How Sweet it is: Widener Chef is Tops in Mid Atlantic
Students, staff and faculty who dine regularly in the Pride Café can see the spices and sauces and dressings that bring out and meld the flavors of their foods. The ingredient they can’t see? The love that goes into it, from inside the Widener Dining kitchen.
Executive Chef Matthew Clarke brings it all to his cooking – style, creativity, zest and heart.
“I’ve always enjoyed what I’ve done,” Clarke said. “I am very lucky I was afforded the chance and opportunities to do what I love.”
And the Widener community is lucky, too.
Clarke, a resident of Bellmawr, New Jersey, recently took home top honors at the Aramark Culinary Excellence competition for the mid-Atlantic region.
The competition, styled after the Food Network show “Chopped,” was also attended by six Aramark executive chefs from other regional Pennsylvania institutions, including St. Joseph’s University and Temple University. Clarke’s creation of steak and eggs with a Lebanese twist won him first place. He was judged on everything from his recipe, to his presentation and even his cleanup and work space sanitization.
Next, he moves on to the national competition, slated for July at the Culinary Institute of America in New York City.
A graduate of the Philadelphia Restaurant School, now known as the College at Walnut Hill, Clarke has always worked in a kitchen, starting with his first job as a dishwasher in a Lansdale, Pa. retirement home when he was 14. Staffing issues prompted the head chef to re-examine the talent, and Clarke jokes he was “probably the best dishwasher there.” They put a knife in his hand, gave him a lot of produce, and after six hours of chopping, he was getting the hang of it. It was the first day of the rest of his cooking life.
“I’ve never held a job that wasn’t in the food business,” Clarke said. “I’ve never not cooked.”
He worked around the tri-state area in many aspects of the hospitality business, from institutional food service to fine dining. He joined Aramark Collegiate Hospitality in February 2022 as a regional support chef. That brought him to Widener Dining two days a week.
The Pride stood out.
“I fell in love with the place,” he said. “I love the café. I love the team.”
Six months later he was full time as Widener Dining’s executive chef.
In addition to overseeing the roughly 1,000 meals a day being served in the Pride Café, Clarke also runs the cooking for catered university events. He loves Mediterranean foods and the smells and tastes they bring to the table. He is particularly fond of the Root and True Balance stations in the café, which offer menu options for vegan eaters and those with special dietary considerations – like food allergies. He sees his role on the public floor of the café – when he gets time to venture out of the kitchen – as backing up his chefs who are also giving 110 percent, making diners feel welcome and part of the Widener Dining community.
As for his own plate, he loves a good burger. And yes, he cooks when he goes home, too. But it’s not really work when you love it.
“Whatever is going on in my life, good, bad, great or whatever, I find solace in cooking,” he said.
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