In 2002, after more than a decade working in the world of high tech, Ed Matthews was ready for a change. He found it in perhaps the unlikeliest of places and now, 15 years later, he has reached the pinnacle of his profession in a field where he had no previous experience.
Matthews, chef and Winchester restaurant One Block West, has been honored several times by Best Chefs America and has done his best to put the Northern Shenandoah Valley on the culinary map.
“When I bought the place in 2002,” Matthews said recently, “it showed every sign of the cashflow crunch that the former owner had been in.
“From the beginning, I knew that I would be sourcing as much as possible locally and changing the menu nightly in response to the local products coming in the door. It took a few weeks to stabilize cashflow, recruit and train a good staff, and to build the supplier network. Fifteen years later, the restaurant is rolling along just fine.”
One Block West draws food enthusiasts from up and down the East Coast, drawn by its farm-to-table philosophy as well as its Chef’s Whim tasting menu – which, according to Matthews, is unique among restaurants in the Shenandoah Valley. For $75 apiece, patrons agree to eat whatever Matthews prepares for them, paired with a diverse selection of wines from Virginia and beyond.
“I don’t know of any other restaurants in this region that are doing what we are doing,” Matthews said, “but I also only worry about what I am doing and not what others are doing. There are a few others of us in the country, but we are few and far between.
constantly changing menu is more than most people want to take on. The Chef’s Whim, in which we create a custom 7-course menu for guests, is a vast amount of work. It keeps us on our toes, for sure.”
According to the restaurant’s website, www.oneblockwest.com, Matthews is a native Virginian who graduated from the University of Virginia in 1984. He worked at IBM for awhile before moving on to various software startup businesses in the Washington, D.C., area. He purchased One Block West despite having no formal training as a chef.
What he did have in his favor, however, was a lifetime spent cooking and several years spent studying many of the world’s major cuisine. Most of the menu at One Block West varies from one night to the next. But, according to Matthews, there’s less change now than there was in the beginning.
“We have a lot more carryover now than we did a decade ago,” he said. “Ten and fifteen years ago, we changed 75 percent or more of the menu each day. Now, we actually aim not to change more than about 25-30 percent a day. We are doing a lot more complicated dishes now than ever, and it takes a lot of prep to bring each of them off.
“But more importantly, we now live in an age of social media. Customers are constantly posting dishes that they have eaten to social media, and that is driving other customers to want those dishes when they come in. So we have actually had to slow down menu turnover to satisfy that demand.”
Nonetheless, planning a mostly new menu each day does make things interesting for Matthews and his staff. “As you would imagine, it is challenging,” he said. “But it also keeps us sharp and constantly thinking about new dishes. At this point, it is just a normal part of our routine that we sit down with coffee first thing in the morning and plan out a menu. We don’t really think of it as a challenge; it is merely what we do.”
The menu is compiled based on ingredients One Block West has on hand, and there’s no shortage of possibilities to choose from.
“Our farmers and foragers bring us the best of what they have,” said Matthews, “and from those ingredients, we make a menu. Same for seafood. I don’t ask my brokers to send me a particular fish. I tell them, “Send me the highest quality, most local fish that was landed in the last 24 hours.” We work from the ingredients on hand.
But we also have one of the best-stocked pantries of any restaurant anywhere so that we are always ready to go wherever our whim takes us.”
One Block West’s location in the heart of downtown Winchester has its advantages as well as its disadvantages, according to Matthews.
“The pros are great,” he said, “(a) vibrant restaurant and arts community, $7 million investment in the new walking mall, relatively sane working hours, extremely close proximity to our farmers, within an easy drive of Pittsburgh, Baltimore, Northern Virginia, and D.C. The cons: we’re in Winchester which is just a little outside the comfort zone of a casual drive for dinner from Northern Virginia.
People have to commit to a weekend out here. The Washington Post, Washingtonian magazine and Northern Virginia magazines—the ones with food critics that could really put us on the map—don’t know that Winchester exists.”
Still, restaurant enthusiasts from a wide geographical area manage to find their way here.
“We are and almost always have been a destination restaurant,” said Matthews. “That is, food-motivated people have always made the drive to Winchester to dine here. Our clientele typically comes from major metro areas up and down the East Coast, from New York City to Atlanta.
“Winchester is a convenient stopping point for people driving I-81. We have many regulars who live all over the East Coast and stop in during their travels. Really, our clientele hasn’t changed very much over the years, but it seems that there are more people than ever who are looking for our local and seasonal cuisine.”
As much as Matthews enjoys his profession and his unique approach to cooking, he knows it’s probably not for everyone.
“It takes a certain level of insanity to do what I do,” he said. “I source from about 15-20 local vendors, and that’s a bit like herding cats. Most chefs are going to want to pick up the phone and deal with a single vendor. I understand that, but if you are driven like I am to provide the best food experience as possible, as a chef, you will do whatever you have to, to make that happen. Also, my business model does not scale very well; it is suited to a boutique restaurant, and there are few places where you can make a go of a boutique restaurant.”
Matthews has pondered the possibility of opening other restaurants, but he said he’s happy with having one location and the satisfaction it brings.
“Some days, I wonder if there is any inspiration left in the tank,” Matthews said, “but each time a new ingredient, say the first asparagus of the year, walks in the door, my mind starts riffing on what we could do with it.
“I certainly enjoy this part of my job—the creative part—more than ever. The physical labor of 12- to 14-hour days gets harder with each passing year. Over the years, I have explored opening several new restaurants, but I believe that my customers deserve me being in the kitchen, and I cannot do that in multiple locations. After 15 years, I am finally at peace with a single location and not having a restaurant empire.”
Matthews has pondered retirement, but, he said, it’s not on the horizon at this point.
“The end is in sight, but I’m not sure when just yet. My kids are all in college or beyond, the nest is empty and I am getting closer and closer to retirement age by the day. There isn’t any concrete plan, but I will know when the time is right.”
Matthews is quick to share the credit for his success, and that of his restaurant, with his staff. “On average, there are about eight of us who deliver the magic to customers,” he said.
“We have very little employee turnover. My roles are crazy: I’m the owner, bookkeeper, IT guy, web guy, social media guy and blogger, chef, line cook, procurer in chief, and Mr. Fix-It.
“Over the years, I have passed most of the prep work, managing the wine and beer lists and managing the servers to my staff, but there’s still enough work in what I do to keep three people fully occupied.”
Matthews said he also appreciates the roles his suppliers and, above all, his customers have played in making One Block West the unique restaurant it is today.
“It has been an enormous pleasure to build and maintain now for 15 years a signature destination in Old Town Winchester that draws people to our lovely community,” he said. “I am grateful for the opportunity to have met so many wonderful farmers who are now friends, friends who bring us amazing products.
“And I am really pleased that our extended family of customers, many of whom are also personal friends, spans the length of the East Coast.”
One Block West is open Tuesday through Thursday from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. and from 5-8:30 p.m., and Friday and Saturday from 11-2 and 5-9. It is closed Sunday and Monday. For more information or to make reservations, call 540-662-1455.