The Company We Keep

In this episode of The Company We Keep podcast, host Jason Pearl welcomes his former S.U.N.Y. Geneseo fraternity brother turned celebrity chef, Matt Abdoo. When they talk about Matt's journey from filling cannolis in Utica, New York, to appearing on The Today Show, they cover everything from leadership to creativity to treating coworkers like family. You're not going to want to miss part one of this delicious two-part episode.

Show Notes

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Show Highlights:
(00:00) Introduction
(02:53) A S.U.N.Y. Geneseo introduction
(04:49) How family led Matt to the food business
(08:12) A career was born at Cafe CaNole
(12:25) Always be of service
(14:52) Juggling creativity, business, and leadership
(19:38): Sharing your gift
(13:56) Recap

Mentioned On The Episode:
Matt Abdoo: Website
Pig Beach: Website
Matt Abdoo: Instagram
Matt Abdoo: LinkedIn
Pig Beach NYC: Instagram
Pig Beach Long Island City: Instagram
Pig Beach Palm Beach: Instagram
Salty Rinse: Instagram
Matt on The Today Show
Matt’s other appearances

What is The Company We Keep?

Jason Pearl is a second generation entrepreneur, bootstrapping business owner, loving husband, devoted dad, and raging Bills fan. He tosses aside the idea that you can't have it all and devotes his life to proving it wrong. Grab a cup of coffee and join Jason every Tuesday morning as he dives into topics to help everyday business owners and entrepreneurs think differently about growth and success, and how to achieve a better balance in both business and in life. He’s also shining a giant spotlight on some very smart people in his inner-circle that have helped ignite his success along the way.

JASON PEARL: All right. Welcome to another episode of The Company We Keep podcast. I am super excited today to have my good friend celebrity chef. And brother from another mother, Matt Abdoo on the podcast with us today. Matt, welcome. How are you today?

MATT ABDOO: Awesome, brother. Thank you so much for having me. It's great to see your handsome face.

JASON PEARL: Yes. Yes. So good to see you too. So let me give this audience and give you some time because you got quite a bio sheet here for us. Now I'll run through all the accolades of who you are and what you're all about, but Matt, you reside in New York City with, with your wife, Megan, you also have a four year old son, Luke, you're a business owner. You're a celebrity chef in the food world and you have just got a decorated resume. So to start from college and on you're the valedictorian of Culinary Institute of America, which is a very well-known culinary school outside of New York City. You were the chef de cuisine of a restaurant in the north end of Boston before your 25th birthday. You were the chef de cuisine of Del Posto, which is widely known as one of the best restaurants in New York City. And during your time there, you won the coveted four star review from the New York Times. And you're also now the executive chef and owner of Pig Beach, which is a barbecue joint, which we're going to talk a lot about. That has locations in Brooklyn, has locations in West Palm beach and soon to be a third location in Long Island City. So you're a regular contributor to The Today Show as a celebrity chef you've bet on Beat Bobby Flay as a judge, you've appeared on The Chew, which is an NBC show, and you've also been on Food Networks, The Kitchen.

So you have been all over the place as a chef, doing all sorts of stuff. I am so excited to have you here. Just so proud of seeing what you've accomplished in your life so far.

MATT ABDOO: Thanks, buddy. It's kind of crazy running through all the things that I've done in the past 20 years. Since we graduated college, it's pretty insane. It's amazing journey and I couldn't be more grateful to be where I am.

JASON PEARL: Yeah, absolutely. And I should say one of the things that I missed is you also have a traveling barbecue competition team that you're a part of called Salty Rinse. And you've won a number of accolades by traveling the world and making delicious barbecue. So if you weren't hungry before you started listening to this episode, I think you're going to be hungry by the time it's over. Yeah, get ready exactly. Now. So one of the things that I think is interesting that we should talk a little bit about is this is called The Company We Keep podcast, right? So how you and I got to know each other.


So for the audience out there, that's maybe not familiar with you, you and I met at Geneseo State University. It's a state school in Upstate New York, in a small kind of farm town called Geneseo New York. We met in the fall of 1999. You were a year younger than me in college. You pledged the fraternity that was a part of. I was assigned, you were assigned to me, you were my little brother in the fraternity, and that just create a fast friendship where you basically became one of my closest friends. You were a confidant of mine and you were one of the best human beings then. And one of the best human beings now that I get to call a friend. So that's how you and I got to know each other. And that's why it's such a pleasure for me.

