Matt Gillan, Head Chef, South Lodge

The  Staff Canteen
Matt Gillan’s, head chef at The Pass, first step into the culinary industry was at The Hen and Chicken in Froyle, Hampshire. He was first mentored by Nick Wentworth at Hunters restaurant in Winchester, he then moved to Cambridge to work as a chef de partie at the two Michelin starred Midsummer House. Matt spent three years at Midsummer House under his second mentor, Daniel Clifford. He then worked as a commis chef at Restaurant Gordon Ramsay. He also worked as a senior chef de partie at two Michelin starred The Vineyard at Stockcross, for a year, under John Campbell. In 2006, after taking a year out to travel, he became a sous chef at South Lodge in West Sussex. Matt worked closely with Executive Chef Lewis Hamblet in the running of the Camellia restaurant and a year later Matt was promoted to head chef. He was soon given the opportunity to become head chef of a smaller restaurant inside the kitchen called The Pass. The Pass has gone on to swiftly gain three AA rosettes, its next goal is to achieve a Michelin star.

Matt, it's great to see you again.  A huge thank you for inviting me down to Young Guns back in October.  Congratulations to you for getting it off the ground.  I think you deserve a huge amount of praise for doing it.  Let's start by talking about your role as Head Chef at The Pass, but first your role within South Lodge.  How long have you been here?

