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Chef Trades Toque For Amish Beard, Opens Off-The-Grid Deli In Maine

Jan 18, 2016
Originally published on January 19, 2016 3:23 pm

There's a new deli in rural Maine with a hotshot chef behind the counter. Foodies may know Matthew Secich's name from stints and stars earned at Charlie Trotter's, The Oval Room in Washington, D.C., and The Alpenhof Lodge in Jackson Hole, Wyo.

Recently, Secich joined an Amish community and moved his family and his kitchen off the grid.

His new spot, Charcuterie, is a converted cabin tucked away in a pine forest in Unity, Maine, population 2,000. You have to drive down a long, snowy track to get there, and you can smell the smokehouse before you can see it.

If you've followed your nose this far, inside, you'll see ropes of andouille, kielbasa and sweet beef bologna hanging from hooks above the counter. There are no Slim Jims here, but rather handmade meat sticks, fat as cigars, sitting in a jar by a hand-cranked register.

Mainers are beginning to discover this unique gourmet haven in the woods.

"It's a little of everything; it's handmade," says Mark Warren, who has driven an hour in the snow to buy the sausages, smoked hams and cheeses. "You can't get anything any better. Pretty amazing what he can do from scratch."

That's the kind of review a diner might have given Secich 10 years ago, after forking over $350 for a single meal he cooked at Charlie Trotter's in Chicago.

Secich studied cuisine at Johnson and Wales University and then crossed the pond to learn French techniques. Julia Child herself taught him how to make an omelet at the Inn at Little Washington in Virginia.

"From there it was a wild tale of chasing ... the four-star holy grail of the cuisine world, working for great chefs to someday be great," says Secich, who worked at restaurants all over the country.

But Secich and his family have now chosen to settle in Unity. It has a growing Amish community, where he and his family have joined the church and embraced all that goes with it.

In the corner of the dimly lit room, a wood stove provides the only heat. When the winter light fades in the afternoon, oil lamps will light the shop. A pine plank cold room with 79 tons of hand-hewn ice harvested from a local lake will keep the ingredients chilled. All the meat must be ground by hand. The family has also adopted the simple dress of the Amish, and Secich is now sporting a beard that falls past his chest.

It's a radical departure from the path Secich was on 25 years ago as a military man serving in the Persian Gulf, or even 10 years ago, when he brought that military manner into the kitchen at Charlie Trotter's in Chicago, now closed.

"I thought I was on top of the world and I had the best job that you could have working for one of the best restaurants in the world," says Secich. Back then, he says, he commanded a sizable brigade. "I think we had 35 young people I tortured on a daily basis."

That's an assessment his former sous chef, Sean Fowler, now chef and owner of Mandolin in Raleigh, N.C., agrees with.

"Yeah, berating of waitstaff, berating of fellow cooks. I saw pans thrown and all-out rage-infused temper tantrums," says Fowler, who describes those years cooking with Secich as the "best of times and the worst of times" with an insanely passionate man. "Matthew is half-masochist and half-sadist in equal measure."

Secich is the first to admit that he demanded a perhaps unattainable level of perfection from everyone in the kitchen, including himself. "Yeah, I was kinda crazy."

And he wasn't happy. Something was missing, and Secich says he didn't find what he was looking for until he adopted a traditionalist Christian faith and started to homestead. Happiness now, he says, is living off the grid, Amish.

Everyone in his family has had to adapt. His kids now take a pony to school instead of the bus. His wife, Crystal, stays home to care for the family. And whether Charcuterie thrives as a business remains to be seen.

"We probably only have very small sales these days," says Secich, "but I trust that God's going to provide for us exactly what we need to get by."

But whatever happens, Secich says he won't ever be reaching for the Michelin stars again.

Copyright 2016 Maine Public Broadcasting Network. To see more, visit Maine Public Broadcasting Network.

Transcript

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

You ever feel like getting away from it all but it just doesn't seem possible? Well, it's possible. We're about to meet a chef who studied in Paris, stared in a high-profile kitchen, got good reviews, but now you'll find Matthew Secich in a rural Amish community. Jennifer Mitchell from Maine Public Radio tells us how he got there.

(BELL RINGING)

MATTHEW SECICH: You all have a good day.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: See you.

JENNIFER MITCHELL, BYLINE: It's not what most Americans will envision when they hear there's a new charcuterie in town run by a former hotshot Chicago chef. The shop is a converted cabin tucked away in a pine forest. You have to drive down a long, snowy track to get there. Inside ropes of andouille, kielbasa and sweet beef bologna hang from hooks above the counter. And instead of the familiar shrink-wrapped Slim Jims, handmade meat sticks fat as cigars sit in a jar by a hand-cranked register.

(BELL RINGING)

SECICH: How you all doing today?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Good, thanks.

MITCHELL: Still, customers are coming into Matthew Secich's shop. Mark Warren has driven in the snow to buy some of the sausages, smoked hams and cheeses.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: So you came all the way down here just for this?

MARK WARREN: I did. A little of everything - it's handmade. You can't get anything any better. Pretty amazing what he can do from scratch.

MITCHELL: And that's exactly the kind of review a diner might have given Secich 10 years ago after forking over $350 for a single meal. Secich studied cuisine at Johnson and Wales University and crossed the pond to learn French techniques. He says Julia Child herself taught him how to make an omelet.

SECICH: From there it was a wild tale of chasing the - I guess you could say the four-star holy grail of the cuisine world, and traveled all over the country working at various great restaurants, working for great chefs to someday be great.

MITCHELL: But he and his family have now chosen to settle in the Maine town of Unity, population 2,000, to open up a deli shop simply called Charcuterie.

It's in a growing Amish community where he and his family have joined the church and embraced all that goes with it. A wood stove in the corner provides the only heat. When the winter light fades in the afternoon, oil lamps will light the shop. Secich has built a pine plank cold room with 79 tons of hand-hewn ice harvested from a local lake to keep his ingredients chilled. And all the meat must be ground by hand. They've also adopted the unfancy dress of the Amish. And Secich is now sporting a beard that falls past his chest. It's a radical departure from the path Secich was on 25 years ago as a military man serving in the Persian Gulf or even 10 years ago, when he brought that military manner into the kitchen as a sous chef at the renowned Charlie Trotter's in Chicago.

SECICH: I thought I was on top of the world. And I had the best job that you could have in working for one of the best restaurants in the world. And being a commander of many, I think we had 35 young people I tortured on a daily basis.

MITCHELL: That's an assessment borne out by his former sous chef, Sean Fowler, now chef-owner of Mandolin in Raleigh, N.C. He describes it as the best of times and the worst of times with an insanely passionate man who was half masochist and half sadist in equal measure. And Secich admits he demanded a perhaps unattainable perfection.

SECICH: I was kind of crazy.

MITCHELL: And Secich wasn't happy. Something was missing. And he says he didn't find it until he adopted a traditionalist Christian faith and started a homestead. Happiness now, he says, is living off-the-grid as an Amish family. Everyone has had to adapt. His kids now take a pony to school instead of the bus. His wife stays home to care for the family. And whether Charcuterie thrives as a business remains to be seen.

SECICH: We probably only have very small sales these days. But I trust that God's going to provide for us exactly what we need to get by.

MITCHELL: And he says whatever happens he won't ever be reaching for the Michelin stars again. For NPR News, I'm Jennifer Mitchell. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.