Columbus, Ohio USA
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Matthew Litzinger carries on 20-year tradition of fine dining
By Karen Edwards
March/April 2013 Issue
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Twenty years is a long time, especially in an area like the Short North where bars, restaurants and boutiques seem to come and go at lightning speed. Places that have managed to stay around the neighborhood for two decades, however, add a sense of tradition and stability to the area. It’s like attending your spouse’s high school reunion and finding one of your own classmates there. Familiarity breeds content. Yet sometimes, that classmate is there with a new spouse.
Photo | Erica Woodrum ©
Such is the case at L’Antibes, the unassuming, classically French restaurant that has occupied the same real estate – at 772 N. High St. – for 20 years. Back then, L’Antibes was owned by partners Dale Gussett and Larry Williamson. Gussett ran the kitchen, Williamson the front of the house. Both were with the restaurant for 15 of its now 20 years in business. When the pair decided to retire, they wanted the restaurant to continue, so instead of shuttering its doors they went out in search of a new owner.
Enter Matthew Litzinger. You know how when you start a conversation with someone’s new spouse, you find there are striking similarities to the old one? Like Gussett, Litzinger was trained at the esteemed Culinary Institute of America (CIA) in Hyde Park, New York. Like Gussett, Litzinger also likes to cook classic food well – eschewing the kinds of trendy menus you’ll often find at other Columbus dining spots.
But make no mistake, Litzinger is very much his own person – and his own chef. It seems he has leaned in the direction of food preparation from an early age.
Litzinger grew up in Clintonville with his divorced father, an older brother and younger sister. “Dad would take us out to eat,” Litzinger recalls; and while the present-day chef may have started honing his tastes on the food others cooked, he also recalls a few times when he served as his dad’s sous-chef. Usually soup was on the menu, and Litzinger was charged with
attending to it while it was on the stove, stirring it, always in a certain way. “There is no special way to stir soup,” Litzinger says with a laugh. “But my dad was convinced there was.”
After graduating from high school, Litzinger was off to Miami University to pursue a career in – no, not the culinary arts or hospitality. He was there as a music education major. He was a trumpet player, and good enough to have earned a full scholarship at Miami. But his heart wasn’t in it. To Litzinger’s credit, he stayed with the program long enough to come within a few credits of graduating. But as his counselor told him, “You’ve as good as graduated. Don’t waste another minute doing something you don’t really want to do.” So Litzinger left Miami and applied to the CIA. He has never looked back. The kitchen is where he belongs, a lesson he learned along with those classic cooking techniques at the CIA – but also at Manhattan’s Brasserie 8 ½ where he interned. “That’s what really convinced me I was in the right field, that this was something I wanted to do for the rest of my life,” he says.
Saved from the seas
He returned to Columbus in 2008 and started to cook around town in a variety of kitchens – the Short North’s R.J. Snapper and the North Star Café. He even did a stint as guest chef for Cirque de Soleil when it was in town. But he wanted his own place. If he couldn’t find it here, he’d move to a large city and cook there.
What he did find eventually was a chef’s job on the Holland America cruise lines that sails from Seattle. “This isn’t a cruise ship that focuses on quantity of food,” he says. Holland America attracts a more discerning clientele, and meals on the ship are equivalent to a fine dining experience. Litzinger had his bags packed and was within days of leaving for Seattle when his father came home with some news. Larry Williamson had been an accountant for Litzinger’s dad for years, and the two had kept in touch. “He told me that L’Antibes was for sale,” says Litzinger.
For Litzinger, L’Antibes was perfect. It’s a small restaurant – 32 seats – so it isn’t overwhelming for a new chef-owner, and it came with a solid reputation in the community. Plus it attracts a clientele that likes the kind of classic food Litzinger prefers to cook. He bought the place – and unpacked his bags.
“I did some renovation. I wanted to make the space look brighter,” he says. The old lilac walls were painted with fresh coats of paint, aptly named “pastry cream.” New chairs were purchased, the kitchen renovated, a new patio built. By 2009, L’Antibes was operational again – this time, with Litzinger in the kitchen.
The Litzinger kitchen
Sous chef Branden Weigel
Photo | Erica Woodrum ©
If there is one thing you should know about Chef Matt Litzinger it’s this: He is a serious chef, one who is passionate about what he does. In his off-hours, if he’s not with family or working out with a trainer, he is thinking about food – new combinations of ingredients, new preparation methods, new ways to compose a plate.
At L’Antibes, he has taken Gussett’s classic French approach to food and has brought it into the 21st-century. Kathy and Larry Lane of Bexley eat frequently at L’Antibes, and have for all of its 20 years. “We ate at L’Armagnac before that,” says Kathy, referring to Gussett’s former Columbus restaurant. She and her husband admire what Matt has done to preserve the tradition of L’Antibes – but they also like the small differences.
“Matt has brought the restaurant forward,” says Kathy. “He’s more adventurous with his menus.”
And he knows when to break with tradition. Where Gussett arranged food on an array of plates in the traditional French style, Litzinger plates food components together, but always with an eye for how they complement each other. “Every item on the plate should work together,” says Litzinger. It must shine in its own way, to be sure, but it must also enhance the taste experience of every other item on the plate. That’s a plating style that takes thought, care, and an encyclopedic understanding of tastes, flavors, and how to blend them.
