In the restaurant biz, it's not just about what you serve

Punch Bowl Social Chef Matt Selby offers some insights

As a Denver native, born and raised, I’ve been lucky to watch my city grow and expand. Over the past two decades, I’ve had the fortune to witness firsthand how far my city has come in terms of the restaurant scene. I mean, here I am at 42, and I’ve been able to see my hometown grow and evolve in so many ways. That alone is something special.

Yet, looking around me and knowing that all of this really started back in the 90s is special, too. There were awesome chefs in Denver way before me, doing what they do and setting the precedent for what was to come. The fact that I was here 20 years ago gives me a pretty cool perspective on how things have changed — both for the city, and for me as a chef.

I started out at Vesta Dipping Grill in the late 90s. It was truly the foundation of my career, and a huge part of my adult life. With owners Jen and Josh Wolkon and the team, we built three successful restaurants together, had appearances on Food Network, and even wrote a cookbook. It was a formative time for me.

In an independent restaurant like Vesta, you learn how to treat people. And I’m not just talking about guests, but staff as well. I learned that hospitality extends beyond the four walls of the restaurant. That it’s about more than the food and drinks you serve, but how you treat the people in your community. Everything I learned at Vesta has continued to guide me — not only professionally, but in all aspects of my life. I still consider those guys my family, and you can’t help but be influenced by your family and the people close to you.

A few years ago, I decided to leave Vesta and start a new chapter by working in other local Denver restaurants. I often liken it to “leaving the nest.” At the time, I felt the need to identify my own voice, as well as my own management style. I think everything happens for a reason, and it was necessary and vital for me to find that voice — and, more importantly, to find some maturation. To grow up a little.

That said, there are several things that drew me to Punch Bowl Social earlier this year. To me, it boils down to the culture, the vibe and the community Punch Bowl Social represents. The concept is hugely hospitality-driven, and I wanted to be here to strengthen that.

If I were to list a few key traits of Punch Bowl Social, the first is that this place is super versatile. Our menu gives guests great food at a great price point. More importantly, it’s just bonkers fun! I love the mix of good food, great drinks and old-school games. You come in here on a Saturday night and the place is practically bursting at the seams. It’s crazy fun, and I love that kind of energy.

Secondly, the concept is durable. I really think it’s made to last. It’s geared toward moving into the future both in and outside of Colorado, and that’s very exciting to think about.

On top of that, while Punch Bowl Social is a fast-growing, emerging brand, our team is very much like a family. I talk with chefs and general managers in the different locations at least once a week. Without a doubt, it’s all about communication. We talk about who we are, what our brand is and how important it is to maintain those values throughout our expansion — and still have fun while doing it.

Sure, there are differences between working at a small, independent restaurant and a growing national concept. For one, our training schedule at Punch Bowl Social is structured with precise steps and procedures, so there’s very little room for improper training. And honestly, that’s been a breath of fresh air. I get to use my leadership skills when it comes to hiring and training, looking for like-minded individuals who appreciate our process, but then have this structure to fall back on. It’s a lot like an independent restaurant, but it’s primed for national growth.

Of course, the next Colorado opening of Punch Bowl Social Stapleton is very exciting for me. I think it’s just going to kill it down there. I can’t wait to see it unfold. It’s been amazing to be part of it from day one, and I think that’s how I’m really going to earn my stripes here. There’s a lot of inspiration in that.

In fact, when people ask me about my inspiration, and I always tell them that it comes from anything and everything. Sometimes I’ll see something that triggers a memory and it translates into a new dish. These days, what charges me creatively is working with numbers. This might involve putting together an opening restaurant training team and then managing our flagship location while that team is away. When it comes to getting things done with time and resource constraints, there is always lots of creativity involved!

If you can’t tell by now, I’m a big picture kind of guy. I’m looking forward to the growth of this company as a whole, and right now, I’m just soaking it all in. I’m loving the fact that I get to share my skills and be a part of it all. Even though I’ve been at this a long time, this is about more than just what I bring to the table. This is a very cool concept that I adore, and I can’t wait to see what this new chapter brings.


Matt Selby is the regional executive chef at Punch Bowl Social. It’s flagship location opened at 65 Broadway in Denver in 2012, and the concept continues to grow across the nation in cities like Austin, Portland, and Indianapolis. Prior to Punch Bowl Social, Selby served as executive chef at Vesta, part of the Secret Sauce restaurant group (Steuben’s, Vesta, and Ace. Eat. Serve.) and executive chef at Central Bistro & Bar.

Categories: Consumer, Industry Trends