Matt Wilkinson hails from South Yorkshire in the North of England. He has a way with seasonal vegetables and salads, and in fact with life that will leave you speechless. Matt loves life and everything in it, embracing cooking, his family and his business with an ardour far exceeding moderation. It is a joy to talk to people like him.
Hi Matt. You’re quite a name on the Melbourne cooking scene. When did you know you wanted to be a chef?
If I’m honest, I never wanted to be a chef.
I do now, obviously. But my parents divorced when I was eight. My father then moved into a pub. My father always worked, as far as I remember, in the alcohol industry. Up until I was about 10, my father worked for John Smith which was Scotch Courage…Fosters was theirs… He was the accounts manager for the North of England. When I was 10 he took ill health retirement and went into partnership and moved into a pub in Barnsley. So from a young age, I was 10, I was working in the pub; glass collecting, cleaning out the cellar, changing taps, cleaning lines, sweeping out the front and I wasn’t going to go into hospitality. I played football at a high level. I played at a high level at school and county level. I represented Barnsley School of Excellence, Yorkshire. I wanted to be a footballer and then at the Under 16s I didn’t quite make it into the major English trials. At that point, I just gave it up and was still at school, then left school and just worked in the pub, obviously I was 16 so I couldn’t do much. I couldn’t drink and I couldn’t serve alcohol, but my aim was to be the youngest publican in England.
Oh wow, ok.
But I had two years to cover and so I had to go back to college and that’s where everything changed. I did GMVQ hospitality in a catering management course to do Front of House. My tutor John Stevenson, in Barnsley, had a son who worked and lived just on the outskirts of London in a country house hotel. In my Easter holidays, John advised me to go down there and he organised two weeks work experience during the Easter holidays, this was in ’96 and part of that management course involved one day in the kitchen and I hated it, I thought it was stupid; you wore these whites, you had to wear a hat, a neckerchief, that traditional stuff. I cook in this now, a t-shirt and jeans and an apron. There was this whole hierarchy of chefs; it was all, “Yes chef.” As a 16-year-old boy I was quite wild and I didn’t like it. So anyway I was supposed to do a week’s front of house but he put me a week in the kitchen first and after my first day and a night, I saw my Head chef, Mike cut two of his fingers off with the same knife in one day.
Oh my god!
He cut off one finger and went to hospital before lunch service and then between lunch service and dinner service he cut his other finger off and went to hospital, got his finger stitched up and then came back for service and I was like, I like this industry.
[me, half choking, half laughing]
And then the next morning they brought me to the office and offered me a job there and then after one day. So at that point I was about to turn 17. At 17 I got offered £14,000 with accommodation and bills paid for. It’s a lot of money, English money, back then in ’97, as a commis and I accepted it, left Barnsley, moved to London and that’s where I got the bug. My first head chef was Mike Taylor. He worked under a crazy chef called John Burton-Race. There’s a famous panorama and document on violence in the kitchen. He was the head chef, pastry chef for John Burton-Race at L’Ortolan, two Michelin star, all top end. So I worked two years for Mike. It was his first head chef role so it was great, a real learning curve and then I went and worked for his best friend. Martin Wishart in Edinburgh, so I moved from London to Edinburgh when I was 19. I did just short of two years with Martin in Edinburgh, and we got a Michelin star.
And this is all French style cooking?
Yeah, French style. Then I moved to Australia. That was supposed to be for a break to then go back to England and work back in Michelin star restaurants there. I came here, loved it, met a girl, didn’t leave.
And here you are.
Here I am.
With a growing empire.
I’m actually shrinking it back down. I sold Jack Horner earlier this year.
So, Pope Joan and Hams and Bacon. That’s good because all that could get out of hand.
Life is crazy.
Now I read a comment you made a couple of years ago that you hate chefs…
I didn’t say that I hated chefs, I said that chefs are lazy and ignorant to the provenance of their food. It was with an ABC reporter and the end of what I said got quoted. The relevance to the words is that chefs aren’t lazy or ignorant as people, they work long hours and some people work really hard and long hours and some people just work long hours, it’s a very hard job. But I’ll say it again, I think that chefs are lazy and ignorant to where their food comes from.
Is that improving?
Hopefully. They’re lazy and ignorant to finding out the provenance of food, so where it comes from. Most chefs do their ordering at night-time, they don’t do it during the day so they leave a message for what they want for the next day. Most chefs couldn’t tell you how certain fruit and vegetables grow or when they’re in season in Victoria or even within Australia. They couldn’t tell you the difference between a heifer and a cow or a steer and a bull. I’m not putting myself forward as knowing more but it’s something I love and I think if you love cooking, you should love the provenance and how things happen and grow and where they historically come from.