MATT ABDOO: Thank you. Couldn't be more of an honor to be able to be on this podcast with you today. And also just to know you. Not for nothing, Jay, when you're 18, 19 years old and you're making new friends in college and you meet particular people, you create bonds that usually last lifetimes, and it's amazing. I couldn't have asked for a better person to be my, I think brother quote, unquote for the fraternity. You were just the best I could, everything you just said, echo right back at you, brother.

JASON PEARL: Yeah. Thank you, man. Thank you. But we'll hold the love fest for outside of the episode, but we've got some fun stories. Some that we'll tell on this podcast and some will just keep between us. We got some great stories for this podcast. That's right. That's right. But the thing that is really interesting about you and why I thought you'd be such a great guest on this show is the gifting that you have as an individual, it was so apparent very early on in our relationship when I met you, that you were just put on earth to do a few things, right. We talked about this before you were put on earth to be a chef. You have God-given skills with, with your hands, with your head, with your heart of making food. You come from an Italian and Lebanese background. So you've got, you grew up cooking with your grandmother and your parents, and you knew at a really early age that going into the food business was something that you want to do.


And in the other things that you were put on the world to be, was be a father and be a husband. Cause that's just what that's just who you are and what your makeup was. So the thing that I think we could start our questioning on was knowing that you had all this stuff that was impacting your life at an early age of having these talents. Can you talk a little bit us through like the decisions that you made at a young age to carve out your path to enter into the food business?

MATT ABDOO: Yeah, of course. So just as a kid, my entire, I'm half Italian and half Lebanese as you said, and post sides of my family, I would have to be told to mangia both which basically just need eat and be happy. And food has always served that epicenter of what brought family and friends and loved ones together. It was just the way that I grew up. It just so happened to be that both of those cultures have incredible dishes of food that are my humble opinion, some of the best things that are out there to eat. And I just from a very early age, and I can remember this of just being around like my grandparents, my mother, and my great aunts, my aunts, and everybody would always cook and cooking for them was always more than just making food or making a meal. It was about expressing love or nurturing or giving nourishment or nurturing their, their children, the grandchildren, the nephews and nieces. And it was about a way of just extending love and physical form. It's like, here's a meal or something that I can show you, and I can express my love to you or how much you make me happy, so eat this, and I'm gonna make you happy kind of thing. But my youngest food memory is probably when I was about five years old and my dad was making pancakes and that he just, my dad doesn't cook by the way. He likes to say, you can burn water. It's funny. But he was making pancakes on a Sunday the morning after church kind of thing. And he like flipped it in the pan. And I thought that was, again, this is before Food network before Food TV, obviously. Right. But he just did it. And I was like, that is the coolest thing ever. So like every Sunday that became like my tradition with my dad. I want to make pancakes and I wanted to figure out how to flip the pan pancake in the pan. And many months or years, potentially later in hundreds of pancakes on the ceiling, on the floor, on the stove, all over the place, I probably hit one and I was like, that's it, this is awesome. I could do this, the coolest thing ever. So I just continue to cook, like throughout junior high. And through high school, both my parents worked at the junior high that I went to, my father taught seventh grade math for 33 years, the same school, the same classroom. And my mother worked in the guidance department. So both of my parents, God bless them, and thank God for them. My parents are my heroes. I can become half the person that my dad is by the time I die, I know I will have lived a successful life and my parents are the greatest people I know. And they provided for me in a way – we grew up we didn't have much, but we had a lot, we were rich in love and had never needed, never wanted for anything.

We always found a way to, to get everything we wanted, but my parents, they allowed me to get into this, this talent like cooking. They allowed me to make a mess. I would go to the grocery store with my mom. I would buy ingredients when I was super young and she would give me some cookbooks for Christmas, or they'd be like the new thing that people gave you for Christmas presents would be like cookbooks. And there's this one she got me, this Hershey Cookbook. And I was super into baking and pastry when I was younger. That was what I love to do. And it became a thing where I'd make cheesecakes and chocolate torts, and these ganache cakes and things like that. And I bring the school or my mother would have a staff party and I'd bring in a cake.


So one year I think I was 15 years old. I made this chocolate torte. My mother brought it to school. One of the people that worked at the school with her ate a piece of cake. And she's like, where did you get this cake from? And she's like, I didn't buy it. Matthew made it. And he was like, no way. Does he ever want to cook, like in a kitchen? And she's, oh my God, that'd be amazing. That way he can stop making a mess of mine. So he's, I'm really good friends with these brothers, Dean and Jason Knoll. They own this Italian bakery cafe in Utica, New York called Cafe CaNole. Both Culinary Institute of America graduates, some of the most talented chefs in the air, in the area. They're like, do you think you'd want to work there?

