Indiana’s Top Chefs featuring Matt Rogers at 800 Degrees in Fort Wayne

The restaurant idea can be summed up in three little words. “I love pizza.” And so 800 Degrees in Fort Wayne was born. Not quite overnight, but the seeds were sown by Matt Rogers’ parents when he was growing up. These grocery store owners served dinner at home each night. A good dinner with quality ingredients, often cooked from scratch by Dad.

When he was 8 or 9, the young Rogers found a wok that his parents had received as a gift. It had never been used. “So I read the directions and made our first-ever wok meal,” he says.

Fast forward past high school to college, where Rogers studied business. “But I knew I didn’t want to sit behind a desk,” he says. “And I’d always loved cooking.” So with a bachelor’s degree in business and a desire to work with food, Rogers went to Johnson & Wales University in Denver, which gets students who already have degrees into outstanding kitchens within a year.

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Rogers went to the Adams Mark Hotel there, starting in the banquet kitchen which served thousands. Soon he was second in charge and experienced his “aha” moment. “I’m probably doing what I’m supposed to be doing,” he remembers thinking. But he didn’t want to stay in Colorado. He returned to his Hoosier roots with an internship and then full employment at the top-notch restaurant Joseph Decius near Fort Wayne. “I began to learn what fine dining was,” he said. “Before that it was always mass quantity.”

Two years there, another year as head chef at another restaurant, “and I learned that was what I did not want to do.” His strong sense of family conflicted with working on holidays. For Rogers, it just felt wrong. Re-enter his simple yet telling passion, pizza. Years earlier, before his schooling in Colorado, Rogers and his two brothers had spent an extended time in Barcelona, Spain, where they frequented a pizza place. “Best pizza I’d ever had in my life,” he says. The secret? A wood-burning oven.

So he and his stepfather spent a year traveling to the best pizzerias in the U.S., where they always checked out the ovens. And when they found the right oven, Rogers and a brother spent a month in California learning from the oven maker.

Rogers’ philosophy? “Pick one thing and do it really, really well.”

It happens at 800 Degrees. The pizza with high-quality ingredients, beginning with the daily quest for the perfect dough. Wood-burning ovens because “I love fire – there’s so much more going on.” Thorough training for the staff. It’s a business that supports the family – two sites in Fort Wayne with Rogers at one and his two brothers at the other, and dreams of opening a third in the Indianapolis area within a few years.

And that idea about family holidays? 800 Degrees is closed on holidays. Last Thanksgiving the extended family dined together – on turkey – at the pizza place.

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