He is a Michelin-starred chef and a Roux Scholarship winner but Chef Matthew Tomkinson seems untouched by his celebrity. He is a nice bloke who loves his work, and the rest is just the proverbial icing on the well-presented cake.
I asked Matthew if he came from a cheffy background. Did his family have anything to do with food? “No, but my parents are hospitable people, and I love that. As a kid I remember Mum and Dad would have friends round for dinner, and I thought that entertaining was very exciting; and the next morning my brother and I would get up before Mum and Dad and help ourselves to the leftovers, like chocolate sauce with brandy on our breakfast cereals!
“Grandma Olive is my Dad’s mum: if you invited her round for dinner and said there was garlic in it she wouldn’t come. But at her house there were always home-made scones, vanilla slices, ginger biscuits, strawberry tart, and bread. I remember when Mum and Dad were away on holiday and I was at home, about seventeen, on the point of going out for the evening with my girlfriend. It was a hot day, and my Gran rang me up and asked me to go round for tea. I ran round, getting hot and sweaty, and the heat that came out of the house! I went in to find a steaming hot cup of tea, mince and onion pie, boiled potatoes and peas: ‘Grandma, it’s June!’ She was a good cook, pastry the old-fashioned way with lard – lovely!
“I used to go fishing with a friend who happened to be a chef, and I was fascinated by his tales of garlic bread and steaks and chips, and I thought it was so glamorous! So after my A-levels I went to university to study hospitality management. For the placement year out in industry some went to America, but I knew I wasn’t old enough to have a drink there, so I decided to stay in the UK and work as a chef, and I loved it. I enjoyed the camaraderie, the team, the shared feeling that we had achieved something. I worked in staff canteens, Italian restaurants, and loved it all.
“By my early 20s, working at a pub, I thought that I needed to apply myself a bit more to making a career, and I wrote to ten Michelin-starred restaurants around London. I got some rude replies, but some nice and friendly. I went to Ockenden Manor, under head chef Stephen Crane. I was there for four and a half years: I went in as a head-chef of a pub, won the Roux Scholarship in 2005, and we got a Michelin star! Ockenden Manor and Steve Crane really turned my career around. I don’t think it changed me in terms of how I feel about food, but it gave me an opportunity to do better at my career. I went on to The Goose (in Oxfordshire) and won my first star there in 2008, which changed people’s view of me.”
Who were Matthew’s role models? “Shortly after leaving university a friend happened to lend me a copy of My Gastronomy by Nico Ladenis. I read it and realised that people took this seriously as an art form – I don’t consider chefs as artists, but I got that it was more than I was doing. He was very driven, and had had a career before working with food, and in the year that Marco Pierre White was the youngest to get 3 Michelin stars, he was the oldest. He had never been to college, and didn’t cook at the restaurant, he just directed his chefs. He was very demanding and difficult, and I’m not like that, but I admired his view on life. While I was at Ockenden Manor under executive head chef Martin Hadden, Nico, who knew Martin, came to eat there and I got to speak to him. Then Martin suggested I enter the Roux Scholarship, so I got to meet Michel Roux. All of them are people I have looked up to.
“I am a proud Roux Scholar, and an ambassador for them. The best thing is, even though it’s a competition it’s a strangely non-competitive environment – you feel that you can be yourself and be your best, but it’s so friendly and warm you just want to enter again and again. You learn things on the way. The Rouxs are amazing, and whenever you ask for help they are there. When I was chosen to take part in a sponsored bike ride from London to Paris, Alain Roux was one of the first to donate and wish me good luck! There’s no angle, he just wants to help. That makes me think like that as well, and I pass that on, and so it spreads.
“I came to The Montagu and then won a star here in January 2009, which was wonderful. But a star can so easily become a stranglehold on you and the way you run the kitchen. People’s expectations change, so serving a traditional English breakfast or Sunday lunch risks disappointment! But really it’s a blessing – it does so many things, it oils so many wheels for us, but it can’t be the focus: guests must always be that. Michelin say the same: look after people properly, and the rest will come. We’d love to gain two stars, but that’s not the target, it’s the day-to-day.
“Beaulieu is a very old place, with a lot of history. The Beaulieu River is one of the few privately-owned rivers in Europe; on the opposite bank are several old and beautiful private homes, and this side is undeveloped. The Montagu Arms is not part of the Beaulieu estate but is owned by the Leach family, who have two other hotels, Carey’s Manor in Brockenhurst and The Imperial in Llandudno, Wales. We get the benefits of being on the Estate – the beautiful surroundings, the tranquillity, the care taken to preserve the environment – but at the same time we get to do our own thing, so we have the best of both worlds. It’s very important to me that I work for a family, and I enjoy that relationship. The kitchen here is nice; it’s not a wonderful, modern, space-age place – that would be lovely – but for continuity and enjoying my job that relationship with the owner is far more important. It’s a fantastic place to be.
“John and Catriona Kennard at Exbury Gardens are so close that they can deliver vegetables to me within ten minutes of them coming out of the ground! I want to create somewhere where the local environment is inspiring. It’s a hard job, but it can still be enjoyable, and I want to keep improving what the area has to offer. I’ve gone through changes in the four years I’ve been here, and now we let the food ‘form itself’ almost – we keep the menu fairly flexible, things change by the season. People want, I think, to eat food that makes sense for the location.
“We have two restaurants: The Terrace is a fine-dining restaurant, and Monty’s is a brasserie. We do afternoon teas, breakfasts, barbecues, weddings, banqueting, and we keep the same quality philosophy for everything: I buy from the same people no matter what, and we waste nothing. I do consider that we are a genuinely sustainable business – we have a gold award for sustainable tourism – and I think we do it properly; it’s not just ticking boxes and getting a rubber stamp. If the food waste doesn’t go to the chickens it gets composted and goes back on the land. For the younger guys here it comes naturally, and they volunteer to look after the recycling and feed the chickens – it’s ‘normal’ for them, and they’ll spread the word.
“I really care about consistency, being the best we can be every day. The produce we buy is real, it’s not out of a box, and they are not all the same. A rump of beef might sometimes have some sinew in it – it’s there to hold the animal together, it’s nature – but some people grumble that it’s tough. To quote Gordon Ramsay, ‘It’s the flavour that holds the memory’, and he’s right. The presentation of a new dish may take two or three platings to perfect, but the taste is what really matters.” Matthew is evidently proud of his Michelin star, but it isn’t everything to him: he takes great pleasure in his everyday work and it’s that passion that will always shine.
The Montagu Arms Hotel
Hampshire SO42 7ZL
Phone: 01590 612324
Fax: 01590 612188
Central Reservations: 01590 624467
Interview by Chrissie Walker © 2018