By age four, Chef Matt Smith said he’d already learned from his many babysitters that doing things the hardest way possible tasted a lot better than the food his parents cooked in a microwave.
For the four-year-old, grating parmesan cheese instead of buying pre-grated cheese in a bag showed him another world of cooking. But that didn’t mean the road to becoming a chef was a direct path.
Learning precision cooking techniques
During his college years at San Diego State in Southern California, chefs at restaurants where he worked often discouraged Smith from pursuing a culinary career.
“They told me to go to school, that cooking isn’t the best job in the world, that there’s other jobs that pay more for less work,” he said.
After earning a business management degree, Smith continued working in restaurants and met Jason Shaeffer, chef and owner of Windsor’s Chimney Park, who at the time was the chef at Laurel Restaurant and Bar, a fine dining establishment in an iconic San Diego building. With Shaeffer’s coaching and encouragement, Smith made the jump from California to France to study at the world-renowned cooking school, Le Cordon Bleu.
After stints at Michelin-starred restaurants in France and Spain, including Taillevent, a three-star Michelin where America’s celebrated chef, Thomas Keller, got his start, Smith was ready to return home to California.
He brought with him the sort of experience you earn through repetition.
“You’re trying to make things perfect to garnish a plate, and the way to do that is with consistency and repetition. Everything needed to be made identical and as uniform as possible, even though you’re manipulating things made by nature,” Smith said.
He also discovered how to look at food when tradition and rules get taken out of the equation.
While working under Chef Martín Berasategui in northern Spain, Smith learned to create foams and other unique presentations on three-dimensional plates using cutting edge cooking techniques that followed the molecular gastronomy school of thought.
“We were playing with the physical nature of foods. In France, we trashed the tomato seeds; in Spain we used just the seeds of a tomato and tossed the fruit,” he said.
On his return to the states, Smith worked as sous chef in several San Diego restaurants, trying to find his voice by using French fundamentals with modern techniques mixed in.
Smith stayed in contact with Shaeffer after his mentor moved to Colorado, making the decision to follow because Smith and his wife, Nicole, weren’t pleased with California’s school system. He became head chef at Door 222 in Loveland and also opened Locality in Fort Collins.
But the idea of being able to do his own thing began to take precedence, and for Smith that meant fried chicken sandwiches.
Following in Thomas Keller’s enormous footsteps: The best fried chicken
Keller had opened Bouchon, a French bistro in Napa Valley, California, next to his three-Michelin star restaurant, the French Laundry, likely the country’s top fine dining spot.
“At Bouchon, Keller was doing fried chicken one day a week. It was amazing and he found he’d tapped into a market that didn’t exist,” Smith said.
By the end of 2016, Smith had evolved the concept and made it his own, opening Backyard Bird Chicken & Donuts in 2018 in a food trailer designed by his wife.
He uses chicken thighs that are lemon brined and marinated in yogurt—that process takes 48 hours. The chicken is then tossed two times in organic flour and a house crafted spice blend before frying.
Smith finds that dark meat absorbs flavor better than breasts because of fat content.
“In a lot of sandwiches, the chicken is bland and they add stuff on top. We wanted the chicken to be the star of the show. So we have to brine, marinade, flour, flour again —we make things take the full process.”
That’s why Backyard Bird’s Nashville Hot version isn’t so spicy that all you’ll taste is your mouth on fire. He wants patrons to taste the bird, not just the sauce it’s bathed in.
The chicken Smith uses is an all-natural boneless Red Bird Farms product that’s never frozen, is cage-free and fed a gluten free vegetarian diet. Local honey in the brine and on the glaze adds a distinct flavor-forward caramelization to the crisped breading that, like the chicken, retains an underlying sweetness.
Smith’s classic French training trickles down to the smallest of side dishes, from thick, crunchy waffle fries served with garlic aioli to creamy deviled eggs sprinkled with pickled mustard seeds.
Take one bite of an egg and you’ll taste his years of experience working with seasoned and celebrated world-class chefs.
But Smith is very down to earth. He said the eggs made sense from a sustainability concept.
“We haven’t gone super farm-to-table, but if you have chicken you should have chicken eggs. And along with fried chicken, it’s the classic southern picnic thing.”
The donut angle of the brick-and-mortar in Timnath also made business sense.
“We looked at traffic counts on I-25, and found there were about 15,000 cars a day passing by our Timnath location. Most of it was commuter traffic, and we asked ourselves, ‘How many chicken sandwiches can you sell in the morning?’” Smith explained. “Timnath is very family oriented, we weren’t going to get a late-night crowd so instead we extended operational hours by going earlier with the donuts.”
Smith brings his passion for cooking and partners that with dedication to the Timnath community where he lives with his family. He admits that he’s not interested in serving the cheapest chicken sandwich. But he promises it’ll be the best fried chicken sandwich you’ve ever tasted.
To Go: Backyard Bird Chicken + Donuts
Where: 4650 Signal Tree Dr., Suite 1900, Timnath, CO 80547
Hours: 11:00 a.m. – 2:00 p.m., 4:30 p.m – 7:30 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday | 8:00 a.m. – 7:30 p.m. Friday – Sunday | Closed Monday-Tuesday
Contact: 970-682-1962 | firstname.lastname@example.org | Backyard Bird Chicken + Donuts
Eats: Fried chicken, chicken sandwiches with choice of protein (fried chicken thigh, grilled chicken breast, Beyond Burger) | take & bake chicken pot pie | picnic-style and gourmet sides made in-house | donuts, pies, ice cream donut sandwiches | breakfast served Friday-Sunday | coffee, beer, wine | find the food truck on the website for locations | dine-in, delivery, take-out