Two wayward Boston men driving across Long Island to catch the ferry back to New London take a wrong turn. They wind up on a ferry, sure, but the ride ends on Shelter Island. They motor around the tiny country roads, searching in vain for Interstate 95. “Being smart-ass guys from Boston,” Matty Boudreau recalls with a laugh, “we were convinced we could find it.”
Instead, Boudreau found a job offer, which became a career and a life here on the East End. Now the Executive Chef at The Preston House & Hotel, he has lived on Long Island longer than he did in Boston, and although his roots are revealed when he refers to Bridgehampton as “Yastrzemski Country”—as it was home to Red Sox legend Carl Yastrzemski—his heart is squarely in the local culinary scene as a member of Team Hamptons at the cooking competition and tasting event that is Dan’s GrillHampton 2019.
A two-time winner at the event—taking home the Judges Choice in 2017 and the People’s Choice in 2018, and now looking for a three-peat—Boudreau cannot hold back the glint in his eye as he talks about his trophies, a flicker that grows into a grin, becomes a laugh and finishes as full-on giddy “come and get it.” That’s for the other 15 chefs—seven more from the East End, eight from New York City—looking to take home a title at the seventh annual fiery foodie fest.
The Preston House & Hotel has garnered rave reviews and rankings on “Best Of…” lists over the past year and half as Boudreau’s menu showcases a flair and finesse not only with seafood—the Clams Casino and tuna tartare and lobster roll and scallops and fresh catch that makes its way onto the menu as, simply, “A Nice Piece of Fish”—but with his Today’s Braise creations and the house-smoked Pit Masters Bacon. Yes, that term “master” applies to the man pointing at the smoker nestled just off the Preston House porch, his enthusiasm barely containable as the talk turns smoky.
“Cooking is technique and passion in what you’re doing,” says Boudreau. “Even opening up oysters, there’s a technique involved. I like that. When I looked into smoking and barbecuing, it was controlling that whole element of fire, and having that ability to know there was something bigger than myself, that was driving me to figure out how I could manipulate it so I could make it enjoyable.”
Those back-to-back GrillHampton awards attest to his having figured out the secret he was searching for. Or at least a few of them…
“This is giving away some tricks of the trade, but I am more than happy to share,” he says. “You can’t overcomplicate it. Guests are going to have a drink in one hand, so they only have one to eat with. Year one, we did a rib-wich—took out the bone of the rib, cut it to the size of a small little potato bun. Last year we did a little skewer of brisket. And the guest is going to be eating a lot of things. You have to have something that’s flavorful in a small amount of bites, something that’s going to be attractive so people are coming around and having another one, and another one.”
Boudreau is happy to enlighten his fellow competitors, because he knows a rising tide lifts all grills. As a member of the Salty Rinse BBQ team, the chef leaves his East End kitchen and competes each year in the famous Memphis in May World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest alongside barbecue luminaries Rob Shawger and Matt Abdoo of Pig Beach fame (yes, they’ll be at GrillHampton, too), in a showdown where technique and teamwork are applied in equal measure. Trying to describe Memphis in May, Boudreau is a mix of respectful awe and kid-like thrill, conjuring images of not only creating incredible food for the judges but of transforming smoky, sandy, sometimes muddy cooking areas to look like destination dining spots on the Mississippi. He almost jumps when mentioning characters like the Barbecue Ninja, and a warmth emanates when he speaks of forging “lifelong friendships in 72 hours. It’s a brotherhood. It’s really a family.”
Last year, this family lost a member when Jeff Michner, who had been on Boudreau’s winning 2017 GrillHampton team, passed away. Boudreau dedicated the 2018 event to his friend, put on an incredible show, and didn’t even try to fight back the tears when he was awarded the People’s Choice trophy at the end of the night. Michner’s spirit will once again be with Boudreau this time around, just as it was this past spring when the Salty Rinse team and fellow chefs held a barbecue-fueled fundraiser for Michner’s family in Brooklyn. “People came from all around the country to cook, to volunteer their time to raise money for his widow and little daughter, and they would do it for the next 20 years. That’s just the kind of people they are.”
Passion. Dedication to craft and community and a culinary vision. Being drawn to it or reflecting it are really the same thing. It goes back to an eight-year-old kid going to work at his dad’s sausage cart outside Fenway Park. “It was my first job, and I could barely see over the flat top, so I was the barker,” Boudreau recalls. “And I collected the money. If somebody wearing a Yankees hat came up and asked how much, I’d say $10. If you take the hat off, it’s $5. If you give me the hat, it’s free.”
“People counted on us being there. And it was delicious. It was a pork sausage that you would cook on the flat top and really get a sear on the outside, and on the bun you’d get roasted red peppers and fresh onions on the bottom. And the buns were so soft….” He drifts back to Beantown circa 1986 for a moment. “I’ve never had better sausage than outside Fenway Park.”
Striving for the best, knowing it takes time and trial and error, continue to fuel Boudreau’s pursuits, personally and professionally. “Barbecue is a testament to patience, and I have not always been a patient person,” he says. “But that was the attraction. Preparing for the GrillHampton competition, that’s going to be two days of my life to produce what I want and hopefully be enough to win. It’s a testament to patience and time and hope.”