Matt Mason, Jack in the Green, Exeter

The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 7th June 2011

IN ASSOCIATION WITH

Matt Mason, head chef at Jack in the Green, Exeter, desire for culinary training began with the self-sufficiency of his parents’ allotment. He first got into a culinary career studying under Shaun Hill at Gidleigh Park hotel as an apprentice. In 2005 Matt became head chef at Jack in the Green, a year later, becoming one of the first pubs to achieve 2 AA rosettes. In March 2007 Matt won the Professional Class in the South West Chef of the Year and also 'Devon Chef of the Year' from Devon Life. In 2011 the Jack in the Green won the Western Morning News Readers Award at the annual Taste of the West Food & Drink Awards. Matt was asked to join some of his peers in the Master Chefs of Great Britain. For the last five years Matt has worked extremely closely with West Hill Primary School teaching the children all about food miles, freshness and seasonality. Matt Mason, great to come and see you today, I appreciate you seeing me as such short notice and I appreciate you've got lunch to do. I have yes, my mind is distracted and the bell is ringing and that means there's food ready! Give us a brief outline of your current role, how long you've been here what your responsibilities are? The Jack in the Green is a privately owned pub with a turnover this year in excess of £1.5m so our purchasing is massive. It's about £400,000 and 90% of that is on local produce. We obviously pride ourselves on buying locally, sourcing locally and do our very best to make sure we've got some fairly unique artisan products. But tying that in with a high volume outlet sometimes is quite difficult - being a large business with large purchasing and spending lots of other people's money comes with its headaches and responsibilities. My role is also about delivering consistency. This is key in terms of the food, so some of the really small artisan products we only might be able to run as weekend specials. We like to run a menu for six to eight weeks in the restaurant and we change our snack menu quarterly. On the snack menu we'll run about 18 dishes plus four or five specials and the specials board really needs to be "˜special' as you can eat any menu anywhere in the pub. So you've got a snack menu"¦ Yes, and it works especially well when people can sit outside in the summer and enjoy the sun in our new courtyard with a pint or glass of wine. "¦specials and a"¦ And an á la carte/individually priced menu although á la carte sounds so 80s now. Within this individually priced main course restaurant menu we have our "˜Totally Devon' choice which is something we've been doing for six years now - basically 3 courses for £25 per person, lunch or dinner. So you're obviously passionate about the local area and the produce? Oh very much, I was born and bred locally and my stint at Gidleigh Park gave me a healthy respect for the ingredients and a respect for the individuals involved. There was no better place to learn a craft that at the time. Was that Shaun Hill in his heyday then? I don't know, he's always been on top. A few months ago I was lucky enough to get tickets to go and see England/Wales at the Millennium Stadium and to stay over at the cottages. Chris (our Restaurant Manager) and I had a really good meal at The Walnut Tree. It's typical of Shaun's style if you like; I was 16, 17, 18 years old when I was at Gidleigh Park and I'm 39 now, but he hasn't changed one little bit. I was very grateful to him for showing me around the kitchen. It was nice that he remembered me and we shared some tales. We still have mutual friends like Duncan Walker who was a sous chef at Gidleigh Park at the time and who then went onto run the very successful "˜22 Mill Street' for a number of years. Let's talk about your food style here then I mean predominantly it is a pub but how would you describe the food style? You've got a great reputation for your food. I would say our food is honest and simple. We have a formula that we stick to so we have to be respectful of the ingredients. We're not necessarily contemporary but we do like to put our own stamp on things without being overly Hestonesque. The snacks are definitely pubby and the restaurant dishes more sophisticated. We reuse old dishes, so that with a little imagination, these then become new dishes. Give us a classic example of something that you would say on your current menu that represents our food style, one dish? Well a nice new dish that again kind of links in nicely to that last question is our Kenniford Farm rare breed pork dish. We have smoked paprika which we rub all around it and we've actually cut the loin in half so it's just a small centre. This began as a snack dish with braised cabbage, chorizo and a mayonnaise bound with capers, gherkins. But the dish we have now has evolved to become the same piece of meat but slightly more refined. It's a longer, thinner piece (like the size of a piece of venison) and then a piece of fat around it with the smoked paprika. The dish also has a couple of pieces of gnocchi, some pistachio puree, apple balls, apple and frisée salad and some local home-made black pudding. Wow. "¦so that's a dish that has evolved. It was some core ingredients we liked with a consistent supply from a good local producer. We changed the format from the snack menu, made it slightly more restauranty, but still using the same suppliers and the same ingredients. We are confident that they are able to deliver on all the levels. We need to ensure we are cost effective, make good margins, whilst supporting local producers and of course they get the recognition they deserve. That dish is currently on our Totally Devon menu so it's great value for the customer. You've been here 16 years you said what do you feel has been your greatest success to date? I think last year finishing 52nd in the UK's Top 100 Restaurants as voted for by the Restaurant magazine is always going to be a bit of a highlight because you're in there, you know, you're sat on the same table as Alan Murchison and Will Holland. You find yourself sitting amongst these kind of like minded individuals who you really admire and you suddenly realise you've got lots in common and stuff to talk about. They're real people like everyone else aren't they? Oh yes. We're quite fortunate we've had two rosettes for the entirety of my tenure as head chef here and we've had the Michelin Bib Gourmand for ten years now. So we've very proud of our achievements but we don't talk about them necessarily in the way that we used to. We just like to look at what we do and ask how can we improve it and it's generally that we always resort back to training - training up the individuals and the younger members of team which is very important for us. What are your goals for the business then Matt My boss (Paul Parnell) and I sit down at the beginning of each year and discuss