Ten Minutes With Matthew Morgenstern, GM Of Railtown’s ‘Ask For Luigi’

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Ask for Luigi is one of our favourite restaurants in town. The food is always stellar, the staff always lovely. Eating there feels like stepping into an old friend’s cozy home for dinner, albeit a very popular old friend who sometimes makes you wait a few hours on their porch before letting you in. Part of this homey atmosphere is created by the impeccable management team. Matthew Morgenstern, the General Manager, knows more than a little about good food and wine. He’s a veteran of the service industry, a wine aficionado, and makes a hell of a homemade plum ice cream. We sat down with him to hear what he picked up from his recent trip to Paris and the secret behind keeping those lineups long.

What neighbourhood do you live in and what makes it home? I have lived in Hastings Sunrise for the last 6 years. It’s 5 minutes to the restaurant or 15 minutes to Lynn Canyon. The neighbourhood is so diverse with its businesses and residents. I’m really excited to see what comes in the next few years.

Coffee or Tea? Americanos and lots of them.

Name every restaurant you’ve ever worked at in chronological order: Oh my, you have any idea how long I’ve been at this? Chez Michael Langley – Prep cook, Toki’s Chinese Restaurant Langley – delivery driver to manager, Boston Pizza Guildford – Server, Some dive bar I don’t remember the name of Edmonton – Server, Red Robin Edmonton- Server, Northland Racetrack, Edmonton – Server. Then about a 10 year break. Transcontinental, Vancouver – Server, Terrace Restaurant Mission Hill, Kelowna – Server, C Restaurant, Vancouver – Server, Salt Tasting Room, Vancouver – Server, Nicli Antica Pizzeria, Vancouver – Wine Director and AGM, Wildebeest, Vancouver – GM, Ask for Luigi, Vancouver – GM and Wine Director

Describe Ask for Luigi in 10 words or less: Authentic Italian with casual genuine service in an intimate setting.

The cliché that you overuse? Balance is key.

What keeps you up at night? Work. The truth is, almost every bad situation in a restaurant is avoidable or reversible and it weighs heavily on me when guests leave unhappy. Also, it’s terrible to say, but Yelp reviews really get me going.

Dogs or cats? I’m rarely home so I should probably have a cat, but I would love to have a dog!

Shoe of choice? Leather short lace-up boot of many colours.

Your three role models? See below.

Favourite Vancouver building? The Museum of Anthropology. It looks so small from the outside, nestled into its surroundings, but from inside all those windows create a massive setting for those amazing totem poles.

The thing that is bad for you that you will never stop eating? Church’s Fried Chicken. It’s 3 blocks from my house and open 24 hours a day.

Which local restaurant space do you envy the most? Chill Winston’s patio.

First album that made you love music? The Cure – Standing on a beach

What was the last live concert you saw? Geez, I think it was a few years ago. Mark McNeil took me to see New Order.

My editor showed me a photo he took of you with a black eye. Who punched you and why? I was part of the first Aprons for Gloves charity boxing event. I fought Adam Jarrett and although he didn’t have a mark on him, somehow I won the fight. It was an amazing and terrifying experience that I am comfortable saying I will never do again!

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Your all-time best Halloween costume? Found an old bowling ball and painted it and myself all in gold – bowling trophy.

What game did you love as a kid? I used to love playing Rummy with my Granny. She was so bad, but she would play for hours with me.

What’s the one thing about Vancouver’s restaurant scene that you want to see changed the most? I would like to see a more diverse influence. For example, in the 17 years we have been awarding Vancouver’s Sommelier of the year, 15 have been a white guy in a suit. We can do better than that and in the end it will make Vancouver’s restaurant scene more interesting.

The different career path you could have gone on? I went school to be a geomatic engineer, whatever that is.

Your least favourite movie genre? Horror movies.

Three favourite dinner spots in YVR? Kissa Tanto, Wagon Rouge, and taking a Farina pizza next door to the Boxcar.

Under what circumstances would you join the army? There is so much turmoil in the world right now and every issue seems to create such polarizing reactions. Hopefully we all come to our senses and learn how to respect each other so that never has to happen.

Your most regrettable purchase ever? When I was 21 and living in Edmonton I bought a brown leather trench coat from a regular at the dive bar worked at. Well, honestly, the regret comes from actually wearing it.

What was the luckiest moment in your life? When I was 7 years old I won a contest to win tickets to see ABBA.

You were recently in Paris, what was the best thing you ate? I love just walking around all day collecting a bottle of wine from one shop, a stinky cheese from another, some rotisserie chicken, and on and on. Then taking your loot and finding a spot along the Canal St Martin. I visited some very polished, Instagram savvy restaurant like Clamato, Holybelly and Buvette; which were all very good, but one of the greatest things about Paris is how perfectly located it is to visit the rest of France. This trip I headed to Lyon and fell in love with it. Sure there are all the Michelin star restaurants, but the traditional lyonnaise cuisine in the many little bouchons is what I enjoyed.

