An interview with Matthew J. Tilden, owner of SCRATCHbread.
by Jessica Sennett
Matthew J. Tilden lets his cooking speak for itself. SCRATCHbread, his grassroots style company located in Brooklyn, has developed an intense following serving what Tilden calls “jaw dropping deliciousness” out of a window on the corner of Bedford and Lexington Avenue. Customers stumble upon a continually evolving menu that he describes as “messy and fun,” one where he fuses eclectic handmade bread with tactile, bold dishes. The “Hot Meatball Sandwich,”which is served on a wheat butter roll encrusted with a Parmesan bottom, is bursting with ground meat, spices, and tomato gravy. His “VegFlat” showcases flatbread topped with colorful house made sauces, pickles, and seasonal organic produce. SCRATCH is a place for casual social gathering. Customers nosh on food at the outdoor standing counter or plop down on two rustic benches. The food is made to be eaten by hand in a moment of carnal glory.
After working for approximately 12 hours, I met Tilden at the kitchen door and on that balmy June Sunday, we wandered to a local bar for coffee and cocktails. Tilden has shied away from public attention, which, he insists, is part of his business philosophy. His food is about the relationship between “the cook” and “the customer”. In the past, he has refused to have his portrait taken in interviews, only featuring his hands and under forearm tattoo, where he branded himself with the company name as a permanent reminder of his ambitions.
Recently, however, Tilden has emerged into the public eye. The photographer Randy Duchaine, captured him in a series of photos exhibited at The Brooklyn Public Library called, Created in Brooklyn. Holding two loaves of Bourbon Wheat bread up to his face as shields, Tilden stares back at the viewer with one clear brown eye, revealing his brown beard and black cloth cap and tee. This is no ordinary baker feeding the surrounding Bed-Stuy community. This guy is pure ninja.
Tilden describes his business model as “anti-bottom line.” His initial inspiration for starting SCRATCH, he says, came from “working for assholes.” Frustrated by the lack of power the employees had been given in his previous high-end culinary jobs made him want to create a different style of food production. He highlighted his priorities on two stout fingers, “customer appreciation and control in the hands of the employees.”
The large “food workshop” kitchen space keeps the energy of the company focused on the vision of creating affordable, multi-dimensional, and nutrient packed feasts. “It’s all about the food, that’s the only thing that matters,” he expressed passionately.
Despite the fact that in the past, Tilden found baking too precise for his style of cooking, he was able to recognize bread and pastry as the perfect medium for his own fledgling company. Tilden brings an intuitive, handcrafted approach to the food he produces, starting – but not ending – with bread. He describes bread as “the world’s most modest superpower.” Any type of flour combined with salt, water, and yeast is the cheapest access point to the food revolution, a perfect platform for a businessman with no starting capital and loads of creative vision.
Tilden’s culinary perspective is deeply connected to his larger appreciation for artistic expression. As a former musician who discovered an empowered sense of self through singing and engaging with his audience, he views food as the most universal source of nourishment that ignites all of the senses. His goal is to blow the mind of the eater. “I see how people eat,” he says, “and working backwards, I concentrate on your reaction before I make the product.” From the beginning to end of the meal, Tilden views the culinary process as a deepening awareness. Through taste and texture, our expectation and perception interacts with our senses creating a passionate, visceral reality.
“Fuck the rules,” he advises intensely, staring me directly in the eye. This piece of advice beats at the heart of his satiating alchemical processes. For Tilden, it has been his intuitive gut and pure drive that has made his dream a reality.
Jessica Sennett is a freelance cheese educator and food project builder. She is using The New School to create a program combining food writing, the arts, and community development. To learn more about her cheese making ventures, you can visit: cheeseinthecity.com
Photo by Randy Duchaine.