Chef Matt Rapposelli shares insights on food and culture in time for WOUB-TV’s ‘Great American Broadcast’ June 24

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On a physiological level, food just needs to be convertible into energy.

However, on a social, cultural, emotional, and maybe even spiritual level, food is always a lot more complex than just its job description.

Friday, June 24 at 9 p.m. ET WOUB-TV debuts the first episode of “The Great American Recipe,” a cooking competition celebrating our complicated relationship with food and the confluence of cultural influences which make American food distinctly American.

If there’s anyone who can speak to the fascinating and satisfying ways a culture and its food are so intertwined, it would be Matt Rapposelli, Executive Chef at the Inn & Spa at Cedar Falls. A few weeks prior to the debut of “The Great American Recipe,” WOUB asked Rapposelli a few questions about his relationship with food and culture, the unique aspects of ingredients unique to Appalachia, and more.

Great American

WOUB: Could you please introduce yourself and tell me a little about how you came to be a chef in Appalachia?

Matt Rapposelli: I’m originally from Cleveland, but my mom was born and raised in Appalachia. My most vivid memories of visiting my grandma always came down to the food and the gorgeous area. My grandma was fiercely independent by both circumstance and character. This meant she provided most all of the food they ate through her garden and foraging and hunting. My very first food memory with her was a meal of squirrel and noodles. All of which she she single handily harvested and prepared.

My Italian father and his family had been in the business of food for a long time. I was predestined to work with food from the beginning. After I finished culinary school I had lived all over the country, Washington state, Vermont, Florida, but I always kept coming back to this region. I realized this was a truly special place and decided to reestablish my roots here.

WOUB: What kinds of local ingredients do you use that might surprise folks?

Matt Rapposelli: The local ingredients we have access to is pretty varied. What might sound like an unusual or surprising ingredient to one person, might be a pretty common or mundane thing to another. I think the one local food that probably gets the biggest wow factor is a pawpaw. They are definitely the platypus of our local foods. They aren’t found in too many areas of the country, they don’t travel well, and people don’t often see the whole fresh fruits in person. Combine all that with their unique texture and tropical flavor and people are pretty amazed by them.

As for other local foods we use, the list is pretty comprehensive. Most all of it is driven on seasonal availability and the amounts available. It takes a very different quantity of an item to offer it at a restaurant level vs. a one time or home use. We use local meats, produce, eggs, fruits, mushrooms and dairy as often as possible.

WOUB: Why is it important to you to use local ingredients?

Matt Rapposelli: For me the absolute number one main reason I want to use local ingredients is to support local, real people. There are a ton of other benefits to using local items, freshness, uniquenesses and quality are just a few, but helping someone in your community make a living while they improve our lives is first and foremost. Commercially sourced food is far more convenient to run a restaurant with, but any added effort required to use local is always preferred.

WOUB: To you, what are some of the sort of culinary tropes of Appalachian cuisine?

Matt Rapposelli: If you mean cliché when you refer to culinary tropes of Appalachian food I’m not sure many people outside of our region would even be able to formulate much of any description of what Appalachian food is? I think what would come up most often would probably be chicken and noodles? I think if you were to ask most people outside of the Appalachian regions to describe what they thought constitutes Appalachian cuisine you’d most likely get the Pennsylvania Dutch items that are the backbone of this regions “home style”?

When I do talks or go to conferences around the country I most often get the question as to what’s one of the most unique foods from our area. The example I always use is noodles over mashed potatoes. Most people are surprised to hear that this a staple of our area. It definitely has its roots in Eastern European cuisine, but I’ve not seen it as prevalent anywhere else outside our region.

WOUB: What can we learn about a culture from their food?

Matt Rapposelli: We learn everything about a culture from their foods!! My absolute favorite thing in life is to travel for the soul purpose of eating another cultures foods and interacting with those who prepare it. Food is truly a universal language and what different areas do with it is the accent. No matter where you go in the world, while you may not be able to communicate with language, you can always communicate through food!

WOUB: Do you have a personal philosophy when it comes to being a chef?

Matt Rapposelli: I’m not sure what my personal philosophy is as a chef. The things that matter most to me are that food is thoughtfully and well prepared. I don’t care if it’s a hot dog or a Moroccan Bastilla, I just want it made with care.  I’m not the type of chef who gets offended at any request as to how someone wants their food prepared. I will be more than happy to incinerate that $65 prime filet mignon and give you steak sauce and ketchup to go with it. While that wouldn’t be my preferred way to eat it, I’m not the one eating it. I’ll just do my part to make sure it’s seasoned properly, looks appealing and gets to your table hot and fresh.

It’s always really fulfilling to open people’s eyes and pallets to properly prepared food. Often someone will say they don’t like something and after talking to them you realize it was probably because it was poorly executed. If you can get them to try it again, sometimes you can see the fireworks go off and they have a new found appreciation. I love those moments.