I wanted to be a pro cyclist when I was a kid. My interest in food came from there, from an athlete’s perspective, cooking food as part of that diet. Then I was playing frisbee one day in high school and when I jumped up to catch it I landed funny on my right leg and broke it. That was pretty unexpected. It was because of a bone tumor that had been there since birth, which I had no idea about. I was laid up for a long time, I had a bunch of metal put in, I still have a big scar from the knee up to my hip, and I couldn’t walk properly for a couple of years. It was hard, but I had to give up on the dream of racing bikes for a living. In retrospect, that’s probably a good thing, because I don’t think many of them are making real money doing it.
I’m from a completely non-athletic family, which still amazes me, because so many of the people I see doing sports come from a long line of athletes. But I had a good friend whose father was very into cycling, and he’d get us up at 3am to watch the Tour de France. It wasn’t even live back then, it was a recap, maybe 30 minutes long, it was pretty terrible compared to the coverage we have now. I started riding with them and I really liked it. I saved up some money for my first racing bike and just went from there. He introduced me to the history of cycling at the same time and I fell in love with it; it gave me a great perspective on what cycling really was, beyond just going out for the occasional pedal.
Never stop trying to improve
After that accident, I was asking myself, ‘What do I do now?’ I’d always been interested in food, and I’d worked in restaurants as a kid, I even parked cars at one Italian place when I was around 14. I started cooking, and at every job that I had, from a little restaurant in Montclair, New Jersey, to doing unpaid experience work in downtown New York, everyone told me that I was pretty good at it and that I should go to school. I always took it one step to the next, applying the same discipline that I’d had as a bike rider. Why do you go climb the same hill over and over, or race the same course? You’re always trying to do better than the day before. With cooking, there are a lot of similarities to bike racing. There’s a lot of repetition, you have to be disciplined, and you have to be individually excellent but also able to work with other people to achieve something amazing. I’m wired like that: If I’m going to do something, I have to try to be really good at it. It’s not about beating other people though, it’s about bettering myself, so if I’m trying to get faster on the bike or faster in the kitchen, I’m competing with myself.
Keep going, no matter what happens
I went to Dirty Kanza last year for the first time. My bike was lost in shipping, and all of my kit was with it, so I had nothing. Not even a water bottle, I just had a helmet and shoes. I went around and borrowed, begged and stole what I could to get on the start line of the 100-mile race, which I went on to win on a borrowed bike. I actually went off course for a while, too, because when I got to the halfway checkpoint, the stewards waved me on to the 200-mile course because I was so far ahead of everyone on my route, when I was supposed to turn back around and go the way I’d came. It took me three or four miles to figure out that it wasn’t right. And before the start, I had a guy change the cleats on my shoes, and I guess he didn’t tighten them enough, because when I put them on the cleat came off on the way from the car to the start. I thought the cleat had fallen off, so I went back to the car, got another pair of shoes, clicked in and rode off. It was only at the finish line that I looked at the pedal, and saw that the first cleat was still there, on the underside of the MTB pedal. I must have just clicked into the other side and not noticed. I’m nothing if not determined. I think you have to be if you want to race bikes or do well in cooking.
Get out of your comfort zone
I worked in Italy when I was younger, for a famous, Michelin-starred chef called Antonello Colonna. It was a great experience. In the morning we’d go to a sheep farmer to get the ricotta, to the market for all the vegetables, and to the butcher for all the meat. It’s very different to the States, everything is delivered here, and if you go to a store, it’s a place that does more than one thing. The Italians are so specialized. I used to go foraging for mushrooms with the sommelier, because he knew the best spots, and then we’d go to the restaurant and start prepping for lunch. That’s very different from the States too, because it only goes on for about an hour, after which I’d try to go home for a nap before going back to work at 6.30pm or so to get ready for dinner, which would be from 8pm. No one expects to have lunch at 11am or dinner at 6pm. The cultural expectations are very different. We really only do one seating, even though you were there until the early hours of the morning. The business model here is the total opposite, dinner starts at 5.30pm and goes until 10.30pm, with more turnover. Working there, the way they gathered their ingredients gave me a passion for connecting with people who make good things. A lot of what I do today goes back to that, working with local farms and producers. It makes a big difference.
Set the bar high, but always be yourself
When I started out, we didn’t have many Michelin-starred places in the US. Working for Antonello made me realize how profoundly having that Michelin star had affected his career. It was more than a job, he’d made a life out of being a chef and that star was a huge achievement, a mark of excellence, and something to aspire to. It wasn’t a singular focus though, I certainly wanted it, but I never thought I had to do specific things just to achieve it. I knew that if I did the best I could and applied all of the things I’d learned, the wisdom and experience that you gain from working with great people, and infused it with my own personality, then I’d have a good shot. I wouldn’t say I was shocked when I eventually got my own star, but I did cry!
Do your own thing
The star is a huge acknowledgement of your achievement. Keeping it creates a lot of stress for some chefs, but I try not to think about it until the announcement is imminent. At that point, I probably focus on it too much, it keeps me up for a couple of days, but then I go back to normal. I’ve never said to myself, “This is what you need to do to get a Michelin star.” I just focus on doing the best that I can, and what I think is right. So even though I’ve kept it now for seven years, but I don’t think I’m doing anything differently. Obviously the menu changes and we try to get better, but I got the first star because of who I am, and if that was good enough to get it for me the first time, then I don’t see any reason to change.
When I go to a restaurant, I’m always interested in what they’re really good at. There’s no point going somewhere with unrealistic expectations. At SPQR, we’re really good at making pasta so we do a fair amount of that, but we also try to use a lot of ingredients that are unique to where we are, so if you come here from somewhere else we can give you something different. I think that makes us interesting.
Matthew Accarrino’s San Francisco restaurant, SPQR, won its first Michelin star in 2013 and has kept it since, building a reputation as one of the best in the country. Surprisingly, being around all that food has not slowed him down at all, and he continues to be a wicked-fast bike racer in his spare time. Hepublished his first book, SPQR: Modern Italian Food and Wine, in 2012. In addition to his Michelin accolades, he was named Food & Wine Magazine’s “Best New Chef” in 2014, and his cooking regularly garners praise from the top food critics in the country. He also rides with inGamba, and is our chef on the Coast Ride and Healdsburg Trips.