Most of the three years Hollidaysburg native Matt Shields spent on legendary musician Jimmy Buffett's private yacht, jetting from the Hamptons to St. Bart's and everywhere in between, really did count as "work."
Shields, who became a private chef fresh out of culinary school, was responsible for cooking three square meals a day - a task that usually kept him working from 7 a.m. until 10 at night.
But he recalls one week in particular when the yacht was anchored off a remote island in the Bahamas for a fishing trip that Buffett invited Shields and the rest of the crew to grab a cocktail and come out to the main deck of the boat for a little down time.
Matt Shields poses during a stop in St. Bart’s while he was a chef on Jimmy Buffett's yacht.
"We all get up there and he starts what would be a six-song set of his biggest songs. Halfway through, he has me stand up and asks everyone to give me a round of applause for the great food that I served all week. He then proceeds to play 'Margaritaville' and writes my name into a couple of lines of the song and mentions some the dishes I had served through out the week," Shields, 35, recalled. "It was one of those goosebump and eyes-filling-up-with-tears moments, something I will never forget for the rest of my life."
Shields has been making these and many other unforgettable memories throughout his decade-long career as a private chef. He has cooked on yachts and in the New York City homes of some other major celebrities, but Shields got his start right here in Blair County, working food service jobs at Justine's restaurant, The Meadows and The Allegro.
At age 22, he decided to pursue a culinary arts degree, and was classically trained at Johnson & Wales Univer-sity at the school's former Norfolk, Va., campus.
1992: At age 13, Shields gets his first food service job as a bus boy at Justine's restaurant, which is now the Blairmont Club, Hollidaysburg
1994: Shields graduates from Hollidaysburg Area Senior High School
2001: Shields graduates with a degree in Culinary Arts from Johnson & Wales University, at the former Norfolk, Va., campus, and later went on to earn a culinary nutrition degree
2003: Shields starts his first private chef job aboard the Motor Yacht Cherosa, and travels frequently between New England and Palm Springs
2007: Shields starts working on Jimmy Buffett's private yacht
2011: Shields works briefly for TV writer, producer and comedian Lorne Michaels, and does freelance work for rapper, singer and actor Sean "Diddy" Combs
2012: Shields creates and launches the Matt's Pantry app with fellow Hollidaysburg graduate Matt Furman
"I just try to use the freshest ingredients, but I also like to dabble in classic French [cuisine], Asian, everything," Shields said of his culinary approach. "So much of it depends on where you are and what you want to do. I just like to have fun with food and cook a little bit of everything."
Creativity and a knowledge of a wide range of cuisine have helped Shields in his career. Before working for Buffett, he worked for another couple on their yacht. They had called Johnson & Wales looking for a young chef with just enough experience to prepare some simple dishes.
"It was a great experience, and really got my foot in the door as far as working privately," Shields said. "From there, things just took off for me."
After working on yachts for six years collectively, Shields sought jobs on dry land in the city he's always wanted to live - New York. He did a stint as the in-home chef for "Saturday Night Live" creator Lorne Michaels, as well as a weekend of freelance work for Sean "Diddy" Combs. He currently cooks dinners five nights a week for another high-profile New York family.
And during a lunch with friend and fellow Hollidaysburg graduate Matt Furman, a freelance photographer based in New York, the two embarked on a new project - creating a food app that combined Shield's recipes, easy to follow directions and Furman's images taken throughout the process and of the finished product.
The result is the Matt's Pantry app, now available for iPhone, iPad and iPod touch, that provides a shopping list and weekly menus and helps people cut down on wasting food during these tough economic times.
"What makes it different is so many people ask me for recipes, search out recipes or search for one particular recipe to cook, buy all the ingredients for that one meal, then they're stuck with all these excess ingredients and they don't know what to do with them," Shields said. "The idea behind the app is for every meal you cook, similar ingredients can be used in other recipes."
Furman, 35, who specializes in portrait photography for magazines and advertisements, said it was a great experience for him to try shooting food and he loves the way the app came out. He added that working with Shields was "just like friends hanging out."
"After high school, [Shields] went on his adventures and I went on mine, but to meet up a few years later was really good," Furman said. "To get to work together and create something we're really proud of was really rewarding for me."
Furman said it's evident that Shields has the technical skills to be a great chef, but what makes him great at his job is his personality.
"He can walk into a room and become best friends with anybody. He's that kind of guy," Furman said. "People who want a private chef, they're coming into your home, so you need to feel comfortable around them. You're not just cooking food, you're becoming part of the family for a little bit. I think that's what makes Matt good at his job."
Shield's mom, Sue, 60, of Jersey City, N.J., agreed.
"He's a very genuine, down-to-earth young man and works very hard," Sue said. "As far as his cooking, he's a perfectionist. It's his passion. ... If I start to cook anything, he'll be like 'Mom, excuse me,' and he takes over."
Looking back, Shields said being a private chef allowed him to "see parts of the world that he never would have gotten to see otherwise." But for now, he's happy to be off the breakfast, lunch and dinner schedule.
Shields has been happily married to his wife, Tasha, a personal trainer, since December 2010. The two met while Shields was still working for Buffett on a night when the boat was docked and he went to visit his brother, Kevin, who lives in Brooklyn.
"We were out to dinner, and there was a girl sitting alone at the bar. My brother dared me to go talk to her, so I did. We ended up exchanging numbers, and the rest is history," Shields said.
Shields now splits time between furthering his career and taking care of his 16-month-old daughter, Saba, named for one of the islands in the West Indies he visited with Buffet.
Despite his wealth of success personally and professionally, Shields continues to perfect his craft by studying, reading magazines and cookbooks and flexing his creative muscles.
"That's what I think the biggest thing is about being a chef, and being a good chef, is being creative," he said. "[It's about] just being willing to continue to learn, because it's never ending and once you stop studying and learning up, I just feel like you're kind of wasting your time and not progressing as a chef."
To find out more about the Matt's Pantry app, or to download it for $3.99, visit www.mattspantry.com.
Mirror Staff Writer Beth Ann Downey is at 946-7520.