Pierogi Mountain founder Matt Majesky's bumpy road to making Food Network-famous dumplings
Pierogi Mountain founder Matt Majesky's bumpy road to making Food Network-famous dumplings
Aware that we're all one fateful decision away from becoming a different person, from inhabiting an alternate day-to-day existence, a previously joking Matt Majesky turned serious when he looked at me and said, “This pretty much saved my life.”
By “this,” Majesky meant Pierogi Mountain. For those not familiar with Pierogi Mountain, it's the ascendant business Majesky founded about five years ago. Pounding out delicious pierogi that nimbly straddle two worlds — the operation specializes in comforting, old-world dumplings enlivened by culture-hopping, new-world fillings — Pierogi Mountain is primarily known as the in-house restaurant for Cafe Bourbon Street, a crusty but beloved punk rock venue, arty dive bar and nonconformist hangout.
To Majesky's point, though, assembling Pierogi Mountain helped take him from being a lonely, broke and directionless drunk, often doing drugs he couldn't even afford, to a much happier, sober and successful entrepreneur and creative cook who recently landed a segment on the Food Network.
Exile in Guyville
Majesky's journey to Food Networkland is forever commemorated on a November 2017 episode of the highly popular show “Diners, Drive-ins and Dives.” Yes, that's the one with Guy Fieri.
So how did this happen?
“It was pretty surreal. At first, I didn't even believe it. But like so many things in my life, it happened because someone else dropped out, so I got lucky,” Majesky told me during an interview in Cafe Bourbon Street a few weeks ago.
Majesky went on to explain that his shot at a TV spot arose while he was close to departing with his girlfriend on a much-needed vacation and respite from the demands of his burgeoning pierogi business. But a carefree jaunt to the Outer Banks became tinted with anxiety when he noticed a “for your eyes only” email inquiring about him auditioning for a segment on “Triple D” as a replacement for a business that had been nixed for a show slot.
One thing led to another and, during the back-and-forth vetting process, Fieri became enamored with Pierogi Mountain's underdog story and unlikely home in Cafe Bourbon Street. “Guy really wanted us on the show because we are a real dive,” Majesky said. “There's no money behind us. We built everything by hand from the ground up. We started with broken-down equipment, and we still have broken-down equipment.”
Fieri would soon find out that this broken-down equipment, along with an influx of new and improved equipment, turns out some pretty great food. In the episode, this fact is written all over Fieri's frosty-tipped face as, time and again, his jokingasides turn into wide-eyed love for the stuff he's eagerly biting into.
Pierogi Mountain's fare also provokes some choice Fieri quotes, including “Dumpling madness!” and “Brother, it's outstanding!” and “You're venturing into a territory that I don't think I've ever seen anybody touch.”
After giving the dumplings the all-important “off the chain” Fieri stamp of approval, the brash celebrity chef caps off the segment by marveling over Majesky's addictive chicken paprikash and proclaiming the dish to be — Flavortown Trigger Warning — “RIDUNCULOUS!”
In the show, you'll also catch a glimpse of Charlie Greene, Majesky's partner and hardworking vegan-chef secret weapon (more on him later). What you won't see is the long, bumpy and wayward road Majesky traveled before he arrived at Pierogi Mountain.
Requiem for a Dream
Aside from gaining a paycheck from McDonald's during high school, plus some (much later) part-time grunt gigs, Majesky, who is 37, said he had “zero” experience working in a professional kitchen prior to starting Pierogi Mountain. Actually, the Lorain, Ohio, native was more passionate about movies when he was younger. He even secured scholarship money to study film at the University of Pittsburgh.
“It was the late '90s and, with the films coming out by Darren Aronofsky, Spike Jonze, Quentin Tarantino and David Fincher, it was a real exciting time in cinema,” Majesky said. He didn't find film school real exciting, though.
“I just didn't want to be there and promptly lost my scholarship because my grades weren't good enough,” he recalled.