There’s another difference between the Gussett and Litzinger kitchens. Where Gussett followed the classic preparations, Litzinger simplifies them. Take sweetbreads, for example. They’re one of the most popular dishes at L’Antibes – “because you don’t find many restaurants around town serving them,” says Litzinger, and face it, you probably won’t make them at home. Gussett blanched his sweetbreads before sautéing them. Litzinger puts the sweetbreads right in the sauté pan in their natural state. The sweetbreads are one of Larry Lane’s favorites. “Dale served his sweetbread with a classic lemon-white wine-caper sauce,” he says. Litzinger spoons on a sherry buerre blanc.
The menu at L’Antibes changes once a week – though some dishes never leave because they are customer favorites, the sweetbreads and foie gras, for example. Everything on the menu, however, reflects what’s best in the market. Litzinger shops at North Market and brings in produce from the Chef’s Garden near Cleveland. It isn’t so much a case of cooking seasonally, he says, as it is cooking according to the best ingredients available on any specific week. “You can get great ingredients any time of the year,” he says, even if those ingredients aren’t currently in season. And while he tries to shop locally and sustainably, it all comes down to quality. Litzinger won’t put just any ingredient on a plate, even if it is local. It has to be the best example he can find.
“My style is to source high-quality ingredients, cook them simply so the flavors are clean and the ingredients speak for themselves,” he says.
The Litzinger style
Litzinger doesn’t regret staying in Columbus – or buying L’Antibes, even though he was only days away from work on the high seas. His family is here and he’s close with them. Besides, he had an objective. He wanted to be part of a Columbus restaurant scene that shows diners what quality food and fine dining can look and taste like.
“At the Basserie, we didn’t cook from recipes or from instruction sheets,” he says. The chef would approach the cooks and simply explain to them what he wanted – carmelize onions to a golden brown, slowly simmer a sauce to a rich, deep brown. It was as much an education as the CIA classes. That’s the way cooking should be done, Litzinger says, not according to a recipe but according to experience and with an understanding and affinity for food. “Recipes are only guidelines,” he says. “You need to know the chemistry of food and how it meets and comes together.” Just as the chef at the Brasserie taught Litzinger, he is teaching the four cooks in his own kitchen. It’s a crash course in becoming a chef. If they want to add their own innovation, that’s fine with him. He welcomes the creativity. He encourages it.
There are four to five people who work the front of L’Antibes – who make sure that each diner is attended to. “Matt has done a great job at finding the right people to be servers,” says Kathy Lane. Special requests are met with a smile – and if that means having a supply of guinea hens on hand for a regular customer (even though they aren’t on the menu), so be it. Litzinger’s only reservation is with diners who complain about portion sizes. Portions at L’Antibes may seem small compared to other restaurants that pile on food and are happy to send diners home with a doggie bag. But when food is carefully selected and prepared with care, a single bite will seem more satisfying then quantities. If portions are a concern, says Litzinger, order more courses. “Enjoy yourself when you go out to eat,” he says. But don’t expect him to pile food onto a plate. That’s not his style.
“The portion sizes are just right,” say the Lanes. “It’s the one place I can go where I feel like I have room for dessert at the end of the meal,” says Larry Lane.
L’Antibes attracts an array of professionals and celebrants from nearby and from out-of-town as well. There has been a marriage there – “L’Antibes was the couple’s first date,” Litzinger says – plus some disappointment. “There was one man who proposed to a woman over dinner and she told him no,” says Litzinger. The jilted groom-wannabe left abruptly, leaving her with the bill. “When word got back to me in the kitchen, I thought, ‘Well, if that’s the way he treats her, she probably made the right choice. But why would you ask someone to marry you in public if you weren’t sure of the answer?”
Litzinger has a fiancée – a ballerina who is presently auditioning for ballet companies. For the new chef-owner of L’Antibes, it’s a full life, and as long as food is at the center of it, he’s happy. “Work is part of my life. It’s something I enjoy. It’s a hobby I get paid for,” he says.
In the future, Litzinger will focus on growing his business and increasing his success. His company, Chef Concepts, could roll into consulting work over time, and he hopes to expand into other restaurants in other parts of the city. He also dreams of putting together a panel of like-minded chefs who would come together to create and innovate new food concepts.
But for the moment, it’s the present that he focuses on. “I hope people who leave L’Antibes can say that their fine dining experience enhanced their lives. I hope they can say they received thoughtful, honest food. I hope L’Antibes increases support for fine dining in Columbus.”
The Lanes are happy to concur with all of that, and Kathy Lane adds her own comment. “It’s one of the city’s hidden gems.”
Gussett would no doubt be pleased with Litzinger and the restaurant he’s created. Even after 20 years, the L’Antibes tradition carries on.
L’Antibes, 772 N. High St., is open Tuesday through Thursday 5 – 9, Friday and Saturday, 5 – 10. Visit www.lantibes.com
© 2013 Short North Gazette, Columbus, Ohio. All rights reserved.
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