A shocking teenage experience brought Matt Dunn, pastry chef, to the historic Capital Hotel, leading him down a sweet path from Middlesborough, England, to Little Rock.
By Brigette Williams :: Photography by Jamison Mosley
When did you start cooking? I grew up cooking with my mom Christine and my nana Sylvia from the time I was around five years old. We’d mainly make cakes, shortbreads and scones.
Did you think about cooking professionally as a kid? I never thought about being a chef growing up. I grew up in a very small industrial town in northeast England. I wanted to be an electrician until I found out I was color-blind.
How did you find out? I was attempting to wire an outlet and electrocuted myself. I couldn’t’ tell the wires were different colors, so they sent me to have my vision tested.
Then what? At 16, after my incident with the electricity, my mom was like, “You cook all of the time. Why don’t you go to culinary school?” So, I went and I just fell into cooking and loved it.
How did you find your way to Arkansas? I was in culinary school in England, and also working as a part-time chef in the ‘hot kitchen.’ I got an offer from Big Cedar Lodge in Missouri, at 20. After a year-and-a-half I went home to England for a month or so, but, there isn’t much of a culinary scene there. I found a job in Copenhagen. And no, I didn’t speak Danish! It was a cultural shock, but I loved it. I was there for a year, got my Visa, then at 23 returned to Big Cedar Lodge for another year and a half – this time with a focus on pastries. I ended up at the Peabody Hotel Little Rock until it became the Marriott Hotel. I was there for a total of three years. I started as a bakery lead and was promoted to pastry chef at the Peabody. I got a phone call to interview at the Capital Hotel as pastry chef. I’ve been here two-and-a-half years.
Why do you enjoy pastries versus ‘the hot kitchen’? I love it, it’s like an art . . . the plating of pastries . . . the intricacies of it. And, in school I was always interested in math and science and that’s exactly what’s involved in pastries to a tee.
A different skill set than ‘cooking’? Yeah. When I cooked I would just throw things together. Now, when I go into the ‘hot kitchen’ I just can’t do it anymore, I need specifics. (Laughing) Baking is definitely a science. Everything reacts differently. Just with breads, there are enzymes that will kill yeast; there all sorts of different factors you have to look at.
Where’s your ‘head space’ now? At this moment it’s Christmas. I’m always thinking of new ideas.
With a shift to Christmas, is their a difference about how you make desserts? We do gingerbread classes, plus high tea every day. We do Christmas cookies – more than 2,000 hand decorated cookies – just for the choirs that sing here during the holidays.
You do a holiday high tea. That’s a touch of home for you? Yes, and I do an English High Tea, so we serve a Victorian sponge cake, which is actually my mother’s recipe. It’s a light vanilla sponge, with raspberry jam and Chantilly cream and dusted with a little powdered sugar. A lot of the recipes I make are my mother’s and grandmother’s.
How do your mom and grandma feel about you using their recipes? My nana passed away a couple of years ago, but my mom loves that I use her recipes. I’ll email or message her and ask for a certain recipe.
What’s your favorite local dining spot? I try and take my wife out for a dinner date every few weeks. My favorite place would be Terry’s Fine Pizza in The Heights (Little Rock). It’s wood fired, good crust. My favorite pizza is chorizo and lime crème.
Thoughts about Arkansas’ culinary scene? It’s grown tremendously. Pulaski Tech is great about getting folks into the industry. I always try and get local staff, ‘cause I think it drives the industry locally so we want to keep them here. I’m probably not the best one to say that, am I? (laughing)
Find out why Matt is baking a 12 ft. gingerbread rock house at aymag.com/food.
Listen to Matt’s playlist on Spotify which includes one of his favorite bands “The Dolls”.
Follow AY Magazine on SPOTIFY to listen to Matthew Dunn’s Playlist. https://open.spotify.com/user/magazine