The Rossi chef embraces elements of comfort in his cooking
On a Thursday in early March, Chef Matthew Heaggans stands in the cozy, walk-in-closet-sized Rossi kitchen and drops half-inch thick, panko-battered bricks of cheese into the Short North eatery's deep fryer.
While there's undoubtedly something cool about submersing anything in hot oil — see Beavis and Butt-Head working the kitchen at Burger World — this experiment serves a larger purpose. See, come late April, Heaggans hopes to premiere a new fried cheese dish on the Rossi's spring menu, and one of the first steps in the process is determining what type of cheese can quite literally stand the heat.
The first sample — a two-year-aged cheddar — fails its audition miserably, breaking free of its crust and leaving Heaggans to present a sad, deflated hollow shell on the platter. The other three samples fare far better, including a lightly smoked cheddar, a young gruyere and the in-clubhouse leader: a rich, Red Rock cheddar that carries funky notes of earthy bleu cheese flavor.
After frying, Heaggans dresses the golden-brown cheese blocks in a simple salad composed of mandoline-sliced apples, celery, olive oil and Sichuan peppercorns, and drops a dollop of house-made fennel jam on the platter. (In its final form, the dish, featuring the Red Rock cheddar, will be completed with the addition of pickled mustard seed.)
Eaten together, the combination offers a little of everything: salty, sweet, tart, crunchy, cool and spicy. This, of course, is precisely the chef's aim, owing to a mindset implanted in him during the year he worked at Inox, a short-lived, experimental restaurant outside Washington, D.C. that served as Heaggans' crash-course introduction to the culinary world.
“Inox was a strong place to start, because … it instilled a work ethic and a specific way to think about food, where every dish should hit very specific notes. There should be sour. There should be sweet. There should be texture. Every bite should be interesting in a different way,” said Heaggans, 38, who was born in Cleveland and grew up in West Virginia and North Carolina before settling in Columbus with his family at age 13. “Then you have to pull a thread through those things so it all works together.”
Heaggans, an avowed food fanatic — “I'll go eat at Taco Bell right now. ‘Let's meet at Rally's.' Yeah, let's,” he said, noting the culinary pleasures he discovers at all levels of dining — takes inspiration for his menu items from a similarly wide range of sources, be it bar food (the humble mozzarella stick that launched his fried-cheese experiments) or the higher-end cuisine displayed like fine art on the Netflix series “Chef's Table.”
“I read restaurant reviews. I read Eater. I read cookbooks. I read about food all the time. It's my job, but it's also my main hobby,” said Heaggans, who always carries a pocket-sized notebook to jot down ideas, flavor combinations, ingredients, etc. “I'll see something that's interesting, or I'll have eaten something that gets stuck in my head, and then I'll think about how I can take that thing and make it my own.
“I don't want to do anything that anyone else is doing, ever. And if I'm doing it, in my head at least, it's better. I want to make it more distinctive and hopefully better than the other versions you can find. If someone is doing a great job at something, then why would you come eat mine?”
Heaggans' early culinary interests were fostered in North Carolina, owing to a social scene centered on dining. “There was a lot of meeting and congregating around food and a lot of the culture is attached to food: ‘Whose aunt makes the best mac and cheese?'; ‘Whose fried chicken isn't that good?'; ‘Whose potato salad is better?'” he said.
Aside from the odd teenage gig (he briefly baked pizzas at Chuck E. Cheese's and bussed tables at Ruby Tuesday), however, it wasn't until Heaggans burned out on his eight-year career as a phone company technician that he decided to pursue a full-time career in the restaurant world, moving to D.C. for a couple years beginning in 2010. But even as the chef has accumulated experience, working in fine dining at Inox, launching the now-defunct Swoop! food truck in Columbus in 2012 and heading up kitchens at the Hey Hey Bar & Grill, Flatiron Bar & Diner and now The Rossi, much of his food still harks back to the experience he gained cooking alongside his mother as a child.
“If you eat my macaroni and cheese, my mom taught me how to make that. It's like, ‘My mom took care of me, and this is going to take care of you.' So if you don't like my macaroni and cheese, I don't ever want to see you again,” Heaggans said, and laughed. “There are dishes that can be pretty deep, and are sort of intrinsic to me. But then there are some things where it's just like, ‘I love eating dumplings! I'm going to make some dumplings.' I try to only make food that I want to eat. I don't want to make something because it's high concept or pushing the envelope or anything like that. I wouldn't call it comfort food, but there's always some element of comfort.”