Local chef talks family, flavors and finding joy in home cooking.
When Birchwood Village chef Matt Ellison lost his restaurant job during the COVID-19 pandemic, charting a new course required a bit of creative thinking.
One night over wine and a virtual Zoom call in spring 2020, Ellison and his wife taught friends in Chicago how to make pozole, a Mexican stew. Ellison had such a good time, the idea stuck with him. “The next day I thought, ‘I wonder if there’s something to this?’” Ellison says.
Within a few weeks, Ellison started teaching cooking classes online from the comfort of his own home. The shift allowed him to balance his passion for cooking with his family (wife, Jessica, and children, Scarlett, Lachlan, Simon and Annabel).
“Being home with my wife and four kiddos has been such a blessing, so we are working to make a long-term business out of it,” he says.
He named the venture Browns and Blues after their two blue-eyed and two brown-eyed children, and focused on everyday recipes that are made in a chef’s house. “We’re not eating foie gras and lamb every night,” Ellison says.
It was, undoubtedly, a welcome change for a longtime restaurant chef used to working nights and weekends. With a culinary arts degree from Le Cordon Bleu, the north Minneapolis native grew his experience across the Twin Cities as culinary director at Axel’s Bonfire, executive chef at Lucia’s in Minneapolis and Muffuletta in St. Paul and sous chef at Salut in Edina.
In his first year of business, Ellison taught up to 15 classes each month with clients ranging from households across the country to more intimate one-on-one classes. “They all cook a meal together, and [it’s] really great to see the happiness of people being able to see each other,” says Ellison.
Browns and Blues also offers in-person lessons, customizing courses to what people want to learn, like homemade pasta, beurre blanc or a comforting weeknight one-pan recipe like roasted chicken and vegetables with jus. In his virtual classes, Ellison cooks on two cameras alongside clients, answering questions, offering professional knowledge and making the process of cooking an enjoyable one.
“Recipes are all guidelines, they don’t have to be so rigid,” Ellison says about cooking. “If you have a turnip instead of a carrot, it’s going to work. I like to show people [to cook] with what you already have.”
What’s next for chef Ellison? Let’s see … growing Browns and Blues into a commercial building, expanding his business model to include his family and the White Bear Lake area community, offering more extensive classes, carry-out meals and small-scale catering. “We also want people in the community to teach their skills, such as baking or gardening, or rent the space for events,” Ellison says.
His biggest joy comes from watching clients become empowered to do something new in the kitchen.
“I really like to bring people joy through food,” he says. “There’s so much of cooking that seems like this mystical thing, and I think there is something to that, but you can do this at home … make a great meal and enjoy yourself too.”
Staci Perry Mergenthal Cooks with Chef Matt
Although I’ve taught baking classes, I’ve never taken a cooking class. My recipe box is full of Midwest comfort food, my culinary skills are minimal and my weekly meal repertoire is stingy. So I was excited to learn from chef Matt in a one-on-one virtual lesson!
When chef Matt’s friendly face popped up on my computer from his casual home kitchen, I felt instantly welcomed by his sociable persona and humor. After a few minutes of small talk, we began the virtual step-by-step cooking lesson for roasted chicken and vegetables with jus.
Over a hot skillet with shimmering oil, Ellison shared his story. When he was younger, he had the culinary dream of a tall chef hat at a high-end establishment. But the more he learned about the culture of foods and the people eating it, his approach to cuisine changed. He says, “I’m happy to get a giant platter in front of me and scoop it out family style.”
Not from a foodie family, being a chef has expanded his palate beyond the Creamette noodles and ketchup he ate as a kid. From sophisticated duck liver and French sauces to playful crushed Oreos with cream cheese dipped in chocolate for the kids, Ellison possesses the refined techniques of chef. But as we cooked together, I was struck by his unpretentious and casual personality. More than anything, it’s clear his true passion lies in sharing his knowledge and love for cooking with anyone who is willing to learn.
At Home Q&A with Chef Matt Ellison
What’s your cooking style?
Seasonal, family and rustic old-world cooking. Classic recipes you can do just about anything with once you have the guidelines down. They can have refined techniques, like making a nice jus or beurre blanc, but it’s still a hearty meal that fills your soul as well as your stomach.
What flavors do you use the most?
Whatever’s fresh and in season. Latino, dried chilies. Pozole. Mustard. I’m a little bit of a vinegar hound.
Any flavors you don’t enjoy?
Cantaloupe. Raw onion on burgers—it overpowers everything.
Do you have a signature dish?
Seasonal, farm-style dishes like pork shoulders or beef roast that I can hang out with in the kitchen all day.
What do your kids request?
Two boxes of Kraft Macaroni & Cheese with peas and cut up chicken nuggets, and they’re like, “Dad, this is the best thing you’ve ever made!” and I’m like, “Guys, I made duck last week.” Cheeseburgers on the fire when we camp, and my chili and corn and potato chowders in the winter.
Any cooking tips?
Finish everything with butter (even Latino-inspired dishes and Asian stir-fry). Add a splash of apple cider (or red wine or white) vinegar in soups and other dishes. Do like my grandma and save bacon fat to cook breakfast potatoes.
What’s for breakfast at the Ellison home?
Saturdays we do big breakfast (or “brefkist” as Annabel used to say) consisting of potatoes, eggs, bacon and Jessica makes homemade English muffins. Sunday is pancake day—banana chocolate chip or pink pancakes (made with a spoonful of roasted and puréed beets, lemon and ricotta cheese).
What’s a memorable lesson a chef taught you?
Teach someone else what you know.
Tips from the chef:
- Toast your spices for added flavor by pushing the cooked vegetables to the side and cooking the spices in the middle of the pan.
- Have leftover veggies? Reheat with bacon grease and top with eggs for breakfast.
- To peel just a thin layer of carrot, use the curved end of a spoon.
- If chicken needs to cook a few more degrees—score deep slits in the underside with a knife. Flip it back over and let it cook a little longer.
3-2-1 Fridge Pickles
Yield: 5 cups of brine
- 3 cups water
- 2 cups white vinegar
- 1 cup granulated sugar
- Cucumbers, cauliflower, carrots, bell peppers, beans, peaches or apples
- 1/2 teaspoon turmeric
- 1/2 tablespoon pickling spice
- 1 teaspoon whole black peppercorns
- 1 teaspoon whole mustard seeds
- 3 cloves crushed garlic
Combine water, vinegar and sugar in a small saucepan. Bring to a boil, whisking the sugar until fully dissolved. If using, add turmeric pickling spice, peppercorns, mustard seeds and garlic. Pour over the cucumbers or other vegetables in canning jars. Chill jars overnight in the refrigerator.
Roast Chicken and Vegetables with Jus
- 4 boneless chicken breasts
- 4 carrots
- 8 red potatoes
- 2 medium onions
- 2-3 cloves garlic
- Fresh thyme, 2-3 sprigs
- 1 tbs Dijon mustard
- 1 ½ cup chicken stock or water
- Salt and pepper to taste
- 2 tbs oil
- 1 tbs butter
Turn the oven to 350 degrees at bake mode. Season chicken breasts with salt and pepper. Get cast iron pan hot over med/high heat and when hot, add oil. Sear Chicken Breasts in a hot pan on both sides until golden brown and set aside. Remove chicken and set aside. Let your pan get hot again and add potatoes and carrots and cook for a couple minutes, until you see color forming on their edges. Then add the garlic, onion and a few whole sprigs of thyme, cook until softened and fragrant. Add 1⁄2 cup chicken stock or water to the pan and add the chicken back to the pan, resting on top of the vegetable mix. Place the pan in the oven for 15-20 minutes, until internal temperature reaches 160 degrees. Remove chicken and vegetables to a serving dish. Add 1 cup of chicken stock, mustard, a few sprigs of thyme and butter to the pan. Cook, stirring, until all is incorporated and slightly thickened. Taste and season. Serve the sauce on the side or pour over the chicken.