[And she's oh my God. Yeah. So she came home that day. I got a phone call from this guy, Ralph Toledo. He called me up. He's like, you're all set. Be at the restaurant, be at the bakery at 5:30 in the morning. I was like, okay, awesome. 5:30 AM, I'm 15 years old. I'm like, I'm there. So I'm 15. And I'm like, all right, mom, you got to drive me to the bakery. We had to leave at 5:00 AM to get my mom, to drive me to work cause I'm still too young to have my license. And I went there the first day. And they're like, hey, nice to meet you. It's 5:30 in the morning and was just groggy and still waking up – and go hang out in a dish pit and wash dishes for a little bit, and then we'll figure out what we're going to do with you.

So I went over the dish pit and at this Cafe CaNole the bakery. The first thing that we do every morning is make all the big cakes and they had three rows of stainless steel tables. Each was probably at least six feet long. They're probably four of them on each row. And they line them up with the cake orders, fill and frost the cakes, and get them in the walk-in, and after they did all that, they take like a coffee break. But this is just the funniest memory ever is because when the younger brother, Jason was making all the creams to go on the cakes, he had these big mixers, big Hobart mixers, and he bring the whips over to the dish pan for me to wash when he was done using them. And I just remember seeing like the whip and it had some of his chocolate cream on it, and I'd be like looking around, I'll take a lick off the whip and be like, oh my God, it's so good. And then I wash it and like the same thing I would go on, they went on for about an hour. And then the older brother Dean was like, all right, enough washing dishes come here.

And he handed me a pastry bag and a five gallon bucket of cannoli cream. And he's like, have you ever used a pastry bag before? And I was like, yeah, I have, I'm like, I'm not great at it. I'm 15. How would I have? Come over here? Shows me how to fill a cannoli make sure I get all the the cream to the center of the cannoli shell so that you don't have a hollow cannoli. And he's like just fill all these cannolis until this cream is gone. And I thought that was the greatest thing in the world. So I'm in the corner of this restaurant. I must've filled probably 500 cannolis, I look around for a little, my finger taking a taste. I'm like, absolute heaven. And for me, this is like the greatest thing in the world. Like this isn't even work. This is me in absolute paradise. So I finished filling all of those cannolis and he's like you did a really good job with that. We're going to hang out. They put me into some other jobs for the rest of the day,helped make some cookies, helped make some pastis orwhatever – be back tomorrow, same time. He's like you're hired, we'll take you. And I worked with those guys from 15 all throughout high school, all throughout Geneseo, and then even culinary school at the Culinary Institute of America until eventually the point where throughout Geneseo, they transferred me from working in baking pastry and working on the hot line because they did really fancy Italian dinners on Fridays and Saturday nights, Sundays, so that I could start to get more knowledge of how it would be when going to culinary school. So I was like a leg up and they had like actual real world work experieince.

JASON PEARL: If I could hop in real quick. What's interesting about that. You talk about Cafe CaNole, you may or may not remember this, but my wife and I, when we got married, you made the cookies and the cannolis for our wedding at Cafe CaNole, which was obviously phenomenal. And it was funny because you were, you were so upset at the wedding because they were so good. Every, I think like people were grabbing them, like by the five, and they got, they went like in a moment's notice, and then you felt so bad. You're like, I should have brought more. I'm like, I think old ladies were stuffing them in their purses.

MATT ABDOO: That's a great story, and I do remember that very, very well. But I just had a blast and cooking for me, the brothers, Dean, and Jason, they took me under their wing and they really taught me and showed me so much before I even got to culinary school. That's why, part of the reason when I was in Geneseo, we'd come back from a summer and I'd have all these fun dishes up my sleeve that I've learned how to make at the restaurant that I was like, all right, I'm going to make it for the fraternity house when we get back, let's go.


JASON PEARL: So what's interesting about that. Is when you tell that story and you tell like your the way that you got this mentorship from these brothers in this great place. What I think is really important, especially when like leaders are hearing this podcast are people that are looking to, maybe they're not in the restaurant business, but one of the things that's interesting is that you always had a heart for service. If you go in the food business, it's a service-based business. And when people are trying to figure out professionally what they should do. They should really think about what they really enjoy. And we live in a world now where it's so much easier to do that, have those opportunities, and maybe it was even 20 years ago, but for you, one of the things that always struck me was your want and ability to serve others. So like for example, not only were we super good friends. If you remember correctly, like you opened up a little, like barbershop in your apartment, your junior year, you used to cut my hair – you used to buzz up my hair. Looked pretty good.

MATT ABDOO: I had the clippers, I did the whole thing. Yeah, for sure.