After earning his degree anyway, and then doing the backpack thing across Europe, Majesky's glittering Hollywood dream fizzled into the reality of moving back to Lorain and living with his parents, who were both teachers.
Amateur therapists might want to have a go at Majesky's next life chapter. But here are some facts: Majesky went to grad school to study educational psychology, began substitute teaching, eventually got his master's degree, and hated practically every single minute of the entire experience. “It's like I was just doing it all for someone else,” Majesky said.
Along the way to his second self-described “useless” degree, he amassed $200,000 in student loans and developed an acute fondness for alcohol and cocaine. Aside from playing in local bands, Majesky said that as a generally downbeat, sardonic guy with mounting debt and few prospects of satisfying employment or happiness, he found that “getting fucked up was the only thing I had any interest in.”
We've all seen this movie before — Darren Aronofsky made one like it. But actually living through being hospitalized after a heart attack scare that Majesky experienced in a “roach-infested trash heap” of an apartment, and having cops wake him up in his car because he passed out while gassed out of his mind, plus a nihilism-verifying holiday season spent alone — those events were the stuff of freshly felt nightmares.
Misty Mountain Hop
Rudderless days would drift away and accumulate into nearly a decade of experiential jetsam. “Each year bled into the next; I was just existing,” Majesky said. He slogged through temp jobs and lived on and off with his parents, whom he commends for always staying positive and supportive. Eventually, he'd move to the Old North neighborhood and ensconce himself in the local music scene that centered around clubs such as Cafe Bourbon Street.
Fast forward to ComFest weekend and the summer of 2013. While planning to attend the yearly music festival as he usually would, Majesky said that suddenly the prospect of struggling for parking, waiting in long beer lines and having people wish him “Happy Comfest” — “Everything I hate,” Majesky related with a self-conscious laugh — didn't seem appealing. Mostly, though, what didn't sound so fun was once again getting ripsnorting drunk only to eventually feel miserable. Majesky said he was also realizing that his booze-fueled gloomy disposition and often dour opinions were having a negative effect on people around him.
Opting instead to take a break from it all — ComFest, people and the alcohol and drugs that amplified his dark moods — he decided to stay sober that weekend. While puttering around and going through old emails, he discovered an aunt had sent the entire family the recipe for the beloved pierogi that his late great-grandmother used to make and which always brightened the family's holidays.
Cue the uplifting music. Cut to the movie montage of a dude working in an apartment kitchen — I'd cast a flour-dredged Seth Rogen in the part — proceeding through a trial-and-error process that culminates in making his first great pierogi. And then making a lot more. In fact, making so many that, when finished, our hero gazes over at his kitchen counter and proudly proclaims that he has created a Pierogi Mountain.
Majesky described the experience in almost mystical terms, saying it was “unlike anything I'd ever done before. It just naturally clicked for me. I had a real knack for it, and I really liked doing it.”
His friends really liked eating them, too. After helping Majesky buzz-saw through that first mountainous batch, they wanted more.
Majesky complied by taking orders, which would be filled by showing up to Bourbon Street on a prescribed day and picking up the pierogi. By a third go-round of this, Majesky's snowballing requests led to him selling a whopping 1,500 dumplings. Sensing a business opportunity, he and Bourbon Street owner Dave Fricke arranged a recurring Tuesday night Pierogi Mountain popup in the bar later that year. It was a success.
Bad habits die hard, though. “I was still a full-time alcoholic who lived alone and acted like a moron who'd blow all of the money I earned just to get high,” Majesky said. “This always left me one ass hair away from losing everything. I'd cross my fingers and hope I could just make it to another Tuesday night at Bourbon Street.”
Going from flush to flushing his cash down the crapper days later on alcohol and other intoxicants turned into a vicious cycle. “You can only have so many days when you wake up and say, ‘I can't do this to myself anymore,'” Majesky said.
