Matthew Tomkinson, Montagu Arms Hotel, Beaulieu, Hampshire

The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 1st March 2009

IN ASSOCIATION WITH

This month's Staff Canteen, Chefs Web site featured interview is Matthew Tomkinson. Matthew who is head chef of the Montagu Arms Hotel Beaulieu Hampshire, where he and his team have won a converted Michelin Star in only his full first year.

Matthew was the head chef at the Goose in Oxfordshire, where he also held a Michelin star. Matthew's CV offers a less than structured career path within his early years, where he never took a college course or chef related qualification, proving that hard work and determination as well as the will to succeed can still deliver success at the highest level. Already a Roux Scholarship winner and a winner of a second Michelin star; Matthew is certainly a chef with a very bright future. 

Can you tell us a little more about your role?

OK, here I am the head chef of the Montagu Arms. We have two restaurants - the Terrace, which is the fine dining restaurant; and then Monty's which you could call a pub or Brasserie - nice simple food that's done really well. Mark does an excellent job of running that for me and then the team in total is currently 10.

Is this the biggest thing you have done, as a head chef?

Yes, absolutely. I have had all sorts of dodgy jobs over the years!

OK, you have obviously achieved the Michelin star, so what are the goals now? Does that put you under pressure now?

Umm, it's a difficult one. When I was at the Goose there was pressure on the star. I remember one day the boss came in and said "you know this time next year I may be coming into you and asking you what Pizza oven you want to buy" - jokingly, well he was serious but in an off-hand way. And I thought "C**P - What do you mean?" Nothing wrong with cooking Pizzas, but I felt there was a massive pressure there. If we didn't get the star we would have been going in a different direction. Here, there is pressure but in a very different way. The staff are so good here and the food, and the management - the star was something everyone wanted. I suppose it's the pressure at Christmas giving your son or daughter something they really want. So I think it has released some pressure. There is definitely the feeling of relief in the hotel, especially in the current climate to keep a star. As a business we'd like two. That starts now. OK. How long that takes, no one knows. Even if the company decides we don't want to go for two that's what we work towards now. We keep moving on - that is always my intention.

And has two always been a personal goal for you?

No, not really. I think I have always taken it a day at a time. Friends of mine say "no, you've always structured your career. You've gone from here to here." I have never viewed it like that. I have always thought - I'm heading in the right direction, let's just see. But I do think you get what you put into a job. So the more you put into a job the more you get back. It never really entered my head about getting a star then we did it at the Goose and got it again and then you start thinking, well, maybe why not go for two. What's the harm in trying?

What made you want to be a chef?

I have had a very unusual career. In terms of, the guy I used to go fishing with was a chef.

I used to think it was a very glamorous exciting job. We'd go out fishing, he'd go and do his night shift come back fishing the next day and tell me all about that night. And I thought it was fascinating. I look back now, and it was crazy, he was in a little French restaurant and he was telling me about making Garlic Bread, but at the time it just captured my imagination. I decided that's what I wanted to do. Did my A levels, got good enough grades to go to University. My parents wanted me to try for Uni, so I did Hospitality Management for four years. The third year was a placement year - so I badgered and badgered and badgered them to let me be a chef for a year. They didn't want me to - most students go off to America for a year and work in Marriott as a Graduate Trainee Manager. But that wasn't what I wanted. I wanted to stay in England and be a chef for a year and get it out of my system - that was the plan. Did it for a year, and that was it. . .

Got the bug. matt-tomkinson-6

Yes, knew that's what I wanted to do. So I finished my degree. Then went travelling for 6 months around India. Came back then I needed a job. A friend was running a vegetarian Café - took a job in the kitchen. Did a lot of strange jobs in the meantime - canteen; Italian restaurant. Then I met this chap, who gave me a copy of White Heat and My Gastronomy. I read them and thought "Oh, my God people do this beyond earning enough to go and get drunk. People take it very seriously, you know at the time it was Calamari and Garlic Mayonnaise and stuff like that. It just dawned on me that there was more to this than who could make the most Pizzas in an hour!

.matt-tomkinson-12 Where did you go for the Roux Scholarship?

Les Pres D'Eugenie, in South West France. OK. Really on Michel Roux' recommendations. The nature of the food suited what I was interested in. I was the first scholar to go to one that had been visited before because Andrew Fairle had been to Les Pres D'Eugenie however many years ago and I was the first one to repeat a visit.

