Matthew Tomkinson, Montagu Arms, Hampshire

The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 21st June 2012

Matthew Tomkinson has been at the Montagu Arms since 2009, and in the first six months of working there he won the hotel a Michelin star. He started his career working in a pub kitchen for a year’s internship, and, realising he loved it, moved on to work at the Greenhouse vegetarian restaurant in Cheshire.

After this Matthew spent four years as the chef de partie at Michelin starred Ockenden Manor, during which time he won the Roux Scholarship in 2005, aged 29. He then went on the win a Michelin star as the head chef of The Goose in Oxfordshire. The focus of the menus at the Montagu Arms is seasonal ingredients carefully selected from local suppliers and the hotel’s own vegetable garden. Matthew’s philosophy is to create fresh, beautifully cooked, simple foods. His style at the hotel is classic French techniques mixed with his love of home cooked foods. 

Matthew Tomkinson Menu Watch, let’s talk about the number of menus that you run here at the Montagu Arms.

We've got two restaurants here, we have an à la carte menu in both so one in the brasserie. Monty’s, one in the fine dining restaurant. We run a lunch menu in both and on top of that we have our wedding menus, banqueting menus and it means quite a lot really.

Are the dishes off the à la carte menu but incorporated to form the lunch menu?

No.

So it’s completely separate. So it’s quite a lot of mis en place?

Lunch menu is very cost effective and different price point, two courses are £19, three courses £23. There was a survey recently of the cheapest one stars in the country, we’re 14th or something like that.

More menu’s increase the mis-en place you have to hold, does therefore potentially make it more difficult to be consistent in delivery?

I don't think so at the moment we don’t run an à la carte at lunch, we're going to this year. I've got a new chef settling in and once he's settled we will. We offer three, three, and three, it’s not derived from the à la carte but obviously if we've done a wedding tasting and we've had to make a chicken parfait we’d use that on the lunch menu. We need to be creative with what we have and what we’re holding in stock

Does being predominantly a hotel mean you have to be seen to change your menu more often? 

I don't know it’s an interesting question, it’s that pretentious word, we tend to evolve our menu. So we've had a scallop dish on, that's been on for probably two years and there's no slowdown in sales, there's no slowdown in our enjoyment of producing the dish, there’s certain elements aren’t…it sounds like I'm saying it’s not a seasonal dish but there are elements on there that don’t rely on the seasons. So it can continue through. It’s one of our best-selling dishes.

Why change it?

Exactly but sometimes it does cross your mind should we be changing it There are other things that come on, they last a couple of weeks, we get fed up with it, the guest feedback isn’t as good as we’d hoped, we move on with another dish.

So is guest feedback an important driver in menu change, how many it sells, seasonality, all form part of the change process in your menu engineering?

Absolutely. A dish will come on the menu, we've got a new seabass  dish at the moment, it’s sold really well and then the weather dipped again, because it’s a lighter dish, it’s not sold so well, so we’ll rejig the wording and see if the that helps. If then that doesn’t help we’ll know it’s a dish that even though we love it guests aren’t getting that instance appeal from it. I want a menu that I sell, as far as possible, a balance of all the dishes. I don’t want to sell scallops and beef all night long, I want to sell a mix of ingredients. I don’t want things hanging around the fridge and going past their best. It’s a shop window isn’t it the menu, it’s a tool that we use and it may appear static to the guest or even to the front of house staff but we're constantly reviewing it and looking at it to see how much it can work for us.

Chef is no longer just a cook he has to be a businessman now. How do you go about costing your menus? Do you cost each dish? Do you cost a menu as a whole menu, how do you approach it?

I have quite a simple formula, my margin here is 74%. Monty’s Brasserie gets given 70 regardless. So my first area of concern is Monty’s to make sure we're hitting 70 because we buy as one business. If I'm losing money at Monty’s it goes downhill from there, I know at the end of the month I've had a dip or a rise. So if Monty’s is selling lots of steaks and prime fish we’ll have a bit more of a struggle hitting the margin.

So sales mix can affect your margin quite hard?

Massively, particularly in Monty’s because Monty’s can be everything to all people. It offers people a fish and chips, nothing else and they come in and it’s a plateful of food and they can go away happy, because where we are in Beaulieu you've got passing trade, you've got people who come out on visits for the day. So it can be a sandwich, fish and chips, a burger, but then it can be a three course meal.

But it’s important isn’t it to have two dining options now especially in a hotel?

Yes it is. To answer your question on costing the principle I use is look after the pennies and the pounds look after themselves. So we waste nothing. We start off there, we buy well, so we tend to buy whole lambs and whole pigs and things all from local farms, not all the time because it’s not practical but we buy well so we can use everything. We have our banqueting menus designed to take up the slack from my other menus. So my banqueting menus and any corporate functions, any buffets, are designed to take up the slack of wastage from other areas because it’s still good food made by the same chefs. So some of our menus are designed to be written fairly loosely or the garnishes are loose so we can adapt things.

So there's lots of a process you go through it’s not just about buying at the best price and selling as high as you can.

Absolutely.  I've been a head chef now in decent places for five and a half years, from the Goose to here and even in that time the difference I've seen in how hard it is now.

But food prices are on the up also… 

Absolutely I was paying I think £29 for a box of butter when I was at the Goose and now, well it depends on the week but around about £42.

