Matthew Cranert can’t sit still. He’s got a million menus in his head and he wants to write them all down. The new executive chef at Cumin, Cranert also holds the same position at sister restaurant M, both in Hyde Park. Between running two kitchens, he’s found his Zen in balancing the high-end dining at Cumin with M’s rustic eats.
“Creative-wise I can get my fix now in both places,” Cranert says. “Basically that’s all I want out of a job is to do what I want. I don’t have someone tell me what I can or cannot do.”
Cranert started his culinary career at an early age when he bounced between northern California during the school year and Maui during the summers, where he worked in his grandfather’s restaurant on a golf course.
“It probably wasn’t legal,” Cranert says. “I was cooking at 13 or 14 years old. I would wake up early, go surfing in the morning and then head over to the golf course. I couldn’t live there because the school systems were so bad my parents wouldn’t let me.”
Alongside surfing, Cranert learned real island cuisine, which consists of mostly pork, seafood and rice.
“In the front they would make all that cheesy stuff, like club sandwiches,” he says, “but all the good stuff was made in the back. That’s how I got into that.”
Back in the kitchen he learned to make authentic Hawaiian food like poke, a raw tuna dish Cranert now serves at M.
On the mainland, Cranert traveled between San Francisco and Sacramento, Calif. “Napa was basically in my back yard,” he says.
To add to his worldly upbringing and palette, Cranert’s mother owned a couple of houses in Alaska where he fished and spent time with the tribes on a reservation.
“You can go onto the reservations and eat whale,” Cranert says. “They kill a whale once a year and live off it. It’s pretty good, almost like foie gras. It’s really fatty and just melts in your mouth.”
Once he was old enough, Cranert traveled wherever he could, sticking mostly to the South Pacific, Vietnam.
He even spent a year in Tokyo working as a rice cook.
“When you train for sushi, you make rice for a year,” Cranert says. “And, if you’re good, after that you can touch the fish.”
Cranert wants to write a book about his life — and he should. He’d tell the story of street food, surfing, hanging out with bands like Sublime in Mexico, going to school with the guys from the Deftones in Sacramento, and then becoming a dad and a chef. It’s the story of a real American boy learning his way through his grandfather’s kitchen on an island.
“Basically, what I did with my life before I met my wife was I just traveled with my surf board,” Cranert says. “My whole thing about life is seize the moment. I hate complacency. If you ever feel comfortable, you should change something.”
He followed his wife to her hometown in the Midwest. Cranert landed his first corporate job at Palomino downtown. He moved on to Aqua, Senate, The Rookwood, Quan Hapa and then to Cumin as a cook. He was there a week before they made him chef at M.
Cranert revamped both menus, infusing M and Cumin owner Alex Mchaikhi’s restaurant concepts with his own style.
“I won’t cook someone else’s food,” Cranert says. “I came in and flipped it all. If we’re going to do a burger, we’re going to do a grass-fed burger. If we’re going to do french fries, we’re going to do truffle fries with Parmesan on them. San Francisco kind of style.”
That’s fine with Mchaikhi.
“He’s not intimidated by the food,” Mchaikhi says.
With Cranert in control, the menu at Cumin changes weekly, and they switched to seasonal produce, leaner meats such as elk and buffalo, and house-made items.
“A lot of chefs just order it,” Cranert says. “And it’s like, why? You’re a chef. Make some food. It takes a little more time, and that’s why you basically live in the restaurant, but you can feel good about standing behind your products.”
Cranert enjoys the juxtaposition of the two restaurants.
“With [M] I can do street food, keep it simple and rustic over here,” he says. “Over there [Cumin], I can do all the bells and whistles. I can do fancy plating, maybe mess around with a little molecular gastronomy.
“I believe, when you’re a chef, you should be an everything kind of chef. I’ve gotten to that point now where I can do it all.”Cumin
Go: 3520 Erie Ave., Hyde Park
Hours 5-10 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday, 5-11 p.m. Friday-Saturday
Go: 3514 Erie Ave., Hyde Park
Hours: 11 a.m.-2 p.m., 5-10 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday; 11 a.m.-2 p.m., 5-11 p.m. Friday; 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Saturday; 10:30 a.m.-3 p.m. Sunday