It’s rare to find someone who is smitten with their job, but Chef Matt Bonano is ecstatic about his culinary work at Gulfperk Coffee Bar. As the evening manager, he runs Gulfperk After Dark, where he composes charcuterie and wine offerings Thursday through Saturday evenings that are colorfully fresh and deceptively filling.
The New York cheesemonger is the original owner of St. Petersburg eatery, Brooklyn South – a on Central Avenue known for its massive sandwiches packed with fresh meats and cheeses. After a brief hiatus, Matt is back in the kitchen pairing a variety of cured meats and artisan cheeses to order right here on Beach Boulevard.
Chef Matt wakes up excited to go to work. He has a corner nook inside Gulfperk where he makes gastronomic magic come to life on a slate serving board. He loves food but he adores cheese. His eyes lit up and he literally bounced around, giddy when I asked him to explain the different ingredients he works with and what he creates for his guests.
Working on a four-foot cold prep table, Matt explains that he’s started with a modest menu to highlight seasonal ingredients and see which products are the most popular among Gulfperk’s customers. Currently, he features three cured meats for his boards: coppa, prosciutto di Parma and pate de Champagne, imported from the award-winning Les Trois Petits Cochons in Brooklyn. He has a wider variety of cheeses that he patiently helps me spell as I sample.
He slices off a piece of Ossau-Iraty, a French semi-firm sheep’s milk cheese that has a grassy taste and fishy-smelling rind. Chef Matt explains the shepherds’ process of transhumance in the cheesemaking process. That is, shepherds move the sheep up north to the highlands during the spring (when the cheese is made) and then back down to the lowlands in the fall. The sheep’s northern diet of wildflowers and grasses produces a flavor unique to that area.
Next I try the Bucheron, another semi-firm cheese made from goat’s milk that Chef Matt tells me “ages from the outside in.” It’s pillowy consistency and oh-so-creamy texture had a delightful tangy bite that I imagined would pair deliciously with a crisp sauvignon blanc. Cutting a triangle wedge, Chef Matt offers me a piece of raclette from Spring Brook Farm Cheese called Reading, as well as a petite chunk of Shellen Bell, a raw cow’s milk cheese aged for months in Alpine caves. A longstanding Judging and Competition committee member of the American Cheese Society, Chef Matt knows nearly everything about cheese. But what few may realize is that Matt also makes many of the artistic accoutrements on his whimsical charcuterie boards.
His signature cranberry relish is nothing like the canned jelly consumed on Thanksgiving, but rather a sweet and tangy balance of cranberries and spicy chilies, (hand-picked from the chef’s own backyard garden). Matt selects a pickled watermelon radish from the cold line that is cherry Kool-Aid red and he folds and twists the radish into an edible rose that bursts with tart crunch. But his favorite bite right now is his pickled papaya, seasoned with an Asian-inspired twist but with warm winter flavors, perfect for February in Florida.
Chef Matt composes a charcuterie board like he is throwing clay or conducting an orchestra – with easy flow and delicate attention to detail. Chef Matt says he intends to have a growing selection of meats and cheeses on deck and he wants to create a tapas menu. In addition to featuring more American cheese artisans, wine pairings could also be on the horizon. And one of Matt’s ongoing projects is making online videos about – you guessed it – cheese!