And it’s difficult to pass that directly on isn’t it? Absolutely. We’ve found that by improving the quality slowly here we've managed to increase our turnover but if you look at our £65 menu people think, ‘Wow, that's a lot of money,’ you knock of the 20% VAT, I cost at 76% because my target’s 74, so 76,I basically do is I divide by 4.2. That gives me my cost price, on what I can spend on a three course meal, plus canapés, plus bread, plus butter and it’s about £12 per person. If I buy a piece of bass locally and it’s coming in at £7 or £8 a portion you've really got every other area to be working for you.

Absolutely. We’ve found that by improving the quality slowly here we've managed to increase our turnover but if you look at our £65 menu people think, ‘Wow, that's a lot of money,’ you knock of the 20% VAT, I cost at 76% because my target’s 74, so 76,I basically do is I divide by 4.2. That gives me my cost price, on what I can spend on a three course meal, plus canapés, plus bread, plus butter and it’s about £12 per person. If I buy a piece of bass locally and it’s coming in at £7 or £8 a portion you've really got every other area to be working for you.

Absolutely. We’ve found that by improving the quality slowly here we've managed to increase our turnover but if you look at our £65 menu people think, ‘Wow, that's a lot of money,’ you knock of the 20% VAT, I cost at 76% because my target’s 74, so 76,I basically do is I divide by 4.2. That gives me my cost price, on what I can spend on a three course meal, plus canapés, plus bread, plus butter and it’s about £12 per person. If I buy a piece of bass locally and it’s coming in at £7 or £8 a portion you've really got every other area to be working for you.

Absolutely. We’ve found that by improving the quality slowly here we've managed to increase our turnover but if you look at our £65 menu people think, ‘Wow, that's a lot of money,’ you knock of the 20% VAT, I cost at 76% because my target’s 74, so 76,I basically do is I divide by 4.2. That gives me my cost price, on what I can spend on a three course meal, plus canapés, plus bread, plus butter and it’s about £12 per person. If I buy a piece of bass locally and it’s coming in at £7 or £8 a portion you've really got every other area to be working for you.

Absolutely. We’ve found that by improving the quality slowly here we've managed to increase our turnover but if you look at our £65 menu people think, ‘Wow, that's a lot of money,’ you knock of the 20% VAT, I cost at 76% because my target’s 74, so 76,I basically do is I divide by 4.2. That gives me my cost price, on what I can spend on a three course meal, plus canapés, plus bread, plus butter and it’s about £12 per person. If I buy a piece of bass locally and it’s coming in at £7 or £8 a portion you've really got every other area to be working for you.

How flexible are you in your menus? To take certain fish that's been landed by the day boats or something that's just come into season? Do you have that flexibility on your menu to accommodate this?

Yes our menus are printed in house. We tend to have a fixed garnish because it makes it easier for the kitchen. Up until this year when we put another chef in we haven't got a massive amount of slack in our system. So we have a fixed garnish and then we have a fish that changes but with the Brasserie and specials we can almost take any fish, even if it’s not perceived as being a fish that's worthy of a £65 menu, it can be put onto the Brasserie menu, it can be put onto our lunch menu. Last night we had a corporate dinner in and we had some lovely hake and we put that on the menu, because their three courses at £35 for dinner in the Terrace, hake sits perfectly on there. So we can take advantage of if the quality is right.

Last question for you then what’s your favourite season and why?

You get asked this a lot. I don't really know , I think like a lot of chefs say I think the next season. I think you get fed up and this is why this year’s been difficult because we've had a start and then a stop with the weather and we work quite closely with local growers and local producers and they’re having a nightmare. We pay a premium for some of the things we buy locally, particularly veg, they’re just having to throw crops away because it’s bolting, because it’s sunny, it’s raining, it’s cold and the same thing in Scotland. Our scallop supplier, end of last week, saying to me, “I haven't got scallops it’s two degrees here.”

If you don’t have scallops what do you do seek an alternative? Do you have a plan B, south coast for scallops?

Yeah personally I prefer north coast and Scottish, I just like them more and we've a fantastic supplier our own divers they’re not available so then I ring up…we've got a really good local fish man who actually got them from Shetland anyway in the shell, divers, but they’re a phenomenal difference in price I paid £2.57 per scallop, normally they’re nowhere near that. It’s an emergency, because of our residents. If I can’t get something I can't get it but I can’t not offer a couple of items on the menu during a couple of nights stay while they’re here, it’s just a poor show I think.

Are people becoming more accustomed to the fact that you’re dealing with a live product and you’re dealing with nature and therefore if it physically isn’t available it isn’t available? That's not to say you don’t put an alternative on.

For me if I…say on a Thursday I will call our own divers and they’ll say, “No, no I can’t dive,” we've got two or three other fishermen that we use and if they say no then it’s no and we’ll likely say we’ll seek an alternative but I'll go as far as I can within reason but I think when people walk into a restaurant they really don’t want to be disappointed if they have their heart set of perhaps crab or scallops, so we work very hard to ensure we maintain them on the menu for our guests.

Of course, well listen thank you for your time. Thank you for seeing me so quickly. 

Pleasure.

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

The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 21st June 2012

Matthew Tomkinson, Montagu Arms, Hampshire