Giant of a Chef in a Small Town
Matt Simon is the best thing that’s ever happened to foodies in Black Canyon City (BCC), Arizona. Maybe the best thing to happen to BCC ever, which is saying a lot because many fine creative folks have happened to BCC!
Ordinary guy Matt Simon rides his four-wheeler across BCC to his job and when he enters Nora Jean’s Koffee Kitchen, the restaurant he opened in 2014, it’s like Clark Kent entering a phone booth… he soon emerges wearing a cape… but in Matt’s case, his super power is revealed when he dons his chef garb and takes command of his kitchen.
Matt’s creative space, his kitchen, takes up nearly half of the restaurant space and diners can see everything that happens back there.
While he might look like an average restaurant owner, Matt’s creds go much deeper. He knows just about everything there is to know about cooking foods from cultures the world over, and he understands the chemical reactions of ingredients when they’re mixed or heated or allowed to rest, etc., yet Matt is especially steeped in the ways of French cuisine with their sauces, breads, braised meats and unlimited varieties of cheeses and mushrooms.
Matt makes eggs Benedict look easy. He doesn’t break a sweat over making falafels from scratch. He whips us compote or roux or clarified butter or an orange meringue pie as though he’s buttering a slice of bread. Matt freely shares recipes and cooking tips with his customers. And he’s the reason Nora Jean’s is the pulsing heart of BCC, frequented by locals and out-of-towners alike.
In the culinary storm that rumbles through Nora Jean’s most days of the week, Matt is the eternal calm at its center. He survived classical French cooking training so nothing can rattle him. His command of the kitchen is mesmerizing and most of his patrons want to be like Matt and cook like Matt, which is why his monthly cooking classes always sell-out.
Matt is patient with those of us who struggle with properly peeling an apple or de-skinning salmon or cranking linguine through a pasta machine.
Patient. That word perfectly describes Matt.
The Road to Nora Jean’s
In his steady way, Matt honors his mother, Nora Jean Kay-Askew, every day. Her dream had always been to open a small breakfast and lunch cafe with her two sons. When Nora Jean passed away in 2011, the cafe dream faded until Matt moved to BCC with his wife Kelly, who had grown up there. Kelly’s mother and Matt’s mother had been best friends for years.
Now, Matt has a four-person team of highly-trained employees who understand why each preparation step is important. Flora, Sam, Chris and May busily take, cook and deliver orders to customers they call by their first names.
“In addition to knowing our customers as friends, timing the cooking process is one of the most important aspects of serving meals,” says Matt. “Each food must be completed, plated and served at the right temperature.”
Having cooked in professional kitchens for most of his adult life, Matt’s internal clock has developed into a sixth sense.
“I must be aware of my surroundings,” Matt says, “watching what other cooks are doing, what I’m cooking and listening to what customers are ordering.” Matt exudes calm at the center of his modest kitchen and his watchful eye means the swirling storm never does damage.
Although French cooking traditionally calls for lots of butter, cream and wine, Matt applies a healthy twist to his food preparation, such as offering salads with quinoa, farrow and black barley. His exposed kitchen allows customers to literally see the freshness of his produce and other ingredients.
In the winter, Nora Jean’ is closed on Mondays; in the summer, the restaurant closes on Mondays and Tuesdays. Matt begins his day at 2 a.m. and gets to the restaurant by 2:30 or 3:00 a.m. to bake the bread and pastries and cook bacon and potatoes so they’re ready when the breakfast crowd begins arriving at 6 a.m.
Matt only serves breakfast and lunch, but it takes him until 5 p.m. to get the kitchen ready for the next morning and to catch up on food orders and paperwork. He goes to bed around 8 p.m. before waking up at 2 a.m. to start all over again.
“Nora Jean’s was going to be a grab-and-go place,” Matt says about its opening. “We only had two tables with seating and quickly learned people wanted to sit and eat.”
Matt added tables and hired more people, one of the first signs that he would adapt his restaurant to meet the needs of his customers, ensuring his success.
“Because we thought customers would take their food with them, we started with only a few plates, most of which were disposable,” Matt says. “Soon I had to buy real plates. I started small because we only had the TurboChef.”
Within three months of opening, Matt bought a stove and began to make quiches, breakfast sandwiches and eggs cooked in muffin tins. He allowed the restaurant to grow organically, investing in equipment as needed and not before.
Matt set a target revenue for his first year in business and he hit it!