Did you see any food concepts in Paris that you would like to see take root in Vancouver? I was recently Montreal and my two favourite places were Larry’s and Le Vin Papillon. They are both essentially wine bars with elevated small plates and both serve exclusively natural wines. The availability and acceptance of these wines in Montreal far exceeds Vancouvers, however Montreal still falls far behind what’s happening in Paris. In Paris, there are many restaurants that are also wine shops, such as Le Vin au Vert. You sit down have a great glass of wine, enjoy some food and in the end take a couple of bottles of wine home with you. If the BCLCB would give restaurants the retail prices we deserve, maybe something like that could work in Vancouver.

What made it in to your suitcase as far as souvenirs? Two bottles of wine, both natural/biodynamic producers. A Cabernet Franc from the Loire and a Syrah from the Northern Rhone.

It’s five years ago. You just clocked out. Where to? Revel Room for a Guinness and a whisky, do they still have chocolate chip cookies at 3:00 AM?

The best thing about managing a restaurant? Free food!

The worst thing about managing a restaurant? Free food! Like I said before, balance is key.

If you were reincarnated what would you like to come back as? Myself, but 4 inches taller. Oh, what I could have done if I was just a little bit taller.

If you had a motto, what would it be? Everything is going to be fine.

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Scariest situation you’ve ever been in? A year after the tsunami in Thailand I was visiting the island of Phi Phi, which was slowly recovering. I was sitting watching some kick boxing, when I notice all these locals running in fear. I grabbed my girlfriend and started running in the direction they were heading and we ended up on at a tsunami relief area. It turned out there had been a tsunami warning. Sitting there waiting for the all clear with all these people who had just recently been through an actual tsunami was terrifying.

Restaurant trend that needs to die? It doesn’t need to die, but seriously, we have enough tacos.

Your favourite curse word? A very cynical “fuck off.” Like when you can’t believe what someone is saying.

Least favourite word? Anyways

The Rolling Stones or The Beatles? Rolling Stones

What object of no monetary value will you keep dearly until you die? My grandfather’s tilly hat.

Would you ever wear it? Not now, but someday I hope to work less and travel more. My grandfather saw a lot of places in that hat and maybe I could bring it to some new places.

The most beautiful place in the world? That I’ve seen? Angles Landing in Zion National Park, Utah.

Your first memory? Playing with my first dog. A beagle named Mandy.

Your top played song on iTunes? I use it for work, but right now it says “Can I Kick It”, by A Tribe Called Quest

The best way to go, in the very end? That’s about the farthest thing from my mind right now.

Sure, but now that I’ve asked you… Well, I hope I’m quietly enjoying a beautiful view and a great glass of wine.

Is there a scent that always reminds you of someone, what is it and who? Tom Ford’s Tuscan Leather. There is this stale smoke and whisky smell that reminds me of my grandfather.

What is the worst nightmare you’ve ever had? So, there is this 80s Aron Spelling TV show called, “Hotel” and no, it’s not that I’m in an Aron Spelling TV show. Anyway, I’m in that grand hotel and I go and use the washroom. As I’m in there, a group of gunman start shooting up the hotel, so I hide in one of the stalls and I think I’m going to be okay. Then one of the terrorists crouches down and sees me. He looks me right in the eyes and shoots me. I woke up and I was choking on my tongue. Still freaks me out.

If you could give your 20-year-old self advice what would it be? Learn French and move to Montreal or France.

How would you like to be remembered? That I gave a shit.

About what? Everything. My commitment to work, the quality of my life and the people around me.

If you could change one thing about the way you were raised what would you change? My mom insisted that if I was going to play hockey I also had to be in figure skating. I don’t think I got out of anything from figure skating…

Who are your role models? Family – My mom. She’s so persistent and hard working. She runs her own business, but the well being of her family is always what’s most important to her. Celebrity – Tom Brady. Obviously, he’s perfect. Industry – Chad Clark, John Bishop and Vikram. I love the title maitre d and although these three all have different roles at their restaurants, they all run their rooms effortlessly.

What is your favorite dessert or sweet treat? Ice cream. I recently did a late night ice cream maker purchase, so I bring ice cream in for staff meal once and a while. Roasted Plum was probably the best so far.

The best view of Vancouver? On top of the Lions.

Best view in Vancouver? Beers on the patio of English Bay Cactus Club.

Your go-to breakfast dish? Poached eggs and toast at Red Wagon.

The longest time you’ve ever spent in a car? Vancouver to Kingston, ON. 2 1/2 days, not so bad.

What’s next for Ask for Luigi? Well, I’m thinking of adding a ledge to one of the corners of the restaurant so I can add another plant.

The secret to running a successful business? Attracting, hiring and accepting great talented people.

What are you most looking forward to? Opening more restaurants. You just feed off of the excitement from guests and staff. There are so many tweaks and adjustment that are made throughout the first year.

Where do you see yourself in ten years? Wayne Gretzky has the role of ambassador for the NHL. Maybe there will be something like that for restaurants by then.

Will you be playing any sort of role at Joe Pizza or St. Lawrence? I will be part of the opening management team, focusing of the beverage program. St. Lawrence is going to be a very exciting restaurant of the likes we have never seen here in Vancouver and I have never been this excited to be part of a new project. I can’t wait!

Neither can we.

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There is 1 comment

  1. Restaurant trend that needs to die? It doesn’t need to die, but seriously, we have enough tacos. Spot on comment about tacos….