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Chef Phillips: Playing with Fire

Photo Courtesy of Roanoke College

Photo Courtesy of Roanoke College

by David Hall

Chef Matt Phillips is a familiar face around Roanoke College. As Head Chef, even those who do not recognize him know all about the food that comes out of his kitchen. In an interview, Phillips discusses what students may not know about his life in and outside of his time at Roanoke College.

It was a mutual friend that forged Matt Phillips and his future to go on a date while at school in Montpelier, Vermont.

“We went out and went to a coffee shop and there were no inhibitions,” said, now Chef, Phillips. “I [laid] everything out on the table, like this is who I am. You can take it or not. Then we went to a movie. The day had started off a fairly pretty, Vermont late fall day, and when we left the movie it was snowing. It was beautiful and we walked a mile home hand and hand and it wasn’t uncomfortable.”

Phillips said his life as family man is what occupies most of his time when he’s not busy as the executive chef of the college. He has three kids: two boys, ages eight and ten, and a daughter who just turned two.

Around that age, Phillips said, life around the house can get hectic sometimes.

“It’s like non stop action all the time. I’m in the high maintenance portion of life at work as well as home at the moment. It’s all good…I wouldn’t trade it for anything.”

Phillips was born in Cave Spring, and from a very young age, around 6 or 7 he began to cook. Even though it would one day become his passion, at the time he cooked because he needed to. His parents divorced when he was young, around 5-years-old, and they were busy working hard, putting on the table the food he was learning to prepare.

        Cooking started young, but it would take him some time to make it his profession. After high school, Phillips made a few attempts at traditional college before landing in the food service business.

        “I Started waiting tables just to get by and pay the bills,” Phillips said. “Somehow through an odd series of events, I ended up with a knife in my hand in the kitchen and just found my home. It was what I was passionate about and what I felt like I was meant to do.”

        Phillips is a self described ‘people pleaser,’– a man devoted to making sure everyone he feeds leaves happy. He feels so strongly about this idea that even the smallest percentage of dissatisfaction won’t do.

        “I absolutely take [criticism] personally,” Phillips said. “It makes me want to change [dishes] and make them better. If I feed a thousand kids and 999 of them are happy and one is not, the 999 are not nearly as important to me as the one who wasn’t happy.”

        After spending a little time in the foodservice industry, Phillips decided to attend culinary school at the New England Culinary Institute in Vermont. It was there that Phillips said he met his now wife.

        After getting his bachelor degree in food and beverage management and his associates degree in culinary arts, Phillips said he bounced around the country, working at resorts in Florida, and hotels in Arizona, before being landing at Roanoke College in 2002. It was his first job in a college environment, he said.