Matt Gillan has spent some serious time in serious kitchens – working for several years for Daniel Clifford at Midsummer House before spending time in the kitchen of John Campbell at The Vineyard at Stockcross. Now recognized by the guides in his own right at The Pass at South Lodge Hotel, near Horsham, Matt cuts a relaxed, cheerful but determined figure as he chats to Simon Carter of fine-dining-guide. Interview took place on Thursday 5th April 2012, at The Pass restaurant.
Tell us some background about yourself?
I grew up in Hampshire in a little army town called Bordon, just outside of Petersfield. My first experience of food was by accident – or financial sense – I was 14/15 years old and doing the typical kind of job you do at that age; a paper round, which was outdoors through wind, rain and snow. In around 1996, A friend of mine was working washing up in a pub restaurant (The Hen and Chicken on the A31) and I discovered that he was earning more in one shift than I earned all week doing the paper round!
So I got shifts there washing up on Saturday night and Sunday lunch before being told that if I found a replacement for my job then I’d have the opportunity to prep the vegetables. So I drafted my brother in and started working in the kitchen. The pub would do 150 covers in a typical weekend lunch time. As more shifts came up I took them and eventually found myself there almost every shift all the way through my summer holidays.
At school my focus was on art and design and if I weren’t doing cooking for a living now, I’d expect to be in front of a drawing board doing some kind of graphic design role. I think the creative element of taking a raw product and turning it in to something different was what drew me to the chef profession.
In 1998 I followed Nick Wentworth (the head chef) to a restaurant called Hunters in Alresford, outside Winchester. I stayed there six months before moving to Cambridge – my girlfriend at the time was at University in Cambridge so it seemed like a good idea! I looked in the back of Caterer and found an advert for Midsummer House. Daniel Clifford had been there around 6 months – it was a two AA Rosette restaurant at the time and in the process of a complete refurbishment. I had about a fifteen minutes interview and went back a couple of weeks later for a trial, and got the job. I was there three and a half years and it was a real journey, a culture shock! Daniel had adopted the French mentality to discipline and I found it very tough at the beginning but grew into the role and left as junior sous chef. Daniel (Clifford) continues to be a good friend and mentor.
I spent a short time at Restaurant Gordon Ramsay after Midsummer House. I had always dreamt of working in that kitchen after watching the Boiling Point programme on TV in 1998. I was in awe of Gordon Ramsay. As a result the interview was quite nerve wracking but I got the job. I stayed for nine months but found that at the three star level the day in day out tasks were too repetitive and there was no culture of questioning “why are we doing this?” which I had found so educational at Midsummer House.
In 2004, I spent a year working for John Campbell at The Vineyard at Stockcross. I had explained in advance that I wanted to go travelling and that the most I could commit to was a year (John usually required around a two years plus commitment). I loved that kitchen. No only did I learn about cooking and the science behind it but also kitchen management: No shouting – firm – but nurturing. If you wanted to listen then he had plenty of time for you (if you didn’t want to listen then you were in the wrong kitchen) and it was always conversations rather than one way talking about what you could do better. I think I only heard him raise his voice once in a year. A great role model and an approach I try to follow in my kitchen.
In 2005, I went travelling to Australia and after spending a month soaking up the sun on Bondi Beach decided to move to Melbourne and find a short term cooking job. Shannon Bennett at Vue de Monde took me in and I had a great time working at his restaurant.
When I came back I was looking for a sous chef role. I wanted to learn how the management side of a kitchen worked, so I was looking for a low key two rosette property. The agency said that a three rosette address had a vacancy and that I should apply. I came down to South Lodge and have been here ever since. In 2008 the extension was completed and I moved from the Camelia restaurant (in the hotel) to head up The Pass (in the hotel). The brand new kitchen is big and airy and really a beautiful space.
What are your opening times and explain the menu concept?
