Stranger 07/100 – Mateo

 I photographed my seventh stranger in Paso Robles, California.

Mateo is the executive chef of a new restaurant here. Most mornings he stops at a downtown coffee shop around ten, orders a four-shot latte to go, then walks out onto 13th Street, lights a smoke and strolls two blocks down to The Hatch Rotisserie & Bar to begin prepping the night’s menu.

At least that was his routine during the few days I was in town for a family wedding this past week. Amsterdam Coffee House became my daily place to plug in and keep caught up on work. When I spotted Mateo in line on my first morning — jet-black beard and handlebar mustache — I thought: there’s Stranger No. 7. The next time I looked up, he was gone.

But I was back the next morning with my uncle and so was Mateo, and once he had his tallboy latte in hand, I ducked out of the coffee shop after him, caught up and made my pitch. “Let’s do it,” he said. Across the street was a brick wall that looked like a decent backdrop for a portrait, and we did a quick photo session there. Inside the café, my uncle glanced out the window and wondered why the hell his nephew was suddenly outside photographing this tough, tattooed, bearded stranger.

The portrait above was not made that morning, but the next. Mateo spotted me at the coffee shop and asked how the pictures turned out. I pulled up an edited shot without mentioning I was disappointed with it — which I was was — and his polite but understated reaction told me he was, too. I thought of that proverb: If at first you don’t succeed…..

Mateo was game for another session, so we hit the street and started scouting for a better location. Along the way, I had a chance to learn more of his story.

Mateo had moved to Paso Robles in March from California’s Central Valley and accepted the position at The Hatch, which opened only six weeks ago. He described the menu as Southern-inspired, locally raised comfort food — think wood-fired chicken, shrimp and grits, fried green tomatoes. He talked about food in a way that made me hungry, and I immediately understood that Mateo was as passionate as he was ambitious. He talked about restaurant concepts he has, about a home-brewed root beer he is working to perfect, about a food pilgrimage he’d like to make to learn more about Southern gastronomy. At 31, Mateo said he was a culinary school dropout who cut his teeth as a sous chef in the world of fine dining. He struck me as a man better suited at the helm of his own kitchen.

I made this portrait in an alley behind his restaurant. He was not shy in front of my lens and we tried several poses. Mateo’s expression scared the hell out of me but perfectly suited his overall look, a mix of hipster and hardass. Afterward, he gave me a quick tour of his restaurant and, thanking him, I went on my way.

Later I thought: How can you write a word about a chef without tasting his food? So that night I went back to the restaurant with my wife and my aunts and uncles and cousins — fifteen of us in all — for a two-hour feast that did not disappoint. Family favorites included grilled Shishito peppers, butter beans with smoked sausage and black kale, the “Hoecakes,” and fire-grilled avocado, drizzled with olive oil and lemon juice and a sprinkling of sea salt. Several appetizers landed on the table “compliments of the chef,” and the family consensus was that Stranger No. 7 knew what he was doing in the kitchen.

Thank you, Mateo — for the portrait sessions, the good conversation, and the fantastic food. I hope you like this picture better than the first. And I wish you luck with making The Hatch a mainstay of the Paso Robles food scene. I doubt you’ll need it though….