Nearly 20 years ago, Matt Robicelli started his career as a first responder in New York City. But after sustaining injuries during 9/11 that required surgery, he decided it was time to switch gears.
“My doctor was like, ‘You’re going to have to pick a profession where you’re not lifting heavy things and being on your feet all day,’” says Robicelli, the newly appointed executive chef of Modern Cook Shop in Fells Point. “So I became a chef, which is still heavy lifting and being on your feet. But I’m not the type to sit behind a computer.”
Following his passion for cooking—which was prompted by hours of experimentation in the kitchen with his mother as a child—Robicelli enrolled in New York’s French Culinary Institute (now dubbed the International Culinary Center), where he graduated in 2003.
He climbed the ranks at hotspots like The City Bakery and The Water Club near Gramercy Park, and eventually opened a Brooklyn bakeshop of his own with his food writer and chef wife, Allison, in 2008.
“We were that typical mom-and-pop business,” he says of Robicelli’s Bakery, which was beloved for its creative concoctions like the signature Nutellasagna. “We were both there every day and did every job of the business from top to bottom.”
Robicelli says that, while the demand was there, the financial side of running a business in New York became too overwhelming. So last year, the couple began their search for a change of scenery—looking into cities like Providence, Rhode Island and eventually visiting Baltimore.
“This city’s got a heart,” Robicelli says. “We came down here and within an hour I was in love with it.”
While the duo originally planned to open a local bakery similar to their now-closed Brooklyn flagship, they were forced to put those plans on hold last year. In the meantime, Robicelli has gotten to work familiarizing himself with the local restaurant scene, most recently serving as executive chef at Trinacria Cafe in Mt. Vernon.
Earlier this month, he was brought on to fine-tune the kitchen operations at Modern Cook Shop, the market-and-restaurant hybrid that opened on South Wolfe Street in Fells Point last year.
The space, operated by Fork & Wrench owners Andy Gruver and Jason Sanchez, features traditional seating, as well as lounge areas, counter service, and a market up front with local produce and prepared foods to go.
Robicelli says that the unique setup was part of what drew him to the position: “It’s basically the restaurant version of create-your-own stories,” he says.
In his new role, the chef is excited to streamline the pastry program (think vegan brownies and a pound cake made with grapefruit bitters), introduce a line of house-pressed juices, expand catering operations, and present an all-day menu with dinner specials that rotate based on what’s in season.
Robicelli plans to offer global dishes inspired by the cultural diversity of his childhood neighborhood of Bay Ridge, a borough in Brooklyn.
“That’s how I grew up,” he says. “My neighborhood was mostly Italian and Irish, but we had kids that were Spanish and Puerto Rican. My best friend was Guyanese. We went to people’s houses for dinner and had food from around the world.”
Changes are expected to begin taking shape in the coming weeks. As the process gets underway, Robicelli is enthusiastic about connecting with customers to gauge feedback.
“We’re looking at every aspect of the restaurant to see what works and what doesn’t,” he says. “We just want people to have a great experience every time they come in.”