what our goals for the business are. Obviously it's increasing turnover because increased turnover almost always leads to an increase in profit and margins - it's intrinsic. A good month with a good volume always has a healthier bottom line, but with the world as it is; the economy, the doom & gloom and the cost of living going up, we wanted to be sure that we were making The Jack in the Green the best place to come and work that we possibly could. So whether it's looking after existing staff or recruiting new younger staff, it's about being tolerant and understanding of them. We train them up as best we can but are aware of their limitations. We just make the best of what we've got. What's the biggest frustration in your role then Matt? We don't like laziness or rudeness in the kitchen. That is our biggest frustration. Unnecessary mistakes are a big issue on the food front which ties in with people being lazy. We try and be polite and courteous at all times. We don't try and bawl people out and shout. I'm a parent myself. You've got teenagers in the kitchen coming through and you have to look their parents in the eye and tell them that you're doing your best for their kids which means the world to them. It's easy to forget that you're in a bubble in your place of work especially when you're really focused on what you're trying to achieve. If something's happened I'm asking myself; really, have I been fair? I try to treat people the way I would like to be treated in that situation. You talk a lot about the team how important is the team to your success? It's a big business and I've learnt, again over the years, not to be fearful of the up and coming talent. Scott has a new role as sous chef - he's been with us since he started washing up at the age of 16 and now he's turning 23. He's still very young but he's fantastic in terms of his flair so I turn to him for presentation ideas. He will eat out in all the top places, as will I, although I find my sort of food experiences slightly different now with a young family. I've got a week going up to do the London Marathon and during those 10 days off I've got dinner at Heston's and then The Ledbury. So I'll be doing all the fine dining stuff as well, but we're cramming it into weekends away because of the kids! That's going to be some weekend. I really hope so. Is that your reward for beasting yourself for 26 miles is it? I think so yeah, I'm ready for it and really looking forward to it. I'm quite sick of the training! Do you use the running as a release? Is it a stress release? Absolutely. In the bar there is a picture of me with Gordon Ramsay at a cookery demo I did, some six or seven years ago and I'm 17 stone. It is a disgusting picture, makes me feel sick. If I look at it now and I think about how I've changed. So what brought that on then is it a lifestyle thing? Probably getting a bit older, I'm 39 now, so I realised I was a bit overweight and wasn't looking after myself. Your work is your life and I wanted to make the most of my potential. We had a new kitchen built three years ago. The old one was getting a bit tired and we were all perhaps a bit frustrated. Now we're extremely happy with what we have and where we are and are more settled in our role. I lost some weight, I'm healthy and running now is as much a part of my life as the cooking is. It's much more well balanced and we've just had our second son Max which is great. It's the balance very good. Right last but by no means least then, 16 years under your belt where are you going? Where's the next five years taking you? Well interestingly enough I don't really know! But who does? I think everyone has a plan to 30 then beyond 30 they kind of lose it don't they? We strive to be the best we can so in that respect I am living my own personal dream, clichéd as it may sound! I want perfection but as I get a bit older, I also get a bit wiser. Having said that, it's still full steam ahead with the pub. There's so much going on and each and every day is a new challenge whether it's new chefs or new front of house coming through, a busy summer to look forward to, we've got the Royal Wedding, the Exeter Food Festival, the Easter weekend and the ongoing work I do with West Hill Primary School. Going forward I'm concentrating on new dishes and trying to involve Scott as the new sous chef as much as possible. It's a relatively new role but he's been here for a long time and I want the business to make the most out of his skills. It's a tough climate for pubs as well isn't it at the moment? Yes it is - I think we're showing 6% growth"¦ That's very good. This stands to be a good month with Mothering Sunday. Currently average spend is good, the footfall is good and we've got the new town coming here which is 1,000 houses which we're in the centre of. Fantastic. "¦so who knows what that might bring and, you know, there's always the lottery (laughs). Well listen thank you very, very much for seeing me today, I wish you every success. Thank you. And wonderful to meet you. Pleasure. Thank you very much. Are you a head chef like Matt, or looking to become one? If so then check out our jobs board for current vacancies. 

In these challenging times…

…the hospitality landscape has dramatically changed in the last two months, and with that our advertising revenues have all but expired, significantly impacting our business. Despite having to furlough a large portion of our staff, we are still delivering the valuable content and honest information, which hundreds of thousands of you come to The Staff Canteen for. We believe we have a critical role to play in informing and supporting our audience. We need your support right now, more than ever, to keep The Staff Canteen active. Without your financial contributions this would not be possible.

Over the last 12 years, The Staff Canteen has built what has become the go-to platform for chefs and hospitality professionals. As members and visitors, your daily support has made The Staff Canteen what it is today. Our features and videos from the world’s biggest name chefs, are something we are proud of. We have over 500,000 followers across Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube and other social channels, each connecting with chefs across the world. Our editorial and social media team are creating and delivering engaging content every day, to support you and the whole sector.

Your financial support means we remain independent and open to all. We were launched by a chef and remain the voice of chefs and other hospitality professionals.

We need your support to keep delivering the products and content that you love, giving you the platform to share opinions and inspiration. Every contribution whether big or small, means so much.
Support The Staff Canteen from as little as £1 today. Thank you

The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 7th June 2011

Matt Mason, Jack in the Green, Exeter

IN ASSOCIATION WITH