Star-a-Day: Matthew Grunwald

Get to know Matthew Grunwald, a finalist on Food Network Star, Season 13.

Photo by: Eddy Chen

Eddy Chen

Matthew Grunwald has become something of a Food Network Star regular in the last few years. After his first stint in the competition back in Season 11, which ultimately ended in a Week 2 elimination, he returned for a shot at redemption on Comeback Kitchen last year, but ultimately he didn't claim victory. This year, however, he returned to the Comeback Kitchen arena, more primed than ever for a win — and he did it. He out-performed Jamika Pessoa in the Comeback Kitchen, Season 2 finale and earned a spot among the Season 13 cast of Food Network Star. Read on below to learn more about Matthew.

Matthew was the youngest finalist on Season 11 of Food Network Star, but don’t let his age and enthusiasm fool you; he’s got the experience of a chef twice his age. At 16, he began working in professional kitchens and became a food writer by 17. He is now the corporate executive chef of national accounts for Nestlé Professional in Cleveland.

What have you been up to since we last saw you on Comeback Kitchen?

Matthew Grunwald: I was promoted as sous chef de cuisine at two restaurants. It’s the same owner, and I’m in between both almost as like a traveling sous chef. One of them was James Beard nominated in 2013, and the other one just got Best New Restaurant [in the] Phoenix New Times, so that’s been garnering most of my attention. And I’m actually working two jobs, so I’m a sous chef five days a week at those two restaurants, and then I work for Beau MacMillan at Sanctuary on my days off. I literally work every single day. I was voted most influential in Valley food by North Valley Magazine in Arizona, which was very exciting. That just all happened. I have been practicing every single day for this moment. Food TV is still my primary goal, and I’m always consciously taking into consideration everything that Tyler, Valerie, Giada, Bobby, whoever has said to me from Food Network. Written it down, applied it and practiced it, so this last year was really a year of growth, maturity and movement forward.

What was your greatest take-away from your first Star season?

MG: Definitely the focus. Still getting rid of that nervous tick and really following a lineage of A to Z, from one book cover to the other, and telling a story and trying to figure out what telling a story means in a 30-second or a minute format. It doesn’t have to be a huge narrative; it just needs to have the points: who am I, where am I from, what am I cooking, why am I cooking it, what does it taste like, take a bite, wrap it up.

Do you think your cooking and presentation abilities have changed since then?

MG: Oh, immensely. I feel like my food is so much more simple and elegant, and I feel like I’ve really settled into my cooking style. I feel like I really understand Southwestern cuisine and the way I like to cook it. My plating is really simple, clean and elegant, and there was really an intentionality about that, because if your food is simple — now, don’t get me wrong; the flavors are balanced and delicious, everything is still elevated and there is still a high level of technique. So even if I was making a grilled cheese sandwich, it would still have really great technique. I think the technique is really the driving engine to it all.

The last time we saw you on Food Network Star, you were working with a social media POV. Are you still pursuing that?

MG: No, I’ve kind of let that fall from the side. That’s not where I want to work; that’s digital. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, because that’s a huge medium. But to be on Food Network on-air Saturday morning or whenever they chose to air you, it's families and it’s a different group of people watching. And that angle I had before of the social media in my presentations in the actual vernacular of it, is not appropriate this time around. I’m making it all about the food and the technique. It’s really just all about the food. That being said, I’m still hugely involved in social media. I won this social media Mentor Challenge in Comeback. I got it in spades, and even Tyler said it was polished, so I still love that. But my intention is to be on-air on Food Network daytime, in primetime, and that’s a different audience. So, this time I’m making it all about the Southwestern food.

What would you most like to learn from Bobby and Giada, be it something in the kitchen or on camera?

MG: How to get polished. I feel like I still need to get to that level of, that Star quality — mega-Star quality, where everybody knows you're the best. Bobby and Giada, they walk into a place [and] they don’t need to be told how to do it; they just do it because they’re expects. So I’m really going to glean every single word they say and critique they have, and apply it quickly, cause this is like a master class.

What do you think is the most-valuable thing you could teach a Food Network viewer?

