Behind the Toque: Chef Mateusz Wlodarksi of Selamat Pagi
For our second piece in the Behind the Toque series (we last profiled Chef Eldad of Glasserie), we popped over to Selamat Pagi for a sunny Sunday brunch and chatted with Executive Chef Chef Mateusz (Matt) Wlodarski. Over a Bali Bowl and glass of rose, we talked experimentation, the exciting seasonal changes on the horizon, and the menu’s newest sambal, the recipe for which he shares below.
Selamat Pagi (pronounced “Sell-a-maht Pah-gee” and meaning “Good Morning” in Balinese) is the Indonesian brainchild of Peter and Ben Van Leeuwen and Laura O’Neill, also co-founders of Van Leeuwen Artisan Ice Cream. Similar to Van Leeuwen, Selamat Pagi is a harbinger of creativity and a playful, exploratory take on an alt cuisine (for our neighborhood at least) that nails it every time.
Don’t be fooled by the small, quaint space, and its unassuming location right off McGolrick Park. Each dish on the menu is beautifully constructed, a nuanced layering of Southeast Asian ingredients into modern renditions of Balinese classics.
GP: Do you have a personal relationship to Indonesian food?
Wlodarksi: I started learning about Indonesian food when I came to Selamat Pagi a year and a half ago. I had cooked most of the Western cuisines but Southeast Asia, no. There are so many complex flavors. If you need to use twenty different ingredients to make one dish you can taste every single one as long as it’s done the right way and the dish is balanced. It’s incredible if you think about it.
GP: That’s one thing that has always captivated me about Selamat Pagi—the amount of flavor you pack into a single dish. Especially when it comes to things like curry, or deviled eggs—items we’ve consumed a thousand times before, yet your flavor profile totally upends all expectations. Is that your take on the cuisine, or is it something the cuisine is teaching you?
Wlodarksi: I think it’s both. I’m learning a lot and I’m trying to put myself in there a well. Right now, I can’t think of any other cuisine that would require so much preparation. There are so many spices, so many roots, so many herbs. You could learn forever.
GP: Is there a dish of which you’re particularly proud?
Wlodarksi: A lot of them, yeah! Lately my favorite is the new chicken on the menu. Ayam Bakar—it’s a grilled chicken, but I use different techniques. Some things I learned from French cuisine, where you dry the chicken overnight with the wind blowing on it, and it caramelizes a bit. You marinate it in the spices, grill it, and it creates a nice crisp skin that’s juicy and tasty. We made a special glaze for it with kecap manis, which is Indonesian sweet soy sauce. There’s Thai basil, ginger, garlic, galangal root, and lemon grass. It’s really nicely balanced so you taste everything. We serve it with braised greens. The same spice we use to marinate the chicken, we make a really nice sauce with it, and then we dress the chicken with our tomat sambal, fried shallots, and pickled chilies. There’s so much flavor in there — it’s a killer dish.
GP: Your sambals are amazing. I’d be happy just ordering those and eating them with a spoon.
Wlodarksi: My favorite sambal is tomat. Not long ago we were pureeing it, but we’ve stopped doing that so now it’s chunky. We have chunks of shallots, garlic, chili. It’s a little tangy, a little sweet, spicy, all the pungent aromas from those chilies. There’s palm sugar, which gives you that extra sweetness and a caramelized aroma. Once it’s in season I’m actually thinking about doing a Thai eggplant sambal. I want it to have a texture like whole grain mustard.
GP: Laura O’Neill, co-owner of both Selamat Pagi and Van Leeuwen, is an icon of the neighborhood. How would you characterize the relationship between Selamat Pagi and Greenpoint?
Wlodarksi: We are off the beaten track, not in the heart of Williamsburg or Greenpoint—we’re really on the other side. So our customers are mostly local people. Those who come here who are not local actually have to hear about us, and that’s very good because we have a lot of people coming.
When it comes the neighborhood, we just want to serve great food to the people who live here. We don’t want it to be crazy expensive, but at the same time we want to use the best ingredients possible. We’ve started following the Monterey Bay Seafood Watch List, so we can get good fish that’s local and seasonal and not on the watch list, and we’ve started working with Fleisher’s Craft Butchery in Brooklyn.
GP: How do you run your kitchen? Do you get any ideas from your team?
Wlodarksi: All the time. I actually encourage them. I tell them, “If you have any ideas, just come to me,” and we try to cook it. If it makes sense and it’s tasty, we can put it on the menu at some point. We want to change the menu more often, at least twice a year, maybe even more. It’s always been a nice neighborhood restaurant with great food, and now we want to do it more seasonally, using local ingredients and the flavor profile of Southeast Asia while making it more approachable to people.
GP: Would you say you’re experimenting a lot, in addition to producing your regular menu?
Wlodarksi: Whenever we have free time, yes. We’ve started doing a lot of our own oils, we’ve started naturally-fermenting pickles. In a couple months we’re going to be adding our own pickles to the menu, including a Southeast Asian-tasting kimchi. It’s just waiting to be ready.
GP: What’s the recipe you want to share with us?
Wlodarksi: It’s my sambal malak. Right now we’re trying to focus more on vegetables. I thought, “Let’s do seasonal vegetables a little bit differently, like they’re doing in Asia.” You quickly fry them in the wok and do a kick ass sauce.
That’s how I started thinking more about sambals—what kind of sambal could I make for the vegetables? I looked around on the internet and read books and few recipes stood out. The first was a Filipino sauce and the second was similar, a Balinese sambal malak. The Filipino sauce had fish sauce in it, but I wanted to make it vegan so I left that alone. The sambal malak called for huge amounts of garlic, seriously, 300 grams of garlic in one quart of sauce. Way too pungent for us. I started playing around and came up with mine. I still call it sambal malak. Maybe it’s not original to how they do it in Indonesia, but it’s pretty damn tasty. It’s very aromatic, pungent, spicy, has a sweetness from the coconut milk, and you can taste the lemongrass, kaffir lime, galangal root, garlic, red onion, and palm sugar. It’s a really great sauce.
THE RECIPE: SAMBAL MALAK
15g galangal root
1 small red onion
2 pieces of kaffir lime leaf
8g Thai bird’s eye chili (green or red)
3 pieces of dried Thai bird’s eye chili soaked in water for 20 minutes (optional)
1 quart of coconut milk
Wash, peel and chop all your vegetables and roots into small pieces.
- Take one third of your coconut milk, put it in a pot and bring to a boil.
- Add all your chopped veggies and roots to your boiling coconut milk and simmer for five minutes.
- Add the rest of your coconut milk and bring to a boil. Simmer for ten minutes.
- Spice to your liking with lime juice, palm sugar, and salt.
- For a smooth texture place your sauce in a blender and blend on high until ready.
Enjoy on your vegetables, as an addition to mussels, clams or as a stir-fry sauce.
If your grocery store doesn’t sell them, the Thai bird’s eye chilies can be replaced with any other hot chili peppers. If you can’t buy kaffir lime leaf anywhere try to zest some lime peel into your finished sauce for extra aroma.
Remember to play around. After all, cooking should be fun.