JASON PEARL: And then, and then also, but like you had said, you would come back and you would, whether it be late night, you would feed all your buddies or whether it would just be like breakfast time in the morning. Your inherent want every single day was to serve people. And one of the things that's so great about talking to you and seeing where you're at now in your career, you just took your love for people, your love for food and your love for serving others. And you just applied it to what a profession wasn't. It just happens to be that you're a super gifted. So just super cool to see that.

MATT ABDOO: I totally, I totally appreciate that. And that's a hundred percent true. And it's funny that you see that too, because like when I was, after Geneseo, and I was applying to go to the Culinary Institute of America and I had to write my admissions essay and all that other sort of stuff, I closed the essay with this little, wasn't a hashtag existed back then, but this sort of saying that I still say to this day, which I love.

I love the power of food, whether it's a piece of chocolate when you're sad or a bowl of chicken soup when you're sick, food has that unique ability to put a smile on your face or make you feel better. And you're right. I love that ability of making people happy. That was a reason, probably one of the biggest catalysts of me getting into food and hospitality and service, which is because I really, I genuinely like making other people happy. It's what I, it's what I live for. It makes me feel good to know that I can put a smile on somebody else's face. And then what better way of doing that than with an incredible meal or some sort of fun tasty treat. So it's been a hundred percent really great.


JASON PEARL: That's great. In one of the things that is a must have mentioned here is that the industry that you're in, which is the restaurant industry and the food service industry is, is a, it's a cutthroat industry. You know, margins are super tight having success in the food business just doesn't mean that you have the best food. It means that you have the best food, you have a really good business model, you have a way to make money and make sure your staff's paid. And all of that takes balance. You have mentioned previously that you wanted to delay your culinary experience of going to CIA to get a business degree, because you understood that if you wanted to succeed in the restaurant world and be a restaurant owner and have your own place that you needed to understand the economics and the way that works too. What's interesting is we talk a lot about leadership on this podcast. So when you translate leadership to the restaurant industry, which is typically has very high turnover, how have you found that being a leader? How have you adjusted your leadership skills to ensure success both with your business and with the taste of your food?

MATT ABDOO: I love that question because in this industry, there are so many different styles of leadership. Some leadership roles of people, of whom you'd worked for work with that served as a means of way to learn what not to do almost more so than a way of what to do. Like when I look back and I think of Dean and Jason said they were a rock for me of what to do and what they instilled in me. And I was very blessed at that age to have them as mentors to teach the work ethic of what they instilled and there's a mantra that Dean and Jason would always tell me that they'd say, Matt we'll never ask you to do anything that we won't do. And I always thought that was a great sort of model to live by in the restaurant industry. Because like you said, most people that work in restaurants, we don't make a lot of money. We work in, we're working a minimum of a 10 to 12 hour a day, usually six days a week, honestly. There's not really much glory in it other than the fact that we really love what we do, especially if it's able to put a smile on somebody's face or create a memory or a moment in time that everybody remembers, or just create that sort of special, happy place. The leadership style that I've always flocked to was t he golden rule first and foremost in the kitchen, is treat others the way you want to be treated. Kitchens are a very high stress, continuously moving, pressure cooker environment, where the people that are working around you – when you're starting off, everybody wants to, so if you're working in a smaller kitchen and there's only five other cooks, those five other cooks are doing what they can to jockey to get that promotion sous chef. And then if you go to a larger restaurant and you're coming in as a sous chef, and you really want to advance your career at that spot, and there's a chef de cuisine role and executive chef role. You're trying to do everything you can to position yourself, to be the next person, to take that promotion. Just like in any other job of business, but you have to do something that sets you apart because, as you made a mentioned earlier with restaurants, I've seen some of the most talented chefs in the planet fail restaurants because of a million different reasons. But restaurants really require, just like so many other businesses do, a lot of boxes to be checked. Good leadership being one of them, particularly for employees that are minimum wage or a little bit above that they're not motivated by money.

Most people working in the industry are not motivated by money. So how else can you motivate them? You motivate by inspiring them with food that they think is absolutely delicious. You motivate them by being a person they want to work with and want to learn from because they know what you have is special and that that's something that they can take from you or in part from you. And I think that's probably one of the biggest reasons, for me that was, those were the biggest draws for me as a young cook. I wanted to go and work for the best. And I wanted to take from the best. And I remember being like 14 to 15 years old and the Food Network has started starting to come into its peak and there was Molto Mario , there's Boy Meets Grill, Bobby Flay. There was Essence of Emeril, or Emeril Live. And I would watch those guys and say, I want to be that like, I would watch Emeril Live and be like, this guy has the coolest job on the planet. I would be just like him, but I understood that even then, to get from where I was is like a 16 year old, 15 year old kid that just liked to cook, knew that there was going to be a long journey. And a long path to learn what I needed to learn to even remotely get to that level, to then start making connections, to get into this sort of celebrity chef world where people are asking you to be on a television or asking you to be a guest judge on a Food Network. A lot of people want instant gratification and they don't, they're not really willing to put in the sacrifice or take the time to really hone your craft and learn and be patient to finally get to a point in your career where you're confident enough to say, yeah, I can do this.


