Sunday, May 02, 2010

The Culinary Heart of Albany, Oregon
Operation Sybaris is a family and community affair where locavores can discover the true taste of Willamette Valley

It’s 1 p.m., and Matt Bennett, Chef and co-owner of Sybaris restaurant on 1st street in Albany, has spent all morning meticulously stuffing beef and lamb into casings to make handmade sausage.

When I arrive in the afternoon, he's onto other tasks in the kitchen: pureeing asparagus for crab, asparagus ravioli. A pot of chicken stock and spring artichokes simmers on the stove. The smell of baking focaccia rises from the oven. Matt's caramelizing turbinado sugar in one pan, then adds heavy cream and salt, lowers the temp. and spoons up a glob of hard stringy caramel, which will slowly melt again into a sweet soup of amber cream whose next incarnation will be caramel sorbet. Matt Bennett is a chef that takes his time when cooking; he tends to his food like a doting father would care for a child.

Matt holding his daughter in the kitchen, with Mom, Janel, looking on.

Matt lifts the lid to a pot filled with broth and wedges of artichokes. He fills a pitcher with the broth, reaches into a brown paper bag full of white Oregon truffles, throws a few into the pitcher, then mixes the whole thing in a blender. He then pours it into a sieve and slowly stirs the soft green stuff with a wooden spoon until what remains is artichoke truffle soup as smooth as cream. The smells coming out of this kitchen are enough to make anyone want to stick around all day.

Matt spends all afternoon going back and forth between tasks, mixing here, blending there. His wife Janel shows up with their two daughters.

Someone calls on the phone and Matt laughs, telling me his dishwashers are on their way over-- high school seniors Jacob Garcia and Steven Hartman, who have asked Matt's permission to eat one of the ghost peppers he’s got on hand, one he uses to spice up an entire vat of sauce. But the boys plan to split the chili and down it raw. Why? “because it’s boring in Albany, and there's nothing else to do,” says Steven.

Steven, one of the dishwashers at Sybaris who decided spontaneously to show up and eat a ghost pepper after school one day.

There are many touches of family and community here: you can taste it in Matt's dishes, prepared with local produce from artisans and farmer friends at places like Spring Hill Organic Farm just over the bridge a block away. He’s an innovative chef who offers a completely different menu every month, based on what's in season. Your server might be Matt's wife, co-owner Janel Bennett.

Or you may hear echos of little girl footsteps in the restaurant from when Matt's daughters arrived earlier to visit Dad while he cooked.

Matt's family: Wife Janel and daughters sit together at Sybaris.

A couple share a glass of wine while waiting to be seated.

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