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Chef O'Neill dishes up food for thought and enjoyment

Saturday, October 6, 2012

During a fiery moment, former Walden Inn Chef/Innkeeper Matt O'Neill watches his pan flame up after adding brandy to create a flambé effect during his cooking program Thursday afternoon at the Inn at DePauw. [Order this photo]
Could it really now be more than 10 years since Matt O'Neill held court at the Walden Inn, creating memorable meals at the Different Drummer restaurant while keeping the regulars fascinated and lubricated within The Fluttering Duck?

Chef O'Neill shares his wit and wisdom along the way
Sharing the wit and wisdom of chef Matt O'Neill ...
On staying sharp: It may be all the rage to own a whetstone these days, O'Neill says, but cold steel is the best way to sharpen the blade of your cutlery.
"Your knife doesn't have to be as sharp as your uncle's fishing knife, only sharp enough to cut your veggies."
* * *
Upon seeing the pan in his hand burst into bigger flames than expected during his flambé demonstration: "That almost got out of control," O'Neill cringed. "Must have been some bad booze."
* * *
On his preference for the expensive spread: Don't settle for off-brand butters if you care about taste, O'Neill says.
"Buy the better butter," the chef says. "Cheap butter in America is too emulsified with water."
* * *
On the poor, misunderstood parsnip: "I want you to try the parsnips," O'Neill urges. "If you go to Kroger, the parsnips are left off on their own, in the corner like they're a turnip or something."
But again by roasting them in olive oil, butter, salt and pepper, the chef says parsnips can rule.
"Parsnips are a mellow, comfort food with a very mild, buttery sweet taste if cooked right," he says, "otherwise they can be mushy like something out of the school cafeteria."
* * *
On suggesting golden beets as a valuable vegetable: "Golden beets have a sweet taste," he says, "almost like the skin of citrus (when roasted in olive oil, butter, salt and pepper)."
* * *
On the ongoing sushi craze: "People like to think they're addicted to sushi," O'Neill notes. "It's really the condiments they're tasting.
"Take away the condiments and you've got raw fish from the ocean, would you eat that?"
* * *
On the often-overused sesame oil: "Just a bit of it is all you ever need," the longtime chef says. "Too much and it's like you've got axle grease all over it."
* * *
On making a success of his Bloomington restaurant, The Runcible Spoon: "It took a while to get Bloomington warmed up," O'Neill says. "You've got a lot of competition there. Every street has five good musicians ... five good chefs ... five good entrepreneurs ... five good businessmen."
The hair is lighter. A few more lines have added character to his impish Irish face. And a couple more pounds can be detected beneath the chef jacket he wears (probably thanks to all the eggs benedict he's always cooking up at his Runcible Spoon restaurant in Bloomington).

But it's the same jovial expert chef who presided as innkeeper and chef when the doors opened at the inn until he left for Bloomington in 2000.

And Thursday afternoon at the Inn at DePauw, it was like the old Matt O'Neill had never left. In fact, the scene of this cooking class for DePauw-related guests in town for Old Gold Weekend was within the room that formerly housed The Different Drummer (now 2 West) before the renovation turned the Walden Inn into the Inn at DePauw.

As the inn marks its 25th anniversary this year, the 62-year-old O'Neill was awash in memories as he took time to chat. Fond memories?

"Oh, definitely," he quickly acknowledged as he broke free from cooking and kibitzing with Carrie Coquilette, Elizabeth Fisher, Sue Bartlett, Linda Katula and a dozen others during the nearly three-hour, hands-on program.

"I was here for 15 years (1986-2000)," he smiled. "I still see some of the same faces, and they haven't changed much. But look at me."

Everyone at the Inn at DePauw extended him a warm welcome in his return, O'Neill said.

"It all reminds me of how spoiled I was here," he added.

"I didn't really start enjoying the business until I worked at the Walden Inn," he said. "I really enjoyed it here."

Born near Dublin, O'Neill has shared his lucky charms with Americans since coming to the United States in the early 1970s.

He doesn't get home to Ireland as often as he once did, but has steered his share of visitors there.

"I have sisters that live all over Ireland," O'Neill said as he whisked batter for some crepes. "They keep telling me, 'When are you going to quit sending people to Ireland?' I even sent some of my waitresses to Ireland. They never came back. They married my nephews."

How O'Neill ended up at the Walden Inn in the first place is a story worth retelling.

At the time, he was a chef at the classy Crystal Room in downtown Indianapolis, when Greencastle -- in the form of a phone call from former resident Larry Taylor -- came calling.

At the precise moment of that call (remember, this is pre-cell phone in 1985), O'Neill was rubbing elbows with a celebrity clientele.

"I was in the middle of a banquet for Pavarotti (yes, the portly late world renown tenor)," he recalled, when someone told him he had a telephone call. "They said this guy's been calling for you."

Taylor was apparently pretty insistent. And O'Neill ended up taking the call, though he admittedly had little to no interest in Greencastle, even if it had the same name as a spot in his cherished homeland.

"Larry said, 'At least come out (to Greencastle) and see for yourself,'" O'Neill remembered.

They arranged to meet at the Columbia Club in downtown Indianapolis, and the Greencastle contingent sent a car for O'Neill.

"The Walden Inn was still being built at the time," O'Neill said, noting that he could see its potential as a special place even then.

"I had never had a reception like that before," he said.

So after touring the construction site on Seminary Street and meeting with Taylor and others, O'Neill was sold.

"I said, 'Yeah, I'll take the job.'"

He never regretted it, recalling what a great place the community was for raising his son, Matt.

"I'm so glad my kid grew up here," the veteran chef said. "He grew up in Greencastle, and went in the Air Force to become a pilot. He flew in Afghanistan and Iraq and was deployed everywhere. But I'm glad to have him back."

After 10 years in the U.S. Air Force, his son is now teaching at Grissom Air Base near Peru, Ind.

Son Matt also had a need for speed, his father assured.

"I do remember that I bought him his first car in Greencastle, and he got a ticket the very first day," O'Neill laughed.

"But is this a great country or what?!" he exclaimed. "They gave my kid a plane!"

O'Neill, who also operates the Bloomington Cooking School, isn't thinking of slowly down yet himself. In fact, he's trying to acquire a restaurant in Lafayette, which would keep him hopping between two college towns.

"A lot depends on the environment you're in," he suggested of both business success and personal happiness. "Bloomington and Lafayette are very different.

"But Greencastle is still a special place to me."

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It is good to hear that Matt is doing well in Bloomington. He is a special person with great talent. I am glad that I was able to know him when he was in Greencastle.

-- Posted by fishersresident on Sun, Oct 7, 2012, at 10:28 PM

Loved the wonderful article and pictures of Chef Matt O'Neill. Although we have lived in FL for 8 years now, we remember fondly our business days in downtown Greencastle and the many lunches and dinners at the Walden Inn. Matt gave gourmet cooking lessons for our gourmet club (former IBMers and business people) which are still a favorite memory. Joyce Hanlon

-- Posted by jhanlon1 on Mon, Oct 8, 2012, at 7:16 AM

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