In the kitchen with...

Chef Pat Mathias of The Grape Tap

Story by Amy Armstrong

Photography by Tyler Olson, R&R Productions

She is downright “fussy” about everything that affects the quality of the appetizers and meals served at The Grape Tap restaurant in Wasilla. Pat Mathias, head chef since the restaurant’s opening in 2009, lets nothing slide on her watch and she trains the sous chef under her to retain the same standard.

“The first thing the customer sees is the way that food looks on the plate,” she says. “Even before they take a bite out of it, the dish has to look good. When that food goes out, it has to make the customer go ‘oh, wow,’ or we are in trouble.”

Presentation meal after meal, night after night must be consistent – especially at a place with the high number of return patrons The Grape Tap enjoys.

About a month ago, a new employee was learning how to expedite orders – basically the kitchen world’s way of explaining the process of putting the finishing touches on the food and plate.

It was a small thing that was wrong – the floret of wasabi wasn’t large enough.

The new guy was going to let it slide, but that didn’t cut the mustard – er um, wasabi – for Pat.

“We don’t take shortcuts here,” she says.

For Pat, ingredient care is paramount. It begins with picky standards that food suppliers have learned to meet if they want her continued business. It continues with immediate proper handling and storage of ingredients as they arrive at the restaurant. It carries through to plate presentations that have earned The Grape Tap rave reviews in Fodor’s Travel Review, on Trip Advisor and on Yelp.

In her 40-plus years as a culinary professional, Pat’s career has taken her from the Florida Keys to Charleston, South Carolina, before coming to Alaska.

She loved the seafood of the East Coast, but was pleasantly surprised when introduced to Alaskan halibut and salmon.

In fact, she pretty much fell in love.

Halibut is her go-to Alaskan fish. Its versatility and flaky texture won over the cook who spent decades enjoying the best seafood the Florida Keys offered.

“You can do anything with it,” she says with a sincere bit of joy in her voice as she quickly lists some of her favorite ways to prepare the white fish.

Blackened halibut is one of the thick layers in her seafood lasagna recipe that puts a seriously Alaskan spin on a traditional Italian dish.

Yet it is scallops that provide the basis for her culinary claim to fame.

To be more specific, the recipe is titled, “Moroccan Scallops.” The seared Alaskan sea scallops are done with a Moroccan rub and served over a cambozola cream sauce. It is the dish the critics write about.

While nothing is left to chance in a kitchen headed by Pat, her start in the culinary arts occurred by a lark. She loved to cook and entertain. A friend of hers was starting a restaurant and the chef initially hired bailed.
“My friend said to me, ‘hey, you want to cook in a restaurant?’ ” Pat recalls.

At the time, she had no idea how fulfilled she would eventually be in a decades-long culinary career.
“Running a kitchen was just like having a dinner party every night,” she says.

For other diners, the draw is the romantic setting provided in the restaurant's downstairs area with its stonework walls and more private table settings. Table 40 is tucked under the stairwell and is booked well in advance by patrons seeking an intimate spot to celebrate an anniversary.

Word has gotten out about the restaurant’s food and romantic setting. USA Today named it Alaska’s most romantic restaurant in 2017 and Food and Wine Magazine honored it as this year’s pick state-by-state.

“People like coming here to a place that does not give them the feel of a typical restaurant,” Pat says. “We also make sure to serve them food that is far from typical.”