We’re open Wednesday through Sunday, lunch and dinner and we offer exclusively tasting menus. There are effectively 11 chef’s tables – 22 covers – who all have the concept of being inside the kitchen eating the chef’s menu.
There are three course, five course and seven course for lunch. Dinner is a six or eight course. We are looking at adding a new menu of around twelve courses for the serious foodies.
I’m always conscious of pricing and we aim to keep the prices down as much as possible so that we’re not bracketed in that ‘elite restaurant’ category and have the possibility of pricing ourselves out of the market.
How would you describe your cuisine?
Well I was talking about this with a few of my peers and we’ve coined this phrase ‘Progressive British.’ Modern British didn’t really reflect what we do and perhaps has the ring of 1980s Good Food Guide about it or even, nowadays, funky fish and chips.
We are British chefs using a lot of British produce but we don’t inherit dishes directly from France nor from traditional British dishes. In fact influences come from all around the world. All these cultures have their different styles and we try and use all the modern technology and techniques (water baths, dehydrators, pressure cookers, thermo mixers etc) to take the best of what these other cultures have to offer and present them in a new way.
How do you source your ingredients?
This has been really refined over the last three years. We used to have a bulk buy butcher. We have specialist suppliers such as a quail egg supplier, a pig farmer for pork and so on. Quality is paramount at this level so we won’t compromise and ensure consistency of product and consistency of delivery. The specialist suppliers have definitely raised the bar on quality.
Tell us how you created one of your favourite dishes?
A lamb dish started with belly of lamb. As a hotel kitchen there’s quite a lot going on, I was walking past the butchers block one day and they were prepping the saddles and leaving the bellies. I decided to take the bellies and slow cook them, leaving the fat in the fridge.
The lamb fat gnocchi garnish came about from thinking about gnocchi – essentially Italian potato dumplings – then taking the British idea of dumplings, which is suet and self raising flour, then playing around with replacing the suet and self raising flour with pure lamb belly fat and potato flour. The first ones came out like Chinese dumplings so we added the egg white to lighten them up.
The addition of lemon curd to the dish was derived from thinking of a sweet and sharp element to go with the fatty gnocchi and the lamb and I feel the end result works really well. An interesting dish that I’m really proud of the recipe. I certainly haven’t seen a recipe anywhere for the lamb fat gnocchi.
What is the size of the brigade front and back?
There are five of us in the kitchen and three out front for twenty two covers. We tend to look at it as the number of plates of food as opposed to covers. Simply because we exclusively offer tasting menus.
Which chefs have influenced you in your cooking?
Directly, Daniel Clifford and John Campbell but equally had I not worked for Nick Wentworth I wouldn’t be cooking now – he showed me that if you’re going to spend 15,16, 17 hours a day in the kitchen then you need to do it smiling. When we first opened here it was really stressful and we felt a pressure to get a Michelin Star. I found I wasn’t so excited about cooking and coming in to work every day. Then I pulled back and decided to relax and just express myself and we actually got much better. A little bit of personality and individuality came through and possibly that’s what the guides look for as much as anything else
Which restaurants inspire when you eat out?
I think its probably those that travel ‘off piste’ a little and challenge you to think about “how did they do that?” I had a brilliant meal at Sat Bains and was really impressed. I would like to go to L’Enclume. So it’s meals where I might learn something that really get me excited.
What is your proudest professional achievement?
I don’t want to say getting the Michelin Star but I can’t say anything else. It was amazing! As a goal that you have in the back of your mind, the day that it comes can actually be quite emotional. The guide came out at 12pm – just as service is about to start – Daniel Clifford was the first to tweet the news.
I had 22 ladies in for lunch that day and was teaching a foolproof way to make risotto, I couldn’t even remember how to do it, it was so emotional.
Describe a day in the life…
Every day is different. Typically, first thing, we check the orders and the invoices. On Wednesday’s garnish may need some help in steering the ship, on Thursday it’s more meat, fish and sauce….but generally, in the kitchen is a day in the life!