This is Matthew Lief, the co-owner of Landhaus, a new American concept that combines the diverse backgrounds of Matthew and his business partners, Maria Dela Cruz and Michael Felix. Matthew grew up in New York City while Maria emigrated from the Philippines to Los Angeles when she was 12 years old, which is also where Michael grew up, raised by a Mexican father and a half Mexican/half Korean mother. So, Matthew says, they all have their own “food memories” and preferences that they bring together to play a part in the food that they create. “I would say it’s truly American food in that way”, says Matthew, because they’re three people with very different backgrounds that are looking to blend their tastes into seasonal comfort food. However, they’re also very respectful of the foundations of cuisine, which is why most of their dishes are simple items which they elevate to make in the best way that they see possible. Their unofficial slogan is “great food made by great people”, which is what Matthew says that he wants their customers to be reminded of when they think of Landhaus. The focus of their business is to keep food delicious yet uncomplicated by using the best ingredients available to them, creating amazing food and providing an enjoyable experience to their clients. Because at the end of the day, they believe that it’s all about delicious food.
As far back as he can remember, Matthew has always had a connection to food. He recalls his parents allowing him and his brother to cook dinner for them when they were 8 or 9 years old, or maybe even younger. He says that his parents cooked a lot at home and were really good about letting him and his brother play around in the kitchen, which is why he thinks he got sucked into food and hospitality from an early age. However, it was a case of mistaken identity that first started Matthew’s culinary training. He was doing community service, working at a charity event in high school, when he met the chef of a restaurant in Soho who approached him and asked when he was coming to his kitchen. Although Matthew is certain that the chef thought he was someone else, Matthew took advantage of the random opportunity and showed up at the kitchen the next week and started working. The chef took Matthew under his wing and allowed him to be his apprentice, teaching him all kinds of kitchen skills as he worked there throughout high school. After high school, Matthew’s family moved to Maine, where his parents opened a restaurant that served a mix of American food: lobster rolls, clam chowder, burgers, pasta, etc. And although Matthew says that looking back now, growing up with his parents restaurant was a special thing to be a part of, at the time he saw the lifestyle of restaurant work and wasn’t sure if it was for him. He wanted to do something different. So after he graduated college, he moved to South Africa and worked on an urban farming project at his brother’s non-profit. There he grew fruits and vegetable to be used in the kitchens to feed children that were orphaned or had HIV, but he kept finding himself cooking. Although he had tried to get away from the lifestyle that he didn’t think he wanted, it didn’t work. So he decided to get back into it. He moved to France and apprenticed there for a year before moving back to the U.S. and starting to work in restaurants again.
It was while he was working in different restaurants throughout NYC that Matthew met Michael and Maria. They were all sous chefs at Le Caprice, a restaurant in The Pierre Hotel in Central Park, and immediately hit it off. They discussed starting a food truck together but it never really took off and Matthew ended up moving to another restaurant in Little Italy. One day in 2011 he met up with a friend from college, Jacob, who told him about Smorgasburg, a new outdoor food market that was opening in Brooklyn. Jacob was working as a meat cutter at a farm in the Catskills at the time and they came up with the idea to make high-quality BLTs and sell them at Smorgasburg. So Matthew quit his job at the restaurant and began working in landscaping during the week so that they could be a part of Smorgasburg on the weekends. Although it was tough in the beginning because Matthew was doing most of the event prep himself (Jacob was still working upstate during the week and sending the meat to Matthew), eventually they were able to add a lamb burger and bacon on a stick to their menu and their business started growing. They started doing the markets in Prospect Park and DUMBO twice on the weekends and twice during the week and their bacon on a stick was becoming more popular than the BLTs. However, the coordination started becoming too much for Jacob and he ended up relocating further upstate. So Matthew reached out to Michael and Maria to see if they were interested in running the business with him and they agreed to come on board. They started doing concessions and even more events and eventually were able to rent out the back kitchen area of a bar in Brooklyn called The Woods, where they would sell food to customers at the bar. However, they soon realized that although their items were great for event-goers, they needed to create a more substantial menu for delivery/catering purposes and began creating a menu with modern, seasonal, comfort foods that could appeal to a larger audience.
Matthew says that they started creating their delivery/catering menu by working backwards. At an event or at their space at The Woods, customers were able to eat the food right when it came out. But for catering, they needed to factor in travel time, meal time (if the client would be eating right when the food got there or 30 minutes later), food temperature, etc. So they began trying to build recipes for dishes that would travel well and hold heat but that would also be delicious, interesting and exciting for clients in an office that are looking forward to their lunch. Matthew admits that it was difficult to create the recipes because he, Maria and Michael have different ideas about how things should taste, but they were able to come to a consensus on the items because they always went back to their focus on delicious food. Since they’re very close friends, no one ever got too serious about the menu and even today, if they’re adding on new items, they always concentrate on what the most flavorful option is, as long as they’re able to present it nicely. Even though they’re classified as “comfort food” they also wanted to keep things fresh and healthy at the same time. Which is also why, when building the menu, they put an emphasis on sourcing their ingredients as locally as possible. They source as much as they can directly from local farms and when they can’t, they go through retailers whose mission they connect with or who have really good guidelines about sustainability. For Matthew in particular, he’s always been interested in organic agriculture and urban farming sustainability, which makes it more enticing for him to get ingredients from local places. Not only does he believe that sustainable agriculture is the way forward for society on a larger level, to him food is more delicious when he knows it came from someone who truly cared about it. It increases his own enjoyment when buying this food and feeding it to others. For him, supporting other locals businesses makes his job even more fun and rewarding.
However, the most rewarding part of the business for Matthew is simply feeding people. He says that cooking and food is all he really thinks about on a daily basis: how to transform an ingredient or product into something delicious that highlights that item specifically or how he can improve a recipe to make the dish in the best way possible. His culinary training has allowed him to think about food in many different ways and it’s something he can really dive into. And once they have that perfect recipe set, seeing the gratification in a customer whose trying your food for the first time is awesome for him to see. Festivals and events are especially rewarding for him because there’s so many logistics that go into planning it: getting the equipment there, setting it up, making sure that they have enough food, cooking the food- it’s all very hard to coordinate. But when he’s in that moment where everything is set up and the food is flying out and everything is working, it’s very satisfying to know that you met the challenge and that people are enjoying the food. Creating a good experience for people is very important to him because he believes that not all parts of life are as easy or as enjoyable as a good meal in good company. So being able to facilitate that for others and allowing them to enjoy those simple moments is extremely rewarding.
The Landhaus team now works out of their own kitchen at Berg’n, a beer hall and event space in Brooklyn. And as tough as it is to run a business in NYC, Matthew believes that being a part of the food industry is worthwhile because of the support network that you create. Without that network, he admits, it would be so much harder to run your own business. In the food industry, you’re able to meet so many people that you can ask for advice and learn from and for him it’s awesome to have that resource. It reminds him that he’s not alone and that other people are going through the same challenges that he is or that he may have gone through already. Which is why he advises others looking to get into the food industry to be willing to ask questions and learn from other food businesses, even if they have a similar concept. He believes that everyone has their own lane and there’s enough of a market that all vendors can profit from. His other piece of advice is to try out the food industry before you jump into it, because it’s difficult financially and there are easier ways to make a living. If you don’t have passion for the business and you don’t enjoying feeding people as he does, it’s never going to work.