One day, Fort Wayne native Matt Hamilton wants to own his own farm-to-fork restaurant in Washington state.
Right now, however, it’s not about the destination, but the journey he’s been on to get there.
Learning to cook
Hamilton first fell in love with food through his parent’s Ice Cream Express food truck when he was a child.
“Instead of chores around the house we would work the truck,” he said. “I guess I’ve been in the food industry since I was 6 years old.”
As he grew up, he worked as a dishwasher, a server and for 5 Star Distributing, cooking for himself on the side.
“My food was awful but I enjoyed it — I was learning and I would research stuff and I kept trying different recipes and I’d figure out how to do it,” he said.
The creativity and art he saw in kitchens and on shows like “Hell’s Kitchen” drew him into the world of fine dining, which led him to study at Le Cordon Bleu in Chicago.
His first kitchen job was “making salads” at Quince in Evanston, Ill., as well as at a recreational cooking school called the Chopping Block.
He flew out to run a restaurant in Alaska for a year, then came back to Chicago to work at 42 Grams. After that, he moved to Seattle to work for James Beard Award-winning chef Tom Douglas.
As he was making his way in the restaurant business, Hamilton saw a TedTalk by Dan Barber about sustainable animal care and farming practices. He then read Barber’s book “The Third Plate: Field Notes on the Future of Food” on the same topic.
“It blew my mind,” Hamilton recalled. “I think that book really changed, for me, everything.”
He began to look at the food he served, and his role as a chef, in a new way.
“As a chef I feel like a steward, and we’re kind of on the front lines. If anyone’s going to get people to eat healthier and think about where their food comes from, I think as chefs we have a responsibility to do what we can to push it toward that,” Hamilton said.
For more than seven years Hamilton had talked about doing a cross-country motorcycle trip. This goal gave that trip even more focus.
“Let’s see the country,” he thought to himself. “I want to see the other side of the food system, see farms and ranches, and what better way to do that than on a motorcycle?”
Hamilton bought a bike for $500 that “didn’t even run,” and over about 18 months, fixed up the motorcycle and planned his cross-country voyage.
Starting in Seattle with $3,000, he knew the money wouldn’t get him far, he said.
Fortunately, his time as a student in Chicago instilled in him a work ethic and an ability to try to find work wherever he went.
“I basically would hit the pavement and just start going into restaurants and (basically say), please hire me, give me a job,” Hamilton said.
Known as “stage” from a French word for apprentice, the habit is common in larger food cities, he said.
“Most chefs, most restaurants…it’s all about work ethic, it’s all about your character, that if you show up, you work hard, you don’t burn something more than once, it shows that you really care about what you’re doing and most chefs will take you under their wing and they’ll show you the way,” Hamilton said.
“What I’ve learned (from staging is) you gotta put yourself out there.”
Not only was this mindset beneficial when Hamilton wanted to learn from restaurants across the country, but also when he worked for the producer side of the food system.
He participated in the Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms program, which allows participants to work at farms and ranches for 30 hours a week in exchange for room and board.
For six months Hamilton was in Texas through the program, working on the High Rock Ranch outside of Austin with heirloom chickens and free-range organic eggs and on Knopp Branch Farm, who Hamilton said sells their organic produce to seven of the top 10 restaurants in Houston.
He also earned a paid internship at Bastrop Cattle Company, which raises grass-fed beef.
“I got to live out my childhood dream of somewhat being a cowboy for a little bit,” Hamilton said with a laugh. “It was an amazing experience.”
At these sites, he’d also do landscaping and other side jobs for additional income.
But he wasn’t just there to live out childhood dreams and make money, but rather to learn about how to make his future dreams a reality.
Hamilton said that while in Indiana he toured the Joseph Decuis farms in Whitley County, learning not only about their husbandry practices but also how much land they need to grow their crops and how many head of cattle they have.
Hamilton has been using his experiences to figure out how to create his own place like those he’s worked on, a place that’s about “really serving wholesome, nutritious food coming from your own land,” he explained.
For the past several months, Hamilton has taken his motorcycle from Seattle down through California and the southwest, through the southern states and up through North Carolina and Virginia north as far as New York. He then traveled west through Pennsylvania and Ohio, coming home to Fort Wayne and working at Proximo for a couple of weeks.
He will finish his journey through Wisconsin, North Dakota and Montana before returning to Seattle — but only briefly. He actually got another paid internship at Knopp Branch for a year. There, he will oversee the team, do deliveries, work with local restaurant chefs and plan the planting schedule for the farm and orchards.
“(I’ll be) really learning how to run a successful farm so then I can hopefully translate those skills into my own piece of land and be able to get that up and running and get a jump start on it,” he said.
Though his goal throughout his journey has never waivered, Hamilton said his appreciation for the country has grown greatly.
“You meet just amazing people from all walks of life,” he said. “It (may seem) like we’re all so divided and everybody’s angry, but that’s not what I’ve seen traveling across the country. We’re all just getting by and just trying to be happy. It’s inspiring, it makes you feel good.”
“I recommend doing something like this to anybody. … When you put yourself out there and you see different cultures and you meet different people that’s going to give you experiences that are going to enrich your life and add to that happiness and hopefully change people for the better and be more cognizant of what people are going through.”