I don’t think people are getting better about it. I think there’s a percentage of my peers that care and really do care and it’s obvious and the ones that don’t, well…
Do you think it’s harder at a certain level, as in it’s not their place and they have food costs to meet…?
Well I’ve got food costs and I hit 25%. Our average spend per head at Pope Joan is $22. You can go to a pub and they’re charging $28 for a Kiev or a parma. I’ll be honest, that parma would probably cost them $1.50, but it’s still $28 and a s a consumer we’re happy to pay it. But for $3, you could have had a free-range chicken. I’m not being controversial, I’m just saying that my firm belief is that cooking and eating seasonally and seasonally being Victoria, so if it grows here, that’s when I eat it. Tomatoes are about to come in so I can start eating tomatoes. Asparagus has just finished so I’ll stop eating them. I won’t eat from another country or even another state. As for animals, their husbandry, how they’ve been grown and even through to how they’ve been killed and how they’ve been transported. I want to know about it because I think it leads to flavour. Better raised animal lead to better flavour. I’m not about animal welfare, obviously I care about that but it’s not my prime thing, my prime thing is that as a home cook and as a professional cook, I want the raw ingredients to taste the best, so that when I cook it, I’m half-winning.
I agree, I think it’s also about what our bodies need at certain times of the year, so more citrus when it’s available in winter. I think we appreciate the flavours more when we wait for them. I remember talking to Rohan Anderson when I did one of those ‘city girl pays money to go to the country and despatch a chicken to better understand the food I am eating’ workshop weekends he used to run and he was saying, just the joy of eating a peach when it has just come off the tree and feel the juices trickle down your chin and taste the sunshine and you can’t recreate that from the cold store or when they have been imported from elsewhere and you have them all the time.
It’s about food knowledge. There are certain things that store really well and it’s called preservation. It doesn’t have to be salted or cured or pickled, preservation is, for example, potatoes. Generally you get six months out of them from pulling the out the ground. There are different varieties of potatoes that’s tore better and others that are good to eat now, like new season jersey royals are really good to eat now and they store terribly; they sprout and get wrinkly. The same with apples, different varieties of apple are great to eat off the tree right here, right now and then there are apples that are good for storage. We have always stored apples. We’re in December now, apples are done. You shouldn’t be eating any apples because the storage has already been 10 months. Two months without apples I think is ok, then once January, February comes, you’ve got apples we can eat and apples we can store. Then there’s pumpkin, if you’ve ever eaten pumpkin straight off the vine, it’s horrible and then there’s certain varieties you can. But you get a butternut squash straight off the vine, it’s not that good. If you give it a couple of months…we grew about 20 butternut squash at home last year and we still have three left to go. I’ve just pulled them out of the shed and they were amazing. Just having knowledge of food helps. It is about food costs. People talk about costs of food but I can’t understand people buying pomegranates for $4 or $5 each from the US to sprinkle on a little dish when in season they’re $1. And asparagus, I have a good friend, who is a very well known chef and he rings me up complaining that the asparagus is so expensive at this time of year. And I’m like…and I’m going to swear…of course it fucking is. It’s coming from Mexico and you’re paying $5 a bunch. In season it’s two for $3. And he’s all, this is my dish, what do I do with it? I say, mate, roast some carrots, carrots would be amazing in this dish. Chefs annoy me because it just needs a thought process. We are stagnated in how we do things. We think the menu always has to be like that. Clientele expect certain things. But that’s what specials are for. If you do have a dish that has roasted tomatoes on with a steak, you can change the roasted tomato on it. People aren’t going to go up in the air about tomato. They’ll go up in the air about the steak. This is what happens when you call suppliers at night. The guy with the asparagus, he could have called his vege guy and asked what else is good at the moment? The first lot of zucchini could have come in and that same dish, the basis of it would be just as good with zucchini.
Is the consumer also at fault here? Because we demand certain things without really having a knowledge about what we are asking for.
In the modern day, especially in Australia, too many people are worried about what other people are doing. I’m not having a go at anybody. I do what I do, I love what I do and this is how I do it. I’m not about to start to tell people, you shouldn’t be eating this or that. People should be allowed to make their own choices but the consumer…and I’m a consumer as well because I buy from a farmer, so I’m the middleman. I should be asking the farmer for what I like and he can deliver. I shouldn’t then go and tell everyone else what they should be doing. People are too concerned about what everyone else is doing rather than with what they’re doing themselves. If you’re making yourself happy and you’re ok then eating out of season, good, I’m not bothered about it and no one else should be bothered about it.