Things haven’t always been easy for Matt. He started working in 1988 at the age of 14 as a dish washer at Pinetop Country Club in Pinetop, Arizona, the first year Swiss Chef Claude Nicolet ran the club’s kitchen. Chef Nicolet had come from the Boulders in Carefree and brought along his well-trained crew. Being young and inexperienced, Matt took ribbing from the crew but he jumped at the chance to enter a seven-year apprenticeship with Nicolet.
“One of my first assignments was to uniformly slice carrots,” Matt says, “and fill a huge eight-inch deep hotel-size pan. Chef inspected the carrot slices and found two that were not uniform, so he threw the entire pan out and made me start over. I didn’t like it too much, until I realized what he was teaching me.”
That hardline approach made Matt into a chef who rarely misses a beat, but who also has a sense of humor and shows kindness to staff and customers. The rigor of his training led to more rigor. Each year, Matt learned and mastered a different aspect of food and kitchen management, including pantry, lunch pantry, grill and sauté.
Matt went to Northern Arizona University to be a physical therapist but instead majored in Hotel/Restaurant Management. During the summers, he worked at the White Mountain Country Club as Food and Beverage manager for two seasons and at Pinewood Country Club in Mund’s Park as sous chef (assistant manager to Chef) for three seasons.
At 25, Matt was the executive Chef at Torreon Golf Club in Showlow, Arizona, for six years and then he worked at Hussaymampa Golf Club in Prescott, Arizona, as sous chef to be near Kelly, his girlfriend at the time (and now his wife).
Just before starting Nora Jean’s, Matt spent six years working for Compass group and managing cafeterias at American Express and American General Pharmaceuticals. Working nights, holidays and weekends got old, especially after Matt and Kelly married in 2009, and so Matt decided to start his own restaurant.
Growing the Business
Matt adds something new to the restaurant each year. In 2018 he added new tables. In 2017 he added milkshakes to the menu. In the future, he might add dinner one or two nights a week.
Matt’s calm demeanor allows him to focus. “At Torreon Golf Cub, I was upset with the bread guy because he wouldn’t use color-coded bread tags to identify the days on which the bread was made. So I focused on learning to make all our breads that year, including rye, baguettes and ciabatta. The next year I focused on learning how to prepare chile peppers, and the next year it was grains.”
This method of intense practice, practice, practice explains why Matt has perfected the dishes he serves at Nora Jean’s. And why customers walk in and ask him to fix them something special, without specifying what. They trust him and know whatever he makes will be good.
“Some people, when I see them pull into the parking lot, I start making their meal,” Matt says. “I know what they want, if they avoid salt, and if they have a favorite food.”
Over the last three years, Matt began giving his popular monthly cooking classes, which fill up fast with his die-hard fans and Nora Jean regulars. My husband Brent and I rarely miss a class. Matt and his team usually have a couple of dishes ready for tasting when we arrive, and then everyone eats again when the featured dishes are completed by the students. Amazingly, there are usually leftovers to take home for lunch the next day.
We like the classes because we feel part of Matt’s extended family, which includes BCC and beyond, and we appreciate how he shares his joy of cooking. For instance, during the Southwest cooking class, we prepared pork tenderloins with a prickly pear demi-glaze and Ancho encrusted salmon with southeast rice and a pineapple salsa. A black quinoa salad with chunks of shrimp was spooned into roasted Poblano peppers and baked.
Our heads were spinning but Matt gingerly plated the food on pretty serving dishes as we students watched intently. He spooned on rice with roasted corn and black beans, topped it with salmon steaks and garnished the whole display with salsa.
As he created the food displays, Matt hummed. Surrounded by us students, who were oohing and ahhing, Matt hummed away, in the zone, appearing content. Although it was almost 8 p.m., you’d never know Matt had been in the kitchen since 2 a.m.
As he was plating the food, he said, somewhat surprised, “Everything came out at the exact same time.”
Of course, it did.
Matt’s sixth sense is his internal clock.
Watching Matt navigate his kitchen that night as he danced to stir the saffron Chile sauce and the red onion confit while searing pork tenderloins, it was clear he wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.
Past cooking class themes have included:
- Spring Salads
- Holiday Dishes
- Middle Eastern
- Italian Part I & II
At the end of this article, check out the list of dishes prepared in each of the classes listed above. In our most recent winter class on Comfort Foods, we cooked these dishes:
- Pot Roast
- Beef Stew
- Chicken and Dumplings
- Bacon Wrapped Smoked Meatloaf
- Shepard’s Pie
- Macaroni and Cheese
- Baked Chicken with Roasted Root Vegetables
Because he’s tasting food all day, Matt doesn’t usually eat meals. Plus, his life can get hectic, not just with his work schedule but with his family’s two dogs, four cats, chickens and ducks.
