What’s the secret behind a Michelin star? Emma Caulton asked head chef Matthew Tomkinson
Unexpectedly for a Michelin-starred chef, Matthew Tomkinson, head chef of Beaulieu’s The Montagu Arms, wants to talk relationships, not food. But this is a man who struggled to choose between a degree in psychology or a degree in hospitality management.
His love of food comes from fondly remembered dinner parties and garden parties at his parents’ home. Food for him is about sociability.
“I always wanted to be a chef. My younger brother and I used to go night-fishing with a friend and his older brother who was a chef at an Italian restaurant. He would always join us, then go and do his evening shift, and then come back, and I always thought that was the most glamorous thing.”
While studying for his hospitality management degree he took his year’s placement at a Northamptonshire pub.
“The university didn’t want me to do a chef placement, they wanted me to go off and be a general manager in America, but I did it anyway and it was brilliant; I loved the practical stuff.”
His desire to learn more continually pushed him on through a series of eateries, including canteens and vegetarian restaurants as well as pubs, restaurants and hotels, until he reached a point where he realised he’d learned all he could; he needed to work for a Michelin-starred establishment.
So he went to Ockenden Manor in Sussex as chef de partie, even though they had at that time just lost their Michelin star, but he liked the atmosphere.
“Ockenden Manor turned my career round. It was an amazing experience,” enthuses Matthew. Working under head chef Stephen Crane, Matthew was awarded the Roux Scholarship and Ockenden regained its star.
He left to become head chef of The Goose in Oxfordshire where he gained his first Michelin star before coming to The Montagu Arms where he is responsible for the Terrace Restaurant and Monty’s Inn.
But back to that relationship chat.
“The most important word for me in this industry is hospitality a bit of warmth goes a long way; that’s what I am about and it’s that before anything else. The rest of it comes after. The service is just as important as the food.
“I employ solely on personality,” Matthew confides. “If people are responsive to learning that’s more important than an amazing cv, and I’ve worked with some of the guys for a long time. We want people who are friendly and get on together. I want to work in a kitchen where we enjoy what we do.”
His ethos of establishing good relationships extends to suppliers.
“I have always worked hard to develop relationships with local producers; it’s great to know The Montagu Arms has the same philosophy.
“It’s a family business, which is lovely, and people come back here again and again because they trust us to celebrate their birthdays and anniversaries.
“I’ve been here three and a half years now. Professionally it’s a wonderful place to work and personally its’a wonderful place to live. I didn’t know this existed. Even now the New Forest still surprises.”
Matthew is building on The Montagu Arms’ reputation for using seasonal ingredients, which are locally sourced when possible.
Two years ago walled and open kitchen gardens were created that enjoy a sheltered micro-climate behind the hotel. The ground was cleared, levelled and prepared by chefs, waiters and the general manager. They even had help from the locals. “The enthusiasm was startling,” says Matthew proudly. They’ve planted fruit trees which are still finding their feet, while the kitchen gardens are already abundant and productive with salads, vegetables and fruits. “We get gluts of stuff but the boon is we find uses for things which we wouldn’t normally do, and we’re making more pickles, chutneys and preserves.” They have 40 odd chickens for fresh eggs and even cure their own hams Parma ham-style.
Matthew is delighted to share the treats of the Forest: “During the pannage period in the Forest pigs roam free-range and feed on the acorns. Acorn-fed pork is great pork. We cure it and hang it for a year. It’s a really good old-fashioned product, but we present it in a modern way.”
Lamb is produced exclusively for them in Pennington, while Aberdeen Angus beef comes “from two miles that way”, prepared and hung by local butcher Nobby. Matthew may regard the Forest as a larder, but he’s not one for passing fads such as foraging everything has to deserve its place on a Matthew Tomkinson plate.
“Ceps are one of the most amazing things you can eat and so is samphire, but it’s got to taste good; why put it on a plate just because it’s wild?”
And along with relationships, that’s what Matthew Tomkinson is about, really great tasting food. He has shaped an evolving menu for definitive dishes that “makes you think ‘whoa’ I’d like to eat that.” It starts with dense fennel-spiked bread, followed by a shot of rich Parmesan cream and pumpkin veloute accompanied by the best cheese straw I’ve tasted in my life. Ridiculously good. A starter of sweet scallops is subtly warmed by Moroccan spicing; another of gurnard with crispy soft shell crab and crab bouillabaisse is intense and golden. There’s a refusal to share a main of wild sea bass with Jerusalem artichoke puree; but my main of Creedy Carver duck includes a perfect rectangle of smoked belly pork and caramelised endive which is possibly the most meltingly flavoursome mouthful I’ve ever eaten in my life. This is art for the taste-buds.
A dark cherry souffle is a puff of fruitiness offset by bitter chocolate sauce. A warm fig and almond Bakewell is another winning combination. Both were enjoyed with honeyed glasses of desert wine (liqueur muscat for the former; montbazillac for the latter). And the service is, yes, as perfectly balanced as the food.
If this is a relationship, it must be love.
By Emma Caulton New Forest Exclusive Magazine 2011
Photography: www.davidgriffen.co.uk coutesy of www.greatbritishchefs.com