Durham, N.C. — Meet the man behind all that pasta! Josh, who has lived in the area for 10 years, headed up the kitchen at Mateo since its beginnings in 2012 before opening Italian trattoria Mothers & Sons with Chef Matthew Kelly in June 2016.
We asked Chef Josh personal questions about food, family and life.
Q: If you could prepare a meal for anyone, dead or alive, who would it be and why?
A: That’s an easy one – all these pictures [indicating photos on the walls of Mothers & Sons], that’s all my family – and that’s who it would be. I come from a long line of very serious home cooks -- out of necessity. They were from poor regions of Italy and had to make something out of nothing, essentially. It would be nice to show them that the inspiration I got from them developed into a variety of cuisine that I think they would be proud of.
In particular, my Aunt Kay would be the one. Every Sunday we went to her house and would eat meatball sandwiches. She was a great cook. In the kitchen here at Mothers & Sons, there’s a tile from her kitchen that says “Kay’s Kitchen,” and it’s tiled into the wall. When she passed away and we cleaned out her house, I said, “I’m going to put that in the wall someday.” That was about eight years ago.
Finally, it’s in the place where it belongs.
Q: Mothers & Sons centers on cooking traditions – what traditions are you bringing to the restaurant that your family taught you?
The overall feeling of cooking out of love. There are all these newfangled techniques and this sort of attitude that chefs have like, “You should be so lucky to eat my food," and that’s the opposite of what we do here. You want to feel fulfilled from eating and enjoying, but we also want you to feel comfortable, like you’re going to somebody’s house for dinner.
One physical tradition that comes from my family – my grandma used to make it – is a bruschetta with tomato conserva. It’s like a tomato and pepper and you cook it down until it’s basically a paste, but it’s spicy and rich. My grandmother is 96 years old and she doesn’t cook anymore, and I never really got the full scoop from her. So, it’s been years of trying to figure it out, and finally, I got it. It was approved by my father. So we have a bruschetta here that has that on it. It’s traditional, but I was really trying to nail how my grandmother did it. There’s a pot of it cooking back there, and when I smell it, it’s like, “Oh, grandma’s house!”
Q: If you could take a guess, how many pounds of pasta did Mothers & Sons go through during its first week?
A: About 100 pounds of pasta, maybe a bit more. Each day, I rolled probably 15 pounds. But that’s hand rolled, and then we have some that’s extruded from the machine. I never made that calculation, but it’s kind of alarming now that I have.
Q: Which restaurants in town do you frequent when you’re not at your own? What do you order?
A: I definitely like the plateau [a combination of oysters, shrimp, clams, mussels, crab claws and lobster] at Vin Rouge. I’m from New England, so I just love poached seafood and oysters. I definitely like Dashi; I like the ramen shop for sure, but the upstairs, the izakaya, is kind of my jam. The flavors are so different than what I’m used to on a daily basis being here, and it’s a good change of pace. I like going for a steak, too. There’s this little place in Chapel Hill called the Farm House Restaurant. It’s been there forever, nothing has changed since the ’70s, and it’s great. Very low-key and quiet – it’s steaks, baked potatoes and iceberg lettuce salads.
Q: Do you have a fast food guilty pleasure?
A: Oh, yeah – I have more than one. I would say the most frequent one is McDonald’s breakfast. I get the same thing every time: sausage McMuffin with egg. Part of it is…it was a thing when we were kids. My dad would always take us to McDonald’s for breakfast when we would go skiing in Vermont. It’s a comforting sort of thing – a lot of things for me are like that. It’s definitely a guilty pleasure. Being a chef, fast food is an unfortunate thing that happens more often than you would like it to. I like Cookout milkshakes, too. I had one last night, in fact.
Q: What summer ingredient do you most look forward to incorporating into your dishes?
A: For obvious reasons, tomatoes – they grow so well here and there are so many varieties; people go crazy for them. And also, peppers; we’ve got a bunch of people growing all sorts of peppers, Italian varieties that we can preserve so we can have them all winter long.
Q: What’s a tip for someone who’s visiting Mothers & Sons for the first time?
We have limited seating, and it gets busy. Reservations are highly, highly recommended.
Editor’s Note: This article originally appeared in Durham Magazine.
Taste Mothers & Sons Italian tradition at the Grand TASTE event April 20, which showcases more than 40 of the best local chefs, restaurants, artisans and breweries under one roof. The event is sponsored by Chapel Hill Magazine and Durham Magazine, and brought to you by Johnson Lexus. WRAL Out and About is a sponsor of Taste 2017.