“I don’t enjoy cooking at home because we don’t have a gas stove,” Matt says. “Sometimes I’ll just eat cereal for dinner.”
Doesn’t seem right that this master chef would dine on Cheerios, Raisin Bran or Grape-Nuts.
But that’s just like Matt; saving his creative cooking energy for his devoted diners.
Appetizers: Steak au Poivre Potatoes; Chicken Satay with Peanut Sauce; Mushroom Strudel with Goat Cheese; Seared Tuna with sweet soy and Baked Wontons; Bacon-wrapped scallops; Ancho Shrimp Stuffed Jalapeño Poppers wrapped in Bacon; Baked mini Brie; Gouda and Beer Fondue Bread Boule; Cheese Puff Tower; Eggplant Ricotta Bites; Vegetable Bundles with Herb Citrus Dip; Steamed Mussels (or Clams) with Grilled Bread.
Spring Salads: Marinated Mushroom Salad: Asian Cucumber Salad; Spring Berry Salad with Goat Cheese and Strawberry Vinaigrette; Asparagus and Red Quinoa Salad; Roasted Asparagus Salad with Toasted Almonds and Balsamic Reduction.
Breakfast: Eggs Benedict; Hollandaise Sauce; Crepes; Crepes Suzette; Buttermilk Biscuits; Sausage Gravy; Quiche; Roast Red Pepper, Asparagus and Goat Cheese Frittata.
Holiday Dishes: Roast Turkey; Roast Duck; Pork Crown Roast; Chestnut Stuffing with Chorizo; Cornbread Stuffing with Longanizo; Chipotle, Cinnamon and Honey-Glazed Sweet Potatoes; Creamy Mashed Potatoes; Carrot and Turnip Puree; Haricot Vert and Burnt Butter, Lemon and Almonds; Blood Orange/Pomegranate Demi Glaze; Cranberry Orange Sauce; Turkey Gravy.
BBQ: Vinegar BBQ Sauce; Mustard BBQ Sauce; Basic BBQ Sauce; Matt’s BBQ Sauce; BBQ Pulled Pork; BBQ Brisket; BBQ Chicken; BBQ Babyback Ribs; Coleslaw; Vinegar-Based Slaw; Roasted Potato Salad; Baked Beans; BBQ Spice Mix; Pickling Liquid for Vegetables.
Middle Eastern: Hummus; Babba Ganoush; Addas Mutabel (Lentil Salad); Jerusalem Salad; Tabouleh; Falafel; Pita; Chicken Shawarma; Tarator; Tzatziki Sauce; Beef Kefta.
Southwest: Spiced Chicken Salad; Ancho-Crusted Salmon with Pineapple Salsa; Spiced Pork Tenderloin with Prickly Pear Demi-Glace and Red Onion Confit; Rice; Grain- and Shrimp-Stuffed Poblano with Saffron Chile Sauce.
Mexican/Latin: Carne Asada; Citrus Pork Carnitas; Chicken Tinga; Yucatan Chicken Skewers; Refried Beans; Black Beans; Spanish Rice; Guacamole; Salsa Verde; Chipotle Salsa; Pico de Gallo; Enchilada Sauce; Chimichurri; Jicama Salad.
Asian: Chicken Pho; Mongolian Beef; Lo Mein Noodles; Vegetarian Stir Fry; Panang Curry; Lettuce Cups; Chilled Sesame Broccoli Salad.
French: Five mother sauces (Espagnole, Bechamel, Veloute, Tomato and Hollandaise); Boef Filet en Croute (Beef Wellington); Chicken en Croute; Fish en Papillote; Roast Rack of Lamb Persille; Pate Choux; Pastry Cream; Creme Brulee; Creme Anglaise (Vanilla Sauce).
Italian Part I: Basic Pasta; Ciabatta; Pizza Dough; Chicken Picatta; Braciole; Bechamel Sauce; Tomato Sauce; Tomato Bruschetta; Caprese Salad.
Italian Part II: Porcini Pasta; Pork Osso Buco; Lamb Shank; Ravioli; Potato Gnocchi; Ricotta Gnocchi; Risotto.
Pies: Basic Pie Dough; Chicken Pot Pie; Veloute; Shepard’s Pie; Fruit Pie; Apple Crisp; Lemon (or Orange) Meringue Pie.
Desserts: Creme Anglaise (Vanille Sauce); Creme Caramel (Flan); Creme Brûlée; Pastry Cream; Lemon Curd; Pate a choux; Raspberry Coulis.