>>> Read: The Roux Scholarship winners: where are they now? (part 1)

It's quite a tight knit community, isn't it the Roux Scholars?

It is, yes. Fundamentally you have got, on the whole, like minded people. Yes. OK, a lot you don't get to meet because they are abroad but it's only an annual thing. But you do have that support network. Like I have got to know Simon Hulstone well and slowly matt-tomkinson-8getting to know others because it does take time. I've only been on one trip because last year I was ill. The year before we went to Tuscany for 4 days; very subsidised; eat great food; drinking wine - it's fantastic. This year was Dubai but I was ill. Me and Martin were supposed to go but we were ill so we couldn't go, which was a shame. It's great. If I had realised the implications of winning the scholarship and how great it was it would have put so much more pressure on winning that I would have probably made a mess of it. I am glad you only find out after.

Yes, it sounds like you almost had a casual approach to it.

Yes. That helps. Because I entered twice - in 2004 I got though to the National finals and then 2005. I enjoyed it and you win very good money out of it. Do you? Yes, as a regional finalist you get some money (can't remember how much) but you get some knives and bits and bobs and then in the National finals the top prize is about 5K now. Is it? Yes, the year I won it was 2.5 or 3 grand. It's a fantastic prize.

But also it's the exposure it gives you.

Absolutely, the prize is great but it's everything else. It's the Stagés and the people you meet. The network. Yes, absolutely. Fortunately, or unfortunately - it depends how you look at it, people do look at you differently. It opens doors for you which would be harder to open for you or would be closed. I don't know whether it's right, but that's the way it is. It gives people more confidence in you whether it's a supplier, employer, PR company who ever. It makes people more interested in you, I suppose.

So when you were at Ockenden you said you were there for 4/5 years, what was your motivation to leave? Were you at a point there where you were thinking "I have to go and do this for myself" I want to get a star?

No, not a star specifically. When I was looking to move me and my girlfriend were looking to move in together somewhere. We've got quite an unusual relationship - we've been together 17 years and we are still not living together.

matt-tomkinson-11

Do you think now you are developing your own style?

Definitely. That was always the plan at the Goose, I mean, I wasn't there long but the Goose was a long term move - it was never intended to be a year and then out it was because the structure changed and the company changed that I had to move on. Fundamentally, I always like to cook good food using nice ingredients that people like to eat. Yes. Simple as that. And do it consistently well. So whether I'm here or I'm not here it's the same food. And that matters to me, because people are paying the same money - you don't get discounts because it's busy or quiet.

OK. So when you came here you inherited a team and you've had to establish you own team. Some fall by the way side and you have to re-recruit. What are you looking for in a young chef? 

I think, if you pin it down to very basic things. It's got to be honesty and letting me see who you are and giving me the impression that you have made an effort. You know, I get CV's in the post with no covering letter; even email with no covering letter; saved under ridiculous name - a jokey name. I'm sure you get it. But you think what does that say about this person. It says more about you than your CV does.

So what are you looking for when they come for an interview?

I'm not looking to see if they have got a suit on as long as they have made an effort in their appearance. They could be in a suit or jeans as long as they have made an effort. The initial eye contact. I don't want people to be too pally or too scared - somewhere in between. Someone who just comes in and feels comfortable, not taking the mick; not terrified of doing something; by their own accord talking to people in the kitchen "¦ they have got enough b***s to say "Hi ya I'm John, nice to meet you.  Beyond that first impressions are so important and how they conduct themselves on the day.

You've got fantastic achievements - Roux Scholar; Michelin star at the Goose; Michelin star, here, at the Montagu Arms - what keeps you motivated?

Umm, you know it's funny. I was talking to my girlfriend about this only the other day, I think it's good produce, the guys in the kitchen and responsibility to the guys and above. It's the constant desire to serve good food. It's as simple as that.

There is nothing wrong with that.

And I know the level I want to serve it at; what I'm happy with. And if I am serving food at that level then I am as happy as you like. When it dips below, I get angry not with them but inside with myself. And that motivates me. I love cooking for people and when they enjoy it - that's fantastic. That's what it's all about.

The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 1st March 2009

Matthew Tomkinson, Montagu Arms Hotel, Beaulieu, Hampshire

IN ASSOCIATION WITH