Chef Matthew Krenz is serving up family tradition at the Asbury.
Chef Matthew Krenz steps out of the swinging door of the Asbury kitchen with a measured confidence. The newly appointed executive chef dons clean chef’s whites and brings with him a beef heart carpaccio, one of his newest creations on the summer menu at the sophisticated restaurant in the bottom of Uptown’s Dunhill Hotel. The dish is visually stunning: a bright piquillo pepper puree is the eye-catching backdrop to thinly shaved slices of beef heart arranged in a tender pile with ember-roasted squash, golden raisins, cocoa nibs, and contrasting frills of frisée. The beef heart has been treated like a pastrami—left overnight in a brine, seared, and roasted rare, shaved thin—and its flavor bears the labored results.
Beautiful plates like this one are a calling card for the 31-year-old chef who will tell you that he strives for excellence in each dish. What sounds like a PR-crafted statement is not. Matthew Krenz has more than his restaurant career invested on that plate. His commitment to food is rooted in his family tree.
The beef heart comes from the Krenz Family Ranch, his father’s operation in New Salem, N.C., 45 minutes due east of Charlotte. It started as a hobby to provide family and friends with sustainably raised beef. Alan Krenz, or “Papa Krenz,” is a broad sketch of a man, with a head of white hair that is often covered with a cowboy hat. He comes from a long line of hardworking Midwesterners where self-sufficiency and sweat equity were paramount. “I grew up around the Kansas-Oklahoma line,” says Alan Krenz. “My grandad was a dairy man for seven decades and my family on my dad’s side raised cattle.”
That old-school work ethic eventually transferred off the farm to an executive career with a large food company, where Alan Krenz remains today after 38 years. The job is demanding. For as long as Matthew Krenz can remember, his father has worked long hours and abided by a rigorous travel schedule—sacrifices made for the good of his family.
“I’m not much to sit around,” says the senior Krenz, who manages the Krenz Family Ranch before and after his 12-hour corporate work days. “It’s very therapeutic for me,” he says. It’s also a piece of himself, and his heritage, that he wanted to pass on to his two sons. When the family moved back to North Carolina in 2002, Alan Krenz recruited Matthew and his brother, Brandon, to help him set up the cattle operation and build the house in which he now lives. “I wanted to show my boys from the ground up what it takes, and show them what our family history is about,” says Alan Krenz.
The DNA certainly doesn’t fall far from the tree. In the kitchen, Matthew Krenz is focused and intense, often the first one to arrive and the last to leave. Chef Chris Coleman, former executive chef at The Asbury, who brought Matthew Krenz on as chef de cuisine, describes his peer as a “brilliant chef” whose “standards are ridiculously high in the best way.” Coleman says working alongside Krenz taught him discipline. “He pushes cooks to be creative, to strive for excellence,” says Coleman.
On a sunny morning drive out to the Krenz homestead, Matthew shares a few seminal experiences that impacted his early cooking career. A stint with Chef John Shields (a descendant of the Charlie Trotter kitchen) at Riverstead in Chilhowie, Va. showed the young chef how to strive for the best. “His whole demeanor is built off excellence,” Matthew Krenz says. “He showed me just how high you can set the bar.” His first job in Charlotte, as executive sous chef at Passion8 Bistro under Chef Luca Annunziata, led him to regularly interact with local farmers. “Anytime you can learn about where your food comes from is a powerful thing,” he says.
But it was work with his father on the Krenz Family Ranch, pulling fence and developing the infrastructure of the cattle operation, that opened Matthew Krenz’s eyes to a different type of ethic. “I learned what true hard work was and just how much sacrifice is given to put a steak on a plate,” he says.
The Krenz Family Ranch is considered a cow-calf operation, where cows are bred and raised from birth to harvest, an endeavor that takes about three years. Alan Krenz cares for his cows with a deep reverence, allowing his herd to grow at a natural pace. “There are less than two dozen families in the area that do what we do, taking the cows all the way through,” says Alan Krenz. “Most people aren’t willing to put that kind of time in.” The cows on the Krenz property are calm, docile, and unafraid when as the truck inches close to the herd.
That gentle connection, passed on from father to son, is the motivating thread for Matthew’s efforts to honor the whole animal. “You don’t want to ruin the integrity of nature,” says Matthew Krenz. He regularly brings staff to the farm, to see and learn about the operation, and he teaches his cooks how to utilize every inch of the cow. At The Asbury, you’ll find beef liver scrapple on the brunch menu and burgers for lunch. During dinner, guests can order the Krenz Blackboard Special, a special cut of beef based on what’s available.
Back at Matthew’s house, an anonymous poem called “The Tradition” hangs on the wall, branded onto a cow’s hide. It was hanging at his father’s house too. It reads: Some folks just don’t get it. They think owning cattle makes no sense. It takes too much time, too much equipment, not to mention the expense. But the fondest memories of my life, they might think sound funny, were made possible by my Mom and Dad, ‘cause they spent the time and the money. You see, the most important lessons helping values grow so strong, comes from loving cattle and passing the tradition on.”
As Matthew Krenz proudly dropped the beef heart carpaccio to the table on a recent evening, it wasn’t just the pride of a chef promoted, but the understanding of a man who knew that the heart being served on the plate held a bit of his own inside it too.
Photography by Michael C. Hernandez