Surrounded by the Cajun creole cuisine of his hometown New Orleans, Matt Pace ’07 grew up with an innate passion for food. While he spent his childhood watching the Food Network and experimenting in the kitchen, he certainly never anticipated becoming a chef – let alone one of the few chefs to beat celebrity chef Bobby Flay on the TV show “Beat Bobby Flay.”
After bleeding orange and blue at many Auburn football games and homecomings alongside his dad, Leon Pace ’78, deciding to attend Auburn was a no-brainer for Pace.
A man of many talents, Pace was on the lacrosse team, involved in the art department and sang karaoke at Rooster’s with friends. “Karaoke is what got me through my last year and senior project work,” said Pace with a laugh.
He graduated with a bachelor’s degree in fine arts, with a focus in painting and an open mind for his future. While his parents lived in Nigeria for work, Pace moved to New York on a whim to support his younger brother, who was starting college at St. Johns in Queens. He made bright, graffiti-based art for a while and tried out DJing before realizing his true calling – food.
“I’m still making art, just with food instead of paint,” he said. “Being a chef is being able to be creative and tell a story with different ingredients to make somebody feel something.”
Pace went back to New Orleans, taking cooking classes and honing in on the core of Cajun creole cuisine. He returned to New York, attended restaurant management school and opened his pop-up restaurant Booqoo Beignets. Fame and success came fast to him when he opened Café Booqoo, blowing up the food scene by bringing New Orleans to New York.
The restaurant was such a hit that he once had a line out the door and customers offering to wipe up dirty tables so they could try his food. Pace added, “It was stressful but I loved it.”
On the success of Café Booqoo, The Food Network tracked him down and asked him to cook on the hit show “Beat Bobby Flay.” As he walked onto the set, Pace threw beads up into the crowd as he’d done many times in the streets of New Orleans. But the nerves really set in when he had to cook against Flay. “He’s an Iron Chef with multiple restaurants, and he rarely loses.”
The dish Pace chose for the final battle was a fried lobster po’boy, something he had cooked hundreds of times in his life. The pressure was on — and much worse than he’d anticipated from watching the show.
“When you’re on the show, it’s quiet. It’s just the studio audience staring at you, the sounds of cooking and the clock ticking down.”
When it was all said and done, the judges announced Pace was the winner by unanimous decision.
“The whole experience was surreal, I was shaking. You can see it on my face, I couldn’t believe it. I didn’t go to culinary school, and I always felt like I was one of those people that gives themselves their own name calling themselves a chef. After the win, I realized I beat an internationally-known ‘Iron Chef’ celebrity, and no one can take that from me.”
When “Beat Bobby Flay” was over, Pace began trying to find a new spot for Café Booqoo in New York. Its location was anything but ideal, in a mostly industrial area with minimal foot traffic throughout the day. However, in 2019 Pace decided to close the doors to Café Booqoo in pursuit of new ventures.
About two weeks after closing, love struck and he met his girlfriend, Thani, from Germany.
He plans to move to Germany soon and open a new restaurant there, sticking to authentic Cajun creole cuisine while catering to the German palette.
“Now I have a better chance of a place with a little more longevity and less competition for the kind of food I want to be doing.”