Matt Ralph, chef and partner of wooden goat, sits at one of the tables in the warm industrial space, doctoring up a Vietnamese coffee. A ribbon of sweet condensed milk changes the coffee from black to caramel as he stirs with his index finger conspicuously pointed straight. “I had a cooking accident and may not be able to use my finger the same again. Such is the life of a chef,” he says with a smile before launching into his most recent culinary adventures. On a journey from Singapore to Thailand, he learned the process of creating red curry paste by mortar and pestle, witnessed a vendor cooking down palm sugar, explored the market and, in true Anthony Bourdain fashion, met an ex-pat whose Vietnamese wife showed him some local cooking in her kitchen. And he didn’t leave before tasting Southeast Asia’s “king of fruits,” the notoriously stinky, yet deliciously sweet and complex, custard of the country’s beloved Durian fruit.
Chef Matt is as excited to make these authentic food memories as he is to create them for his customers at wooden goat in Avondale. When not sourcing ingredients from multiple Asian markets across Birmingham, he can be found in the kitchen, prepping his often labor-intensive Southeast Asian dishes, such as Indonesian fried noodle, curry noodles, chicken satay, banh mi sandwiches and the wildly popular Vietnamese wings. “Oxtail pho is a three-day process,” he says of one of his most popular dishes, a quintessential Vietnamese noodle dish with an aromatic broth, tender meat and rice noodles, garnished with lime, bean sprouts, basil, and hoisin or chili sauce. “That’s an intense process that we aren’t willing to change because it yields the best product,” he says. While he is strict about certain dishes, he has also been known to make a sesame-ramp vinaigrette, an Alabama-meets-Vietnam mashup. But within that creative license, he’s loyal to the tenets of Southeast Asian cooking, applying them to the ingredients that Alabama has in abundance. “And that is exactly what happens there,” he says. “Thai people use what they have.”
His curious palate and healthy sense of humor are evident in the ever-evolving menu, where he changes three to five items per week. “I think we are on menu item number 60 by now. So we really kind of go with Southeast Asia, but we’ll sneak up to Korea and serve some kimchi, or north to China and use some black bean sauce, and I’m not going to lose any sleep over it because the end result is delicious,” says Chef Matt. “I really enjoy the malleability of wooden goat. If I want to change half the menu one day, I can do that. It’s as much about what people want to eat as it is about what I want to serve. We are making it what it is, day by day, and that’s liberating.”
While working in Birmingham restaurants as a teen, Matt, a Nashville transplant, saw the “pseudo-glamorous world of cooking” through the eyes of his mentor, a Culinary Institute of America grad. He immediately pursued the epicurean life, attending Johnson & Wales University in Charleston, SC, while working up the chain at the famed Magnolias restaurant, followed by 10 years in Boston, where he not only honed his craft in numerous well-known restaurants, but discovered his passion for Asian cuisine in Boston’s thriving Chinatown. He then returned to Birmingham, and worked under Frank Stitt at Bottega alongside his colleague, Chef Ryan Champion. The two decided to open Hotbox, a converted Airstream trailer in the courtyard of Parkside Cafe, serving globally influenced street food to a late-night crowd. “Hotbox was a great experience, because we got to do whatever we wanted, but it was also this sweaty little aluminum trailer, so we knew we eventually wanted a roof and walls and conditioned air,” says Chef Matt.
After a long, arduous year and a half of planning and working, Matt and his wooden goat business partner, Paul Davis, opened the doors of their new Avondale eatery in early 2016. Elements of 70-year-old red oak, warm lighting, red bar stools, a large covered patio and custom art by Yellowhammer Creative lend an inviting, comfortable ambience to the modern-industrial interiors. And wooden goat is not only dedicated to honest Southeast Asian cuisine, but also to keeping Avondale authentic. “You can’t come into a neighborhood and build a new building like this and not hire anybody from the neighborhood,” says Chef Matt. “Seventy-five percent of my staff lives within a mile of this place, and that’s a deliberate decision. We do whatever we can to promote and support the neighborhood.”
And Chef Matt is an Avondale local himself. He can’t walk into Saturn to get coffee without talking to three for four people. “You go to Parkside after work, and you see everybody who works up and down this street. It reminds me a lot of what the cooking community was like in Boston. We didn’t see each other as competition,” says Matt. “We’re all driving each other and helping each other grow, and I like that. I’ll walk over and talk to John [Hall, executive chef of Post Office Pies] if I need something. He came over here and borrowed a bag of ramps the other day. We are a tight little emerging community, and we help each other out. That’s what I like most about Avondale.”
Wooden goat is located at 4100 Third Ave. S. in Avondale. Hours are Tuesday through Saturday, serving lunch from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. and dinner from 5 p.m. to 11 p.m. To learn more, call (205) 203-4007 or visit wooden goat.
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