Matt Riddett grew up to be the chef he is today thanks, in part, to watching his parents raise a variety of vegetables in their back yard garden. He didn’t realize it at the time, but the experience gave him an appreciation for growing food, harvesting it at the peak of quality and putting it to use in the kitchen. “I subconsciously learned about good food and eating fresh,” he says.
It made a lasting impression. Riddett, 37, is the executive chef for the brewpub at Empire Brewing Company in downtown Syracuse, a position he has held since 2010. The brewpub is essentially a big tavern, with an open kitchen, lively atmosphere and more than 150 seats. The scent of beer permeates the place — no surprise, given the tall copper and stainless steel brewing equipment that looms large over the bar and dining areas. This is where Empire brewed the majority of its beers before the Empire Farm Brewery, New York’s largest farm brewery, opened in Cazenovia last year.
What sets Empire apart from other restaurants with pub menus is its focus on local ingredients — and food designed to complement beer made with local ingredients. The menu features a half-dozen burgers, including several made with local grassfed beef, a local pork burger and a local elk burger. Empire’s local partners include Cafe Kubal (their locally roasted coffee even makes its way into some beers), Meadows Farm, Dinosaur Bar-B-Que, Gianelli Sausage, Beak and Skiff, Critz Farms, Queensboro Dairy, Life of Reilley Distilling and Wine Co., and others.
Greyrock Farm, of Cazenovia, will supply some of the produce used this season at the brewpub downtown (as well as the restaurant at the farm brewery) and a garden to be planted at the farm brewery will also supply both restaurants with a stream of salad greens, tomatoes, squashes and more come summertime. Right now, Riddett says, it’s a waiting game. He loves to visit the Central New York Regional Market most Saturdays to see what’s available and what’s new, locally, to supplement what he already has at hand.
Riddett got his start in the restaurant business after a brief stint studying engineering in college. He was working as a landscaper, and when fall came and that work dried up, he got a job in the kitchen at the Blarney Stone, on Syracuse’s Tipperary Hill. He liked the work and the pace of it and eventually enrolled at New England Culinary Institute, where he polished his skills in the school’s restaurant and bakery. He moved to California for a couple years, and worked as a chef at several restaurants in the Livermore Valley, a wine district about 40 miles east of San Francisco noted for both wine and gourmet cuisine utilizing local ingredients.
“It was a great experience,” Riddett recalls, “but all of my family is here.”
Riddett has worked at a host of restaurants in Central New York, including the Brewster Inn, Lemon Grass, Mirbeau Inn and Spa and the Sherwood Inn. It was “luck,” he says, that brought him to Empire Brewing Company. A friend and fellow chef interviewed for the head chef position, but ended up taking a job out of state. He suggested that Riddett apply for the job. “I just kind of fell into it,” Riddett says. “I was into the local thing and they were into the local thing. It became a perfect fit.”
Almost seven years after hiring him, Empire founder David Katleski remains impressed with his choice for brewpub chef. “When you talk to chefs and meet and interview them, you want to make sure their egos don’t get in way of business direction,” he says. “Matt shares our vision and goals for beer and food focusing on local ingredients. It has been a great partnership from the day he started.”
Riddett tweaks the menu at the Empire brewpub a couple times a year, but never so it strays noticeably from its eclectic mix of pub favorites, including soups and chilis, salads, sandwiches, burgers and Tex-Mex and New Orleans-flavored fare, like fajitas, quesadillas, burritos, gumbo and jambalaya. He’s always on the lookout for ways to work Empire’s beers into the food, from adding Empire ale to the batter used on the haddock for fish and chips, to braising short ribs in brown ale, to making cupcakes flavored with Local Grind, Empire’s collaboration brew with Cafe Kubal.
“Cooking with beer is trending everywhere in restaurants right now,” Riddett says.
In his leisure time, Riddett likes to give back to the community by participating in events like the Signature Chefs Auction, a fundraiser for the March of Dimes, and Philanthropic Foodies, a culinary showcase with several local beneficiaries.
And his own garden is calling. Riddett’s 40-by-20-foot happy place will give him and his family produce into late fall, including peas, lettuces, tomatoes, peppers, fennel, okra, carrots, edamame, ground cherries, turnips, beets and more. First up are rhubarb and ramps.
The Empire Brewing Company brewpub is at 120 Walton St., in Armory Square. The brewpub is open daily for lunch and dinner (and Sunday brunch). For information, call 315-475-2337. The restaurant at the Empire Farm Brewery is open Thursday to Sunday and has its own menu. For information on both locations, visit https://empirebrew.com.