His ups and downs would bottom out during the holiday season of 2015. With no family nearby, Majesky spent the cold, dark days alone, which made him even more depressed. He began to seriously think about killing himself.
One day during this least wonderful time of his year, he received a package. Rather than season's greetings from a family member or friend, it was an errant delivery from an unknown person in Australia. Unable to easily return to sender through the post office, Majesky opened it up.
Inside was a card on which a profoundly sorrowful writer expressed deep regret for a fallout with the would-be recipient, who was sorely missed. The heartfelt note brimming with raw emotion moved Majesky, and he posted it on Facebook.
But he was drunk when he did it. As a friend soon pointed out, his fly was down, too. So rather than sharing a poignant holiday Hallmark moment, he'd given the internet the Christmas present of a “dick pic.”
This seemed like a good time for a fateful decision.
About a month following his yuletide fiasco, Majesky quit drinking and took over the Bourbon Street kitchen full time. He's remained sober since and, operating seven days a week, has seen the business triple after each of the past two years. But he's had help.
Brothers in Arms
“Matt came to me about cooking [full time] in our kitchen,” said Bourbon Street owner Dave Fricke. “I thought it was a great idea but worried that working in a bar after he'd just quit drinking might be taking on too much. So I encouraged him to bring in Charlie [Greene], who had a lot of kitchen experience.”
Greene, a Hilltop native who has worked in many of the kitchens in the Short North, had been casually acquainted with Majesky through his gig as a soundman at venues such as the Summit (Bourbon Street's adjoining neighbor and virtual sister) and the old Bernie's Bagels & Deli. Shortly after Pierogi Mountain premiered in Bourbon Street, Greene became one of its earliest and most enthusiastic fans.
A practicing vegan for nearly five years, Greene said that Majesky's passion for his craft and his promise that Greene could have complete control of the vegan half of Pierogi Mountain's menu, which has become popular with Bourbon Street's eclectic clientele, convinced him that joining Pierogi Mountain was the right career decision.
“I think we've struck a great balance between each having the freedom to do what we want with our food, but also presenting a cohesive menu every week that has elements of traditional flavors but also a wild card or two,” Greene said. “We hold each other to a high standard, and Matt's work ethic, discipline and creativity is inspiring to work alongside.”
When Greene and Majesky start talking shop during our conversation at Bourbon Street, the two — who are now 50-50 partners in Pierogi Mountain — come off as burly brothers from other mothers. Sometimes finishing each other's sentences, they share a shorthand of gestures and gazes no doubt forged through untold hours spent together in the close quarters of the busy Bourbon Street kitchen.
Taking Care of Business
Majesky and Greene also share progressive ideas on how to run a business. These include working with local-musician charities, often feeding bands that play at Bourbon Street and reinvesting any excess money back into the company rather than pocketing it.
“We're a reflection of the music and Bourbon Street community we serve, so we wouldn't hire anyone that we wouldn't want to spend time with,” Majesky said. “And because we've worked plenty of shitty jobs, we're trying to be good employers — trying to be the kind of people we'd want to work for.”
Although still a fledgling company, Pierogi Mountain has of late offered paid sick days and raises to its employees, which currently number three — a tally that might increase as Pierogi Mountain recently commenced service on Thursday nights in the Brewery District's Big Room Bar.
With business chugging along at a good clip, Pierogi Mountain currently sells about 2,500 to 3,000 dumplings a week. And it's picking up catering gigs, which Greene characterized as being as much about logistics as cooking.
Majesky has become interested in charcuterie, as well. He'd like to explore this further, but for now, the business is making sausages and vegan hot dogs, which are offered as nightly specials.
A food truck might be an option in the near future, too. But Majesky confessed that owning a full-on, brick-and-mortar Pierogi Mountain restaurant is “always in the back of my mind.” Mindful of businesses that suffer from expanding too quickly, though, he suggested that such a day looks to be a few more fateful decisions away.