David Everitt-Matthias is a low profile but high powered Michelin two starred chef. David remains ever present in the kitchen with his small but efficient, effective and talented brigade delivering a consistent level of excellence, service in service out. David found time to speak to Simon Carter of fine-dining-guide, Interview took place at Le Champignon Sauvage restaurant.
Tell us some background about yourself?
My early memories, which have stayed in the back of my mind, were visiting my aunt and especially when we stayed at her mothers’ in Suffolk. I would have been 7,8 or 9 at the time. We used to go countryside hedgerow picking, she would make her own wines, which sowed the seeds for an interest in food and an enduring interest in foraged food.
The latter interest took a back seat in 1978; I got my papers through for the army catering corp on the same day as I had an interview to work in the kitchens of The Four Seasons – so I had to decide one or the other and chose The Four Seasons.
There were about ninety chefs in the kitchen, I spent five years there and made my way up to Chef Saucier, which was quite an achievement at a young age. They had a split shift system and by the end I was exclusively on the early shift as I had developed a system of having all the sauces ready for the evening service as well as sauces and garnishes for the banqueting. This experience taught me organization and discipline skills, as they were paramount in that environment; you might find a banquet for six hundred happening in the middle of service for the Four Seasons Restaurant (The main hotel restaurant at the time).
Jean Michel Bonin was the French Head chef, who recognized something in me and promoted me accordingly. I’ve stayed in touch with him from time to time, like when we got the first and second Michelin star and I won chef of the year, just to say hi and that one of your boys has achieved this – something I think he appreciated.
In around 1981, I did a four week stage at Koffmann’s. This was a real eye-opener, you were just cooking lunch and dinner service – no breakfasts, afternoon teas, room service, banqueting and so on. It was food at its purest. The fact that he could take really humble ingredients and turn them into a gastronomic meal really inspired me and I knew that was the way that I wanted to go in my career.
Moving on from the Four Seasons in 1983, I was head chef at three different restaurants in London – they were three different types of cooking – three different types of business – I wanted to see which type would suit me best; Bistrot/Brasserie, American style or fine dining. The one where I built my name and found the most inspiring was the thriving and fashionable Fingals on the Fulham Road. So we (Helen & I) decided that our own business was the way forward.
We started sending off for properties and originally thought the romantic idea of the seaside; going to the beach of an afternoon, relaxing and picking up razor clams. Sadly, that didn’t prove practical in terms of the target market for modern European cuisine. In the end we found this property (le Champignon Sauvage) in Cheltenham – a restaurant called La Ciboulette was at this site with an ex- Roux chef called Kevin Jenkins who ran it with his wife. We (Helen & I) sold our flat in London and moved here, we just fell in love with the place.
When we opened the doors here, I was 26 and Helen was 24. I knew how to run a kitchen but knew a little of how to run a business. It was a boom time in the mid 1980s so we did very well for a year or so after opening. Then one of the worst recessions hit us along with interest rates upwards of 12%. There was a real economic bite and we came very close to going under. The local and area bank managers met us (in the days when business banking was a personal service), saw our enthusiasm and decided to back us in the business.
As a result of that recession experience we’ve been very careful about expansion; saving and buying rather than going into too much debt. It took us eighteen years to pull together the funds we needed to buy the next door property, which enabled us to take more covers and do vital expansion work to the kitchen.
When Le Champignon Sauvage started my food cooking style was quite fussy and nouvelle style, I guess I was following the fashion! I was cooking mainly for what I imagined the guides wanted and as a result I didn’t have any real personal direction. One day I decided to start cooking for myself which gave me a lot more confidence; if people came through the door they were getting a piece of me, my personal signature and this gave me a much better sense of purpose, greater enjoyment and satisfaction.
The first Michelin star came in 1995, there was a small increase in business, which cemented our position on the map. At this time the restaurant started to develop the things we have become known for like spicing, foraging and butchery. Five years later we were awarded the second Michelin star. That changed everything. We became very busy and at the time there was only myself and one other in the kitchen.
It came to point where we had achieved everything we could achieve in a tiny kitchen serving a maximum of 28 covers on 9 tables. I decided to pop next door to see if the picture framers who were there wanted to sell. They did and the bank agreed. Whilst we had double the space of restaurant we decided to only add four extra tables and continue to have only one sitting – to give people space to eat in comfort and refinement. I preferred this idea to the modern city trend of packing people in and turning tables.
Tell us about the kitchen and the brigade.
When we bought next door in 2005 we had a bigger garden so as well as doubling the restaurant size from left to right, we were able to extend out the back. As a result the kitchen is now about four times the size and I have wonderful range of equipment as well as a bigger brigade. Its still a thrill to come down every morning and enjoy the new environment, it certainly beats the old six burner I had had for years, with the door held together with tin foil (laughing).
I am lucky to have Matthew Worswick and Mark Stinchcombe as chefs in the kitchen. A wealth of enthusiasm and experience.
