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.”