Twenty years ago, Michigan native Matt Bennett was cooking his way through college when he got his first taste of Oregon. “We got all these bags of wild mushrooms that said ‘PDX’ on them. I said, ‘What is this PDX thing’?”

In 1993, having missed the Alaska fishing season he’d had his heart set on, Bennett headed for Portland with his hospitality degree. But he never made it. Driving down I-5, he decided Portland wasn’t for him. He drove on and finally exited the freeway in Salem, where his uncle had once settled.

Bennett met his wife and business partner, Janel, at his first restaurant job in Salem. Throughout the ’90s, he streamed through a series of kitchens in the capitol on a mission to glean a well-rounded culinary education. “Janel was a little nervous that I couldn’t hold a job,” he says.

By 2001, the Bennetts were ready to launch a place of their own. In nearby Albany, they found a great space on historic First Street with a handsome downtown and a well-traveled clientele. “I really liked Albany because it reminded me of the small town I grew up in,” he says. The couple opened Sybaris Bistro that October, but the timing was terrible. “Those first months were kind of rough,” he says. Not only did the post-9/11 economy wreak havoc in the industry, Bennett had created a menu that shifted often with the local growing seasons in a time when most restaurants rarely changed their offerings.

As the notion of no tomatoes in January caught on and the economy rebounded, Sybaris Bistro thrived. In 2009 the Bennetts opened Clemenza’s, a family-friendly Italian eatery, and two years later they launched a little joint called First Burger to round out the eating options on First Avenue. Today Bennett is happy to report that there are now several other restaurants downtown, including a coffee shop they’d opened and recently sold to an enterprising restaurateur.

Does Bennett feel he’d have better access to raw materials if he were in a bigger city? Not a whit. He says he’s privileged to cook within arm’s reach of the best farms and to be directly on the seafood supply line from the coast. “I am backstage here, and I’ve got access to all this stuff,” he says. “Whatever I want, whenever I want.”

As a chef more interested in creating a solidly memorable meal than in molecular gastronomy, this locavore is in the perfect place. His most recent obsession (besides the breakfast cereals he eats in his off-hours) is culinary knowledge of the local Kalapuya people, who make up the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde. “I’m really intrigued by the wild plants and the story of the tribe that was here for thousands of years before,” he says.

In 2011, the two-time James Beard Award nominee presented a dinner at the famed Beard House inspired by the culinary traditions of the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde. The thoroughly modern menu featured nettles, acorn flour, venison and Bennett’s version of pemmican — one he’s replicated at Sybaris Bistro to local acclaim.

Ask Matt Bennett what it means to be an Oregon chef and he says, “If they’re good, you should be able to tell they’re cooking from Oregon.”

 

About the Author: Lynne Curry

I'm a city lover, but I moved to one of the most remote places in Oregon to live at the edge of the wilderness in a community of ranchers, artists, and independent types like me. Since I'm a food writer, I blog about eating and the rural lifestyle. My biggest project to date is the cookbook, Pure Beef: An Essential Guide to Artisan Meat with Recipes for Every Cut (Running Press, 2012).

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  1. Shawn Wells says…

    I have known this couple for several years now and have eaten at Sybaris many times. I am always amazed at the creativity of Matt’s menus and the surprising combinations and flavors. One of my favorites was his Elvis Presley ice cream made with peanut butter and bacon. I got to try a sample before it was served the first night of the new menu(I happened to be hanging up some of my artwork there that morning). Matt asked me if I would like to try a sample of this new ice cream. It was the best ice cream I had ever eaten. I love trying new things and I always find something new to try at Sybaris. If you haven’t been there yet, put it on your bucket list. It will be an amazing adventure for you.

    Written on December 4th, 2012 / Flag this Comment
  2. Siobhan Taylor says…

    Matt Bennett is an amazing chef. I had the pleasure of working with Matt as he planned the James Beard House dinner and the respect as well as talent he brought to our traditional Tribal foods was astounding. The dinner sold out. And, the Kalapuyan themed meals he’s presented in Sybaris have done the same. Dining in his bistro is not to be missed. Everything from the presentation to the hospitality is perfect. Who would have known I’d be enjoying nettles, lamprey and pemmican, the food of the first people, prepared in a way to tantalize the modern palate?

    Written on December 5th, 2012 / Flag this Comment
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