The Fishman Cometh: Matt Rubiner’s March to the Sea
During the go-go Reagan years, even dropouts had clearly defined goals and strategies for achieving them. Only 28 when, as an MIT research director and a prospective PhD candidate, Matt Rubiner decided to bail on academia, he took comfort in the knowledge that he was still young enough to retool.
“I asked myself, ‘What else could I approach in this academic way?’ Wine, of course, but I wasn’t really that interested in it.”
Cheese, on the other hand, felt right. So in 1992, Rubiner took a job with Fromage Kitchen in Cambridge, MA. His timing was perfect. While he was learning the business, the nation’s economic boom converged with the Atkins diet and the artisanal food movement to make America safe for luxury cheese. Soon, over cocktails, corporate lawyers were asking Wall Streeters, “Is this farmstead?” and “Was that one made from raw milk?” Matt Rubiner, who, by then, was Mr. Cheese was on his way.
“It smells like Europe in here,” my friend Dan says as we step inside Rubiners, the luxury cheese and specialty food emporium on Main Street in Great Barrington. When I tell Rubiner this, he is pleased. “My grandfather owned groceries stores. He always taught me, whenever you walk into a food store, close your eyes and breathe in deeply. Do you smell bread baking? Proscuitto being cut? That’s good. Do you smell floor cleaner? That’s not good.”
By May 2004, Matt had hung his shingle, Rubiner’s Cheesemongers & Grocers, on an elegant former bank in Great Barrington. A few months later, he opened a small café in back. “A shop as expensive as ours is bound to be viewed as elitist,” he says. “I wanted to give people another reason to come here. We had to complete the adventure.”
But from the start he knew that a little café like his could never support a highly-trained staff. “The restaurant business is not to be entered lightly,” he says. “Our goal was to have a simple café. We were betting that simple preparation coupled with extreme quality—not just eggs with salt, but eggs that had been laid that morning with fleur de sel—would trump technique. And it worked.” Today Rubi’s café may be the most egalitarian restaurant in the Berkshires—investment bankers and ladies-who-lunch sit next to ratty parking lot kids, all parties pleased to be there and all eating exactly the same stuff.
Ever intent on shortening the distance between the producer and the consumer, Matt Rubiner’s latest mission is his march to the sea. In an introductory e-mail to prospective customers of Rubiner’s Pre-order Fishmongers, he confessed, “I am an incompetent cooker of fish…my grilled tuna tastes like Chicken-of-the-Sea.” Finally, he concludes, “Maybe I’m just not getting good fish.”
In fact, he already had contacted a couple of suppliers in Portland, Maine, one of whom told him, “Fine, but you have to buy like our chef customers,” meaning superstars like Daniel Boulud, Eric Ripert, Charlie Trotter, and Barbara Lynch. In some instances, that meant finding a customer willing to tangle with a whole fish, such as an 18-pound Alaskan king salmon ($25.95 per pound) or a 10-15 pound hake ($7.95 per pound).
The response to his e-mail was encouraging. And so it came to pass that, here, in the mountains of Western Massachusetts, we now can buy Maine periwinkles ($6.50 per pound) and halibut cheeks ($21.95 per pound)—cheeks so fresh that yesterday morning they were still living next door to a swimming halibut’s teeth. Expensive? Not when you compare it to filling up the tank and driving to the Cape.
Place telephone or e-mail orders on Wednesday before 5 pm and pick up on Friday after 12 noon. If that’s too inconvenient, Rubiner can arrange for home delivery, even across county and state lines, for “a nominal fee.” All orders must be secured with a credit card.
264 Main Street, Great Barrington; 413.528.0488