Well, I have been Head Chef here for two years. But I didn't realise that you were the Head Chef of The Camellia before that, weren't you? Yes, I have actually been at the hotel four and a half years. OK, so you joined as Head Chef of The Camellia? No, I joined as Sous Chef but at the time there wasn't a Head Chef as such.  Lewis (Hamblet) was in charge and I think they left that position available just to see how I did, so if I wasn't that great they could still bring in a Head Chef. OK.  But it worked out and a year later I was promoted to Head Chef. OK, and Matt, when you joined did you know the sort of transformation the hotel was going to go through?  Did you know where it was going?  Because the group have invested £8 million plus here, haven't they?  £2 million in the kitchen.  Added an extra 40 bedrooms etc, etc. Were you aware of any of that at the time? No, not at all.  When I came for the interview I didn't even think I would get the job - I hadn't even heard of South Lodge, actually.  I had heard about Pennyhill and that is what really made me come here. Because Pennyhill is really the flagship of the group, isn't it? Yes, it is but we see them as a little bit of friendly competition as well.  So, when I came there were plans for the new kitchen - Lewis ran through those plans with me and what the idea was, but it was very loose. OK, tell us about how your role at The Pass came about, then. I think to explain it I think you need to go back a little further in time, originally there wasn't going to be The Pass restaurant it was just going to be a Chef's Table.  The Pass restaurant was not the original idea. OK.  It was just going to be a Chefs Table and I was still going to run The Camellia and just have the Chefs Table as a little feature and it was during a meeting when we thought "Well, we've got a lot of space and we could actually turn that space into a revenue generating area." OK, so you didn't have the idea and build the space around it; you had the space and built the idea around it? Yes, the Chefs office was going to be where the restaurant is; the pot wash was going to be bigger.  The actual kitchen was going to be a lot bigger. OK.  And we thought "That is a lot of kitchen" and with the extra bedrooms we needed space to feed guests, so it was a bit of a conversation about the Chefs Table and how we could grow it - and that is how The Pass came about. OK, so how would you describe The Pass? The ultimate Chefs Table? Yes, at the moment, I guess it's the Chefs Table taken to the next level - it's now a Chefs Restaurant!  And normally, when you have got the kitchen exposed to the restaurant the restaurant still dominates so it is just an open plan kitchen, this is almost like an open plan restaurant.  The kitchen dominates. Matt, what were the objectives for the business when you set it up? From the very beginning the main objective was to offer an insight into the kitchen.  Exclusive were quite keen for all the hotels to have three rosettes and with Michael Wignall at the Latymer on board and Richard Davies at the Manor House getting their stars, we wanted every property to have a star and it seemed like a good way to fast-track that. Did that put pressure on you, then? Yes, it did initially because it was "Oh my God I've got to get a star and if I don't get a star what happens?  Do I lose my job? Do they get someone else in that can get a star? ..."  So yes, there was a lot of pressure. But you, yourself, have had a very starred background, for want of a better word.  You worked with Daniel (Clifford) at Midsummer, you worked with Gordon (Ramsay) ... and you worked at The Vineyard, so you are quite familiar to that environment, aren't you? Yes, definitely but I took a year out and went to Australia ... just relaxing and then I came here and I spent two years in The Camellia, where the focus was  never to get a star.  The reason I took that job was to grow into a Sous Chef's role. OK.  To then be able to move onto a Michelin starred restaurant and become a Sous Chef there. For you? Yes, for my personal development.  So I wasn't really thinking Michelin stars, so as much as my background is stars - coming up with dishes and that I just wasn't thinking Michelin.  So to then have this pressure to perform to a Michelin star level with no real support is a real struggle, so that is when I was sent down to Pennyhil and Michael, to spend time with him and get me back thinking along those lines. And since you opened here, you have been hugely successful - You have got the three Rosettes; 7 out of 10 in The Good Food Guide, which is a fantastic achievement.  You were telling me you are ranked 31st. Yes, 31st. Which is phenomenal.  You have only been open two years.  I know you can never say that you are working towards a star, but is that the next goal? Yes, that is a personal goal, definitely.  I think it has always been the case that as soon as I started working with Daniel at Midsummer I knew I wanted a star, but I am not going to change what we do in order to achieve that. I like what we are doing here, if a star comes it comes.  At some point in my career I will get it but... How would you describe the food experience here? Umm, it is an experience. OK. Definitely, you don't just come in here for a lunch meal or dinner you come in for a lunch experience or dinner experience. It's a bit voyeur-istic, isn't it? Yes, (Laughter) it is.  Yes, you walk into a country house hotel and you step through those wooden doors and you are into ... a whole different world.  And the food, we wanted it to go along those lines.  We wanted to make it different.  There are a lot of very good country house hotels in the areas, all doing quite similar things.  We have got a completely different concept and we have got to keep that with everything we do - let's make it different. Yes.  If you had to pigeon hole the food, how would you describe your food style? Umm, progressive British. OK.  The reason behind that, you could say Modern British but what springs to mind is posh fish and chips or a re-worked Cottage pie ... Out of a water-bath?! Yes, we as Chefs, are bringing together classical techniques and modern techniques.  We use local seasonal produce and we are British Chefs. Matt, what do you think your greatest success has been to date in your role as Head Chef of The Pass?  I mean, you have got a lot of accolades, there on your hotplate.  I think, personally, opening it.  I have never done anything like that before - it was a stressful period. I can imagine. Before we got into the kitchen, we were working out of Portakabins, which was really tight and we didn't have a team for The Pass at that point.  I had left The Camellia, so I was developing dishes by myself.   And we got into the kitchen about three days before our first trial run, so in three days we had to try and get prepped up and jell as a team.  And these guys had to produce my food. So it was really a "pressure cooker" environment, was it? Yes, I hadn't even seen the food really and to try and teach these guys dishes that I only really had a rough idea of how they should be was tough.  But as we have progressed it has become a lot more relaxed; a lot more fun and I think when we got the guests in as well, their opinion of kitchens really start to charge too. Are guests expecting a lot of theatre when they come here?  A lot of vocal-ness? Maybe bad language, you know stereotypic stuff of a chef? Shouting and screaming? Maybe the odd pan going across the room? That's not what they get. No, but is that what they expect? Possibly because that is what you see on TV.  We know in the industry that it's not like that. Yes, but that makes good TV. That's right.  It's like "Airline" not every person is a pain in the ass - it's just sensationalised. Absolutely.  The few people that come in and are almost disappointed that they don't hear the shouting and screaming, I say to them "Would you really want to sit through a meal, three/ four hours, listening to someone getting battered into the ground?" Yes, an hour on TV is more than enough.  Matt, what has been your biggest frustration since taking over as Head Chef? Umm, I think staff. In terms of finding staff? Yes, finding good staff.  You can find a pair of hands anywhere, but we are such a small team - we are a team of four, including me.  So anyone that comes into the team is 25%, so they really do have to pull their weight and work with us.  They have to know their stuff and hit the ground running; they have to know what good food and consistency is - we can teach them our style but they have to know the basics. Do you think that if you are fortunate to achieve that Holy Grail - the Michelin star, would that put you into a different category in terms of staff?  I know good staff are hard to find, where ever you are, even at times Le Manoir struggle for staff but operations with stars often get people from star backgrounds applying to them.  Do you think that would help? Umm, I think so, I mean when I was at Midsummer and we got the star we got a lot more CV's through the door and I think we will get a lot more CV's through; whether they will be a lot more of what we have had before - the calibre, I don't know.  We will have to wait and see. You are two years into The Pass project, where do you see yourself going in the next two to five years? Well, we still want to grow the business.  We are still quite quiet at lunchtime; beginning of the week still quite quiet, but it's a slow process - although we are in an established hotel we are a new restaurant and it takes time.  Developing the food; the chefs - I have a great team now and I want to invest in them and develop myself. Matt, thank you very much and the very best of luck with The Pass. Want to find a job as a head chef? Then check out our jobs board. 
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The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 15th February 2011

Matt Gillan, Head Chef, South Lodge