Mammoth chef made his reputation selling food … at a gas station
Matt Toomey is 48 years old. He’s been cooking in restaurants for approximately 35 years, meaning he’s worked in a professional kitchen since he was 13 or 14 years old.
He is currently the owner/operator of Toomey’s Restaurant.
He made his name locally at the Tioga Mobil Mart in Lee Vining, where he garnered much acclaim as the chef behind the greatest gas station food in the world at the “Whoa Nellie Deli.”
Toomey, who spent many years in Whiskey’s kitchen (“I got a job at the first place I applied and stayed there 11 years.”) said “people teased me incessantly when I went to work over at the Mobil Mart, serving food at a gas station. But being the butt of a joke is entertaining … you know, you must be doing something right to get teased like that.”
It was a Whiskey Creek bartender who dubbed him “Tioga Toomey.”
Two years ago, he opened Toomey’s Restaurant in the Village at Mammoth, or if not technically in the Village, close enough. He also has a successful catering business.
The genesis for this article occurred a few weeks ago when I stopped in and had a casual chat with the chef, and he began talking a little bit about what I’ll describe here as Toomey’s Zen and the Art of the Kitchen.
“I don’t recall everything I tell people, so if I repeat myself, it’s much easier if they [the crew] just say, ‘yes, captain’ versus saying, ‘geez, you know, you already told me that.’ Because it just disrupts the flow. And it’s unnecessary.”
As Toomey added, he’s not trying to criticize or belittle someone by suggesting they didn’t hear him the first time. It’s not about them. It’s about him going over his own mental checklist. And if he’s got people who buy into the team (Doc Rivers called it ‘ubuntu’ when the Celtics won the NBA title in 2008), he says, it’s not only amazing what you can accomplish, but it’s also just amazing how it makes you feel.
He also doesn’t believe in closing during the shoulder seasons. He likes to keep people working.
“Everyone’s on the same level here … from the chef to the dishwasher. I believe in purpose-driven activity versus outcome-driven. I have a lot of people who work at Toomey’s who don’t even consider it work. They love coming in. And when you have that, the outcome takes care of itself.”
At this moment, Jason who works at Suddenlink pops into the kitchen, where Toomey has been preparing potato salad while we talk. Jason tells Toomey he needs to get an eggs benedict dish on the menu. Jason exits.
“People walk back to the kitchen all the time,” says Toomey. “And the 80|50 owners often come down, sometimes looking to borrow a mixing bowl or a stick of butter. We’re their back-up kitchen.”
Toomey cultivates that neighborhood vibe. He knows all the coming-and-going is not a good match for his self-acknowledged A.D.D., but he likes people and he likes establishing personal connections with his customers.
Approximately 50% of Toomey’s winter business comes from 80|50 owners.
Sheet: Are you a perfectionist?
Toomey: Yes and no … it’s really more about being prepared. My biggest fear is disappointing a customer because I’m not ready. Generally, I always show up to catering jobs early. I’d rather just be there and hang out and make sure … The ironic thing is, I was never prepared in high school. I was a classic class clown. My teachers liked me, but they still had to fail me … When it comes to food, preparation is just a necessity. You’re constantly managing it, keeping it fresh and moving it out the door.
One thing about Toomey, you’ll never see him without his traditional Kansas City Royals ballcap on. And when you walk into Toomey’s, you’ll see baseball paraphernalia all over the place, including the framed photograph of Toomey and former major league left-hander David Wells on the previous page.
Toomey went to high school with Wells.
He also played ball, but not beyond high school.
“I didn’t realize how much I loved baseball ‘til I moved [to Mammoth],” said the Point Loma, Calif. native. “Because I couldn’t go to the stadium anymore.” The stadium being the San Diego Padres former home, Jack Murphy Stadium.
Though, oddly, he says he grew up a Royals fan.
Which was a curveball to me. I figured he was a Royals fan based on the friendship he’s struck up with Mike Sweeney, a former Royals star whom Toomey met over a chicken sandwich at the Whoa Nellie Deli several years ago.
Nope. Independent occurrence.
“I wish I could be more like him [Sweeney]” says Toomey. “One of the most amazing people I’ve ever met.”
Toomey says he quit Whiskey Creek in the spring of that 11th year in Mammoth. He had no backup plan. He poured concrete for a month but found he missed being in the kitchen. “I like to be with people who like to have a good time and make food,” he says simply.
If there are two things that help you understand Matt Toomey, it is this. 1.) He loves his children, now ages 6 & 8 respectively. He likes spending time with them and being active in their lives. 2.) He says simply, “It is a privilege to work.” And he means it.
“The Latino community [in Mammoth] has taught me so much. They’ll go out and get three jobs … they’re the hungriest people I’ve ever met, out there every day, hustling. And if they’re not working, they’re looking for work.
“You’d be surprised, if you got up and went to work every day, where that would take you.
“So many people say they moved here to ski … well, I moved here to win the lottery, but until that happens, I better get to work.”
And we say our goodbyes. And he gets back to work.