing in my kitchen cooking First Light ribeye with Jason and Mark.  So, add Mark to the journey.

Shortly after, Jason asked if I would be interested in becoming the first outside owner of First Light. I accepted. It turns out they had more in store for me than I realized. Jason wanted me to develop a plan for how to market their very highest marble-scored beef (that idea is now First Light Steak Club). They were putting me to work; I thought I was just making an investment.

While talking about the Club, I mentioned to Jason that once considered opening a steak restaurant, but that I didn't do it due to inconsistent supply. He pointed out that was no longer an issue.  So, in 2018 we made the decision that a steak restaurant was to come. We had the core of the team; Lowell, Mike, Mark, and me. But we needed a couple more members to make it happen. 

A good friend from Napa, David Sabin (who makes our Matū Reserve Cabernet) introduced us to Ryan Gianola, who joined the founding team to lead our front of house.  Around the same time, I had a (bang-bang) dinner with a chef named Scott Linder, who came on board to lead all things food. We don’t have a traditional chef—we have a “chef team” that includes our four operating founders. Scott and I lead that team.  

It was never our intention to start a steakhouse. We wanted to create a steak restaurant, a place where people could reconnect to the joy and benefit of eating great beef. 

That meant cooking, tasting, and testing a lot of beef. I remember walking into the test kitchen one morning at 7:30 am to find Scott already on his 15th steak. Mark would fly down for a week a month to cook, test and eat 100 steaks. Mike and I flew to Buenos Aires and Montevideo to eat 75 steaks in 27 restaurants in four and half days. 

It also meant challenging, testing, and retesting every aspect of the cooking process. At one point Scott, Ryan and Mike created the “franken-grill” by fitting our wood fire grill with heat sensors so we could measure the temperature variances of the metal sandwiched between licks of fire and sizzling steak. Lowell came up with a method to temper steaks that we all said was crazy until it wasn’t... and is one of our greatest accomplishments.

When the initial work on the steak recipes was complete, Lowell moved over to work on a collaboration between HiHo and the iconic Willie Mae’s of New Orleans. Mark still lives up in Toronto, writing books and remotely sharing his knowledge with us.  

It’s been quite a journey. What started with a New York strip in France has taken our team on a crazy voyage. Along the way, we have cooked and tasted thousands and thousands of steaks. (And perhaps consumed a few glasses of red wine…)

Mike, Ryan, Scott and I continue as the operating founders of the Matū. On behalf of our entire team and all who have helped us along the way, we hope the passion we have poured into Matū is experienced by our guests in every bite.

Welcome to Matū. Cheers to the joy and benefits of eating great beef.