Q&A with Matthew Janney

A man dressed in a black t-shirt and black pants, with black glasses, standing with his arms crossed across his chest
Fat Uncle's Matthew Janney
The youthful and enthusiastic Muncie native with a veteran’s knowledge of global cuisine talks the family meals of his youth, misperceptions about Asian food, and the return of his festive Singaporean food stall–themed pop-ups, Fat Uncle.

Where did you get the idea for Fat Uncle?
It was a long time coming. My interest has always been on world food, and a lot of my restaurant experience has been in Asian restaurants. I love the hawker stalls in East Asia that serve a variety of snacks and drinks in a very casual setting, with cooks preparing dishes right in front of diners. In many Asian countries, if you don’t know a person’s name, you’ll call them “Aunt” or “Uncle.” And while your grandmother or mom passes down cooking essentials, an aunt or uncle often has a quick trick or two up their sleeve that can make your food fun. I wanted a forum where I could bring all of these things together.

Most of your travel in Asia has been in Singapore. What do you particularly like about that country’s cuisine?
The diversity of the country and its cuisine really appeals to me. And, of course, Anthony Bourdain pretty much put its culinary scene on the map, so that made me want to visit. I love how there are large groups of Chinese and Indian people alongside indigenous Malays. It’s a completely food-obsessed culture, and the food pulls from so many different traditions. Every corner seems to have a food stall, and you might get an old-school Malay dish for lunch or Indian food for breakfast. You could eat five times a day, often for only $5 a meal, and you’d be hard pressed to eat the same thing for a year or more.

It’s not just the cuisine but the culture of the food stall that inspires you. What aspects of the hawker centers are you trying to recreate with Fat Uncle?
I love that the stalls are so intergenerational. You’ll have the son up front taking orders, Dad doing the heavy lifting with Mom helping out, and the grandparents in the back doing some light prep and making sure that everything is to tradition. In line at the stall will be a banker in a suit, an old pensioner, and some hipster kids. It’s a colorful but oddly comforting atmosphere, and I want to create that atmosphere at my pop-ups, as well as the diversity of flavors and influences in the dishes.

Was food a big part of your life growing up?
My mother was just a decent home cook, but she was very insistent about family meals. We couldn’t eat in front of the television, and she was committed to having dinner together, as well as lunch and breakfast on the weekends. My mother grew up with a Bangladeshi family that had a strong food culture, and she imparted a love of food on me. Whenever we’d come to Indy, she’d be sure to find some international food for us to try out.

How did that translate into your first restaurant jobs?
Growing up, I always saw myself as something like an archaeologist or a world historian. But food was my backup plan if that didn’t work. And in many ways, what I have done in restaurants has been a study in history, culture, and ethnicity. I worked in an Indian restaurant first and then Tuppee Tong Thai Restaurant in Muncie. It serves a lot of popular Thai-American dishes, but they always made really authentic Thai food for the staff lunches. I’ve loved helping with those staff meals wherever I’ve cooked.

What are some things American diners don’t understand about Asian food?
The biggest thing that gets lost in translation is that food is a lot more social in most Asian cultures. Like, the rice is yours, but all the dishes are for the table. This is really smart and fun, as every meal becomes a little buffet for the table. At several of the restaurants where I’ve cooked, the Asian customers would come in and get a much wider variety of dishes and share them together at the table. American diners might be a little more adventurous knowing that they won’t be stuck with just one dish they don’t like.

Your Fat Uncle pop-up has mostly been in collaboration with other local restaurants. How do you go about choosing a space?
I did my first pop-up last November at Half Liter BBQ & Beer Hall, since they had a second restaurant space that wasn’t being used certain days, and I knew Blake Ellis from opening Repeal. Of course, I had to put the dinners on hold when restaurants started shutting down in the spring, but it’s been fun to start planning and get them going again. Part of the fun of the challenge is seeing what other chefs want to get involved and where there are opportunities in pre-existing kitchens.

You’ve worked recently at Smoking Goose Meatery in the raw room curing bacon and ham. What is your next full-time direction?
I have really enjoyed taking a break from restaurants and cooking other people’s food. I’m pretty young, but I’ve already worked for a decade in restaurant kitchens. Of course, I still pickle and cure things at home and do some little cooking experiments. And I’m sure a friend will open up a new place and pull me in to fill some creative need. But maybe I should start my own restaurant one of these days.”