MG: How to successfully cook a great recipe that’s unique and familiar.

Which part of this contest — the cooking or the camera work — intimidates you the most? Please explain.

MG: Well, this time around, I feel like neither. In times past, the camera was so daunting because you just have that [need to] power through. And don’t get me wrong — I still get a nervousness, but this time I feel like I have developed a muscle where I’m able to push through that. And in times past, it’s a winging-it mentality, and this time I’ve come to discover how to maintain a consciousness when I’m speaking to camera, hear what I’m saying. Something that I did to practice was even though I’m a terrible singer, I would sing along with large, winded songs and really develop my breathing for how to carry a rhythm in the way I deliver something in a presentation.

Win or lose, what do you want to take away from this experience?
MG: A show.
What does the term "Food Network Star" represent to you?
MG: It's like varsity.
What's your greatest strength in the kitchen?

MG: I’m extremely restaurant trained in a fine-dining setting, where pressure and time constraints are the norm, and I really believe that that’s translated into these competitions, because it allows me to not only cook in that time period, but also to determine what I’m going to talk about in a camera presentation. So, I really look at my recipe in my head and my procedures, and I look at it from an audience point of view of why am I using this cast-iron skillet, why this cut of meat, how much seasoning, what ingredient is really going to elevate this, and making mental bullet point notes in my head as to, and making bullet points in my head of this is what I’m going to talk about because this is the stuff that people are going to want to know because, even though I do it on a day-to-day basis, lots of people don’t know, and if they have a technique, technique is like a science and it produces consistent results.

What is the strangest thing we'd find in your refrigerator right now?

MG: My fridge is pretty bare cause I work so much. It’s like a carton of eggs.

Let's say it's a regular Tuesday night and you're at home. What are you having for dinner?
MG: Tacos. Or dumplings.
What do you consider to be your signature dish?

MG: I really love ceviche. I really love scallop ceviche or a shrimp ceviche. Anything with a lot of lime juice and a little bit of agave nectar. I love bright, clean flavors, and ceviche does it for me cause you have this really bright, citrusy sweet, crunchy bite, and then you have your freshly fried tortillas, and it’s such heaven.

Is there one dish or ingredient that you simply will not eat?

MG: No, I really don’t think so. I will cook with anything.

What's one item you have to have at your last supper?
MG: My family.
What's your guilty pleasure food?

MG: There’s so many. Chewy chocolate chip cookies — it has to have the chewy-crunchy exterior and the middle can’t be too soft, but it also has to be not too hard. And it can’t have a ton of chocolate chips in it either. It’s got to have a lot of sugary dough, speckled with a few chocolate chips.

What do you want to say about yourself to fans watching at home?

MG: That I’m so grateful for this opportunity and I’m not going to blow it. I’m taking it so seriously this time, and it makes me so happy to be able to think about the possibility of creating really great Southwestern recipes for people and having them go and print them off, going to the store, recreate them, take a picture and be like, "Hey, it turned out!" Great food is so exciting, and it makes me excited to be able to be the influencer of that. So, huge thank you. And I'm honored and very grateful for another opportunity

What's your greatest piece of technical advice for aspiring cooks?

MG: A great sharp knife is essential. Getting good at knife cuts — practice is the only way you’re going to get better at that. Learn to saute, learn to broil. Huge advice: Get a bunch of cast-iron skillets. They’re relatively inexpensive, and everything you cook in them is fantastic cause they don’t stick once they’re well-seasoned, and they get such a nice sear and caramelization that consistently makes food delicious whether it be vegetables, savory meats, or even something on the sweet side if you’re doing cornbread.

What's the first dish aspiring cooks should master?

MG: A great roasted chicken is really essential. And what I like to do is spatchcock it — where you take the back bone out and you press it down — because it reduces the amount of cook time and gives you a greater surface area. Amd you also want to make sure that your oven is at a really high temperature, like 425 degrees F, so that that skins gets nice and crispy and there’s less evaporation of moisture. And if you have convection, then you’re set because then you’re going to get like this 360-degree dry heat that’s really going to make it perfect.

Tune in to Food Network Star on Sundays at 9|8c.
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