I’m just concerned about the small group around me, so for me, that’s myself, my wife, my two kids, my mum and my business because I can do that. In my business and my home, I choose to eat seasonally and cook with meat that has been raised well.
Do you say that in your books as well?
Yes. This is how I live my life. If you don’t like it, don’t have a go at me, I’m not having a go at you. If you like to go to McDonald’s, great. I grew up with McDonald’s being a sort of a surprise. Mum used to take us there every now and then as a, ‘well done’ kind of thing…you’ve just got your 200 metre swimming badge, well done. There’s many good things and bad things about McDonald’s, but I’m not going to have a go at McDonald’s, KFC, I’d have a go at because of the health and wellbeing of their chickens. But each to their own.
There’s too much nannying around with food as well. There are so many people around saying, how do we teach other people? I had one lady the other day saying, you guys should be doing this. But how about the government does it. They have a whole pool of money and I’ll just do my own little thing in my own little corner.
To me, it’s a life choice. I love my life. I love how we’re raising our kids. I love my wife and I love how we choose how we are. Here we eat seasonally and at home, we’re always talking about seasonal and we eat what is seasonal to Victoria.
Did you imagine this is where you’d be? Well I don’t imagine that it would be where you would have imagined yourself when you started off. When you were starting off as a chef, did you want your own place? Is that what all chefs want?
I had a dream. I sort of chased that Michelin star thing. I’ve been 16 years in Australia now. I did work at Vue de Monde which was a very similar European restaurant to what I was in in England and Scotland and I always dreamed of having my own place. It being a café, was a different thing but the word, café has started to change. I think Australia really changed the thought process around what a café is. And hopefully Pope Joan is evolving as well.
Absolutely. Is it easy for you to write the books?
Yeah. When I did book number one; Mr Wilkinson’s Favourite Vegetables, it amazed me that a lot of cookbooks, the author, the chef, isn’t there for the photo shoot. And a lot of them aren’t their recipes.
I always feel so disappointed when I hear things like that.
Book #1 was 135 recipes. It came out in 2011 and at that point I’d been cooking 17 years. So it was kind of like where I was there and then. It came out right at the point when I’d gone through a seasonal thought process where you think of the vegetable first and then add proteins. That still how I look at dishes. We’ve got a new menu coming out for the nights and zucchinis are amazing so I think, zucchini goes with caper and raisin dressing and ricotta. Beautiful, one dish done. The meat side of it is that we are getting a really big side of old cow, an eight year old cow, so we’re roasting that. It doesn’t need the seasonal thought process. So that was book #1, where I was. And then last March, in 2015, my second book came out, Mr Wilkinson’s Simple Dressed Salads. I think of most things as a salad. I love making salads. Leftovers to me can be a really easy salad. When you design a plate traditionally in the restaurant, it’s kind of salady like. So that was different ways to look at salad; fruit and vegetables throughout the year. And I’m just working on a cookbook which is Mr and Mrs Wilkinson, how it really is at home. It’s due out in February.
Book #2 was 129 recipes, this one is going to be 116 recipes of home recipes. I’ve been very fortunate with Pope Joan, I don’t lead a high restaurant life, so I do have a lot of life at home. So the things that we do at home to make a really crazy busy world easier. It’s how we eat. It’s a ‘this is my life and what we do at home.’ So things like rice pilafs and there’s a section called Mr and Mrs; when mum’s away and when dad’s away. We feed the kids different things. I hate pesto so when I’m away at night, they always have pesto. I hate Apricot Chicken, so that’s in the recipe book. I don’t want to eat it. I feed the kids things like black pudding and tripe and lamb because Sharlee doesn’t like offal or lamb and the kids eat it. And twenty minute meals. Some daft stuff as well; lunch, barbecues, leftovers. So the five meals I get from a roast chicken. Corned beef; how we make the corned beef and then five things we have from the corned beef. So it’s more of a real life cook book rather than a restaurant one.
Great. And just finally, your summer camp out…is that what it’s called?
Summer Camp Cookout.
I love that because who can do that when they live in an apartment or small house where they can’t have a firepit.
Well, you know, it’s a fun thing. We were closed nights from autumn this year, so we were closed over autumn, winter and spring and I love cooking and I often don’t get to do it much now, because I often end up running the business rather than cooking for it. That said, I have an amazing head chef and sous chef and amazing front of house, so this one is me coming back for all of summer. It will be all through summer, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday nights. There will be 9 to 11 dishