Matt Hinckley is Chef/Owner of Hinckley’s Fancy Meats in Orlando, Florida .  The Chef’s Connection’s Kelly Torres recently caught up with Matt, and she had a few questions to ask.

The Chefs Connection: What was your first job in food?

Matt Hinckley: When I was 16 years old I worked for a mom & pop pizza joint.  I started with answering phones and folding boxes.  Later on I’d learn how to roll dough and spin pizza.  More important to me at the time was the blind eye turned toward minors drinking shift beers.

TCC: When you were a kid, what did you want to be when you grew up?

MH: I just wanted to be “successful”.  I tried a lot of different “real” jobs but always rebounded to the hospitality industry.  Eventually I’d settle into the kitchen rather than front of house.  It would be late in my career, and after working in James Beard and Michelin kitchens, that I would realize “success” isn’t measured by industry accolades or the ability to plate food with tweezers.  Success is something I don’t allow others to measure for me.

TCC: What’s your favorite thing about being a chef?

MH: My favorite thing about being a chef is the diversity of talent found in every kitchen.  I’ve worked alongside chefs who might be neurosurgeons or astrophysicists if not for their food passions.  I also like that there are all sorts of culinary wormholes you can go down.  You might study bread for a year, then Mexican food for a year, or focus on sushi for a while.  The culmination of wormhole knowledge is what allows seasoned chefs to sort of express themselves.

TCC: Did you have an “aha” moment when you knew you wanted to be a chef?

MH: Not really.  I started in the front of house and would try to pick up shifts working the prep station during the off season to make ends meet.  I eventually fell in love with kitchen camaraderie and work ethic.

TCC: Best advice you ever got?

MH: I met the Executive Chef of Disney at a big fancy house party.  He convinced me to come to the park for an interview.  It was right around the time Disney was opening shop in China.  He asked me which restaurant I wanted to work in.  I asked him about opportunities in China.  He said, “If you want to travel, my advice is to just put on a backpack and go”.  I took his advice and traveled for 5 years.

TCC: What’s the strangest thing you’ve ever eaten?

MH: I’m sure I’ve eaten plenty of stuff that wasn’t what it was advertised to be while traveling.  I’m not squeamish about off-commodity proteins.  Things that Americans find strange others just see as lunch.  Crocodile, kangaroo, moray eel, horse, bear, moose, ostrich, antelope, elk, sea cucumber, snails, grubs, crickets, jellyfish, etc.

TCC: Your favorite ingredient.

MH: Good olive oil.

TCC: The ingredient that turns you off the most.

MH: MSG or factory meat.

TCC: Your favorite tool.

MH: The larding needle.

TCC: What is your favorite thing to do when you’re not cooking.

MH: I try to squeeze in as much time as possible at my kung fu school.  Much like cooking, you can spend a lifetime doing it and never feel like you’ve really mastered it.  It’s more about the pursuit and achieving personal goals.

TCC: What would you like to do before you get too old to do it.

MH: I like traveling to places that are difficult to get to or a bit off the grid.  I’d like to see a few more of those.

TCC: Tell us a deep dark secret (doesn’t have to be food related).

MH: Although I’m a fan of the occasional fancy coffee, I usually prefer cheap drip coffee to start the day.  The kind of stuff you’d get in waiting room at the mechanic shop.  And lots of it.

TCC: How do you deal with the stress?

MH: Kung fu and healthy eating.  What better therapy is there than a green juice and broadsword?

TCC: Who would you like to meet?

MH: There’s a few people I’d like to shake hands with and thank for professional inspiration.  Fergus Henderson.  Joel Salatin.  Michael Pollan.  Sandor Katz.

TCC: Who would you like to cook for?

MH: I’ve already had the honor of cooking for all sorts of politicians, celebrities, famous chefs, etc.  My favorite people to cook for now are my family and friends.

TCC: What was the hardest thing for you to learn? Or is there something  you just can’t get right?

MH: Getting consistency with ferments can be tough.  I think being great at making all sorts of breads can be a lifelong journey.  Especially breads like sourdough that just rely on live culture.  The same goes for cheeses, vegetable ferments, kombuchas, etc.  The fact that it is a living organism makes controlling it a challenge.

TCC: Is there some little something you do for your family to make up for the time you’re not with them?

MH: My wife is in the industry as well, so she’s pretty understanding.  Since I’ve stepped away from the restaurant kitchen to focus on meat and charcuterie I’ve had the chance to make up for some lost time with the rest of my family.

TCC: How did becoming a chef change your life? Your direction.

MH: Being a chef gave me purpose and direction.  The professional kitchen gave me structure that I needed but also a creative outlet.  It also allowed me to be a part of something that’s bigger than the sum of its parts.  I learned what excellence was because I surrounded myself with people who pushed themselves and each other.  Working in high end kitchens is addictive because you’re surrounded by greatness all the time – whether it be food, drink, or people.

TCC: Please give us a cooking tip that people might not know like “adding a little bit of oil to butter so it doesn’t burn.

MH: The skin on beef tongues is easiest to peel off by hand when it’s hot.  But if you allow it to cool in the liquid, you can use a vegetable peeler to peel it when it’s cold the next day.