We also have Keiron Stevens, who came to me about three and a half years ago; he was still at school and walked in off the street, well presented in a jacket and tie, and asked if he could do a week in the kitchen. He then stayed a second week and then worked through holidays after that until we were able to offer him an apprenticeship. He’s now completed college and been promoted to a second commis with his own section. It’s a great feeling to nurture enthusiasm and see the stars of the future develop.
Kitchens are so open nowadays, you can generally ring most people up and see if you can get them an opening as a stage. There has to be a system in place for stages because you get high turnover of them, some may be very good and some not so good.
With the two Michelin stars being recognized not just here but abroad has meant that we get a flow of stages coming here to learn and works out well as a two way learning experience.
How would you say your cooking has evolved?
When we start building dishes we have the building blocks taste, texture and presentation; the latter is probably the area where people have to work least hard to achieve something respectable. Between the first and second star my personality came much more into the food, a personal signature. Concentration on flavour was also paramount; to get the complete essence of an ingredient – if something had lemon in it I wanted it to taste of a box of lemons!
The food has become more condensed and refined, a book is coming out ‘Beyond Essence’ and you can really see the evolution between the books of the dishes on offer. The harmonious development of flavour combinations and textures has been the constant framework and the end products evolving in line with that mantra.
Some of the pioneering chefs like Ferran Adria, Rene Redzepi and Heston Blumenthal have opened new volumes of knowledge to chefs; not just in terms of the ingredients available but also the chemical products and techniques that can deliver on the taste and texture fronts. It would be wrong not to keep learning, experimenting, and having an enquiring mind; you have to evolve and grow to keep pace with the market but also to fulfill yourself as a chef.
It also important to develop the creativity across the team, especially in a small kitchen like we have here – we would balance the working week with having the team work on dishes, to perfect them, to create new things. On occasions they will perhaps work on the du jour menu and, along with my input, demonstrate and learn their creative instincts. To enjoy a job and gain satisfaction, it’s important to loosen the reins a little and give the team this freedom.
What do you make of the foraging trend?
I think I was an early forager (smiling). The team does some foraging and we also employ foragers for some of our ingredients; its not only good experience to use these ingredients but also interesting and enjoyable to teach the brigade. Foraging has quietly been going on for many years in this country – Simon Rogan is a good example. It makes me chuckle how some chefs appear to claim to have re-invigorated the industry with this trend, when in fact sometimes dishes become self serving for the effect of foraging. So we will make use of ingredients that are foraged but only in harmony with the strict taste, texture, presentation way of the restaurant.
Which restaurants and chefs currently inspire?
In restaurant terms, In de Wulf, feels to me like a purer and cleaner Noma. I find that restaurant to be inspirational. In Honfleur, there’s a restaurant calld Sa.Qua.Na, a Michelin Two Star, we make it to every Christmas time and enjoy very much.
In this country, chef wise, I can’t help but be admiring of Brett Graham with his dedication and foresight, a very friendly and approachable person as well. Phil Howard is a chef’s chef and such an accomplished technician. Although I’ve not visited Simon Rogan’s L’Enclume for quite a while, I find his food inspiring and creatively challenging.
From the early days, Pierre Koffman and Marco Pierre White were inspiring me to want to become a top chef.
What is your favourite dish to cook at the moment and tell us some of the techniques involved?
A potato dish. It has a caramelized onion base that’s like an onion jam puree. We use Witchill potatoes when they’re in season, we poach the potatoes off and slice them with their jackets on, before re-warming in a butter solution. A leak ash is added which is done by blanching the greener leeks that we don’t use; splitting, drying and putting them under the grill until they’re black. This is powdered and put through a chinois; the finished leek powder coats the potatoes and three or four are served on the plate. (The effect is a black powder that has a lovely leak taste.)
We make a buffalo milk curd, with milk from a Buffalo farm in Herefordshire, pickled green elderberries are scattered across the dish. We make a turkey pastrami; which involves marinating a turkey breast, curing it with spices and herbs, and hanging it for ten days before slicing it wafer thin. This has a salty edge to it and so provides the seasoning for the rest of the dish.
I personally like to serve it with a little pink purslane as it has a slightly beetroot taste to it along with a little verjus syrup – one of our customers supplies some small sour grapes that we juice, then boil and pass off. This is mixed one bottle of juice to two bottles of white port and reduced down to a syrup which has an acidic but sweet end to it. We add the verjus and sprinkle some more ash over the top of the plate.
My favourite dish is changing all the time but this is my favourite of the moment!
What do you make of Michelin starred chefs on TV? Still not for you?
They’ve helped to promote the trade enormously and got the message out to the customer. People can now see the difference between home cooking and top end restaurant cooking. The down side is that for some chefs it as an objective rather than an extra (outside of cooking in their restaurant): A kind of career shortcut when the only way to make it to the top of any profession is through countless hours of long hard work and learning as you go along.
There may be a place for me doing something on TV but it’d have to be on my days off!
What are your plans for the future?
I’m happy and fulfilled; keep my head down and work hard and what will come will come.