JASON PEARL: One of the interesting things about that is if you think about. Back when you were saying, when you're 15, 16 and, and food shows and cooking shows started to come out in Emeril Lagasse. I remember from college, you'd always go, bam, you'd be throwing the salt in and doing the bam, but what's interesting is that Emeril, and those early trailblazers in the food world, they stepped out. They stepped out from behind the back of the house and went to the front of the house and actually started teaching others their gifts. And I think it talks about two things. Number one, creativity and adaptability, but then also the ability to share your gift and teach others because in leadership, one of this things I preach is that if you're going to be climbing up to the top of the mountain, you gotta be pulling somebody else up. Isn't that the truth in the restaurant business, right? You see a young person now that looks at you and says, wow, look at this guy. Look at Matt Abdoo, look what he's accomplished. You're teaching this person skill. And at some point in time, they may open up a restaurant across the street from you, but you have to share your gift. And that's leadership, right? You have to share your gift with them and teach them how to be the best they can be.

MATT ABDOO: Yeah. And, but I love that saying when you're trying to climb your way up to the mountain, you gotta be taking somebody with you because, especially in the restaurant industry, that couldn't be more true because as one person, as a leader, you can be that person that has a vision. You can be that person that can develop a recipe that you think is absolutely perfect, you can be that person that creates plates and dishes that get people excited and are just, for lack of a better word, delicious. But when it comes to service, when it comes to creating those dishes on a mass scale in a very quick-paced environment, you cannot do it alone. You need to train people within your team that can execute your vision and execute your level of excellence, just as good as you can. So you can't do it by yourself. And I love to preach that in my, we do what we call a lineup or pre-shift meetings 10 minutes before. So to be open for service, we get the staff together. Talk about the specials we're doing for the day, talking about things that are going on with my people, daily maintenance of health department and cleanliness things is everybody on their toes. And I love to say like, whenever something good happens, one of the first things I do is I compliment my team because I tell them that could not do any of this without you guys. And there's never more of a truer statement. And the benefit to that is that when you're able to find people that you can work with that want to go up that mountain with you, they're benefiting as well. And as you said in time, God-willing, one of two things happen. They either leave to go take that knowledge, apply it somewhere else, climb the proverbial ladders at some other business, they stay with you and they climb with you and they become your corporate chef de cuisine or your executive chef, you move on to be more of a face or image as the business grows and expands. Or they leave and they go, and they do their other things you said across the street, potentially. And all those options are on the table. The great things is that when you're able to be a good leader in this industry, you retain employees. And without being able to retain employees in this work, in the restaurant business, you're dead in the water because you're always starting from scratch. You're always starting over again to train people, to do the basic things. What I really pride myself on here is that when I left Del Posto, to open up this project. I had about 12 guys. I didn't take them all. I didn't really take them, they want it to come with me. And those 12 guys that left with me back in 2016, when I left Del Posto to do Pig Beach, they're all still with me now. And it's like the greatest compliment in the planet to have those guys with me.

And obviously I've given them opportunity to fail. I've given them an opportunity to grow. I give them an opportunity to earn more. And given an opportunity to get promotions and I've done everything that I can to the best of my ability to keep them to keep them happy. It's always a fear. It's like when you, in this business, you see your coworkers more than you see your actual family.

And because of that, and the way the environment is set up, they become your family and you create these really tight knit bonds with the people that you work with every single day. And when they leave, it's both bittersweet and sad, but you're also really proud to see someone grow.


JASON PEARL: Hey everybody. Thanks for listening to another episode of The Company We Keep podcast. That episode with Matt Abdoo was awesome. He's such a phenomenal guy, an inspirational leader, a great businessman, and a phenomenal chef. So if you liked episode one, there's so many more things that we cover in episode two. So don't forget to check that out next Tuesday when the episode launches. Also, if you're looking to connect with Matt or connect with me, all of Matt's socials are going to be on my website, under the podcast show notes. So every, every way to follow him and interact with him is going to be right there.

In addition to that, we have a new feature on my website. It's a digital voicemail recording. So if you want to talk to me, you want to ask me a question you want to tell me if there's certain topics you'd like to have me cover on this podcast. Head over to my website at and check that out. Until next time, this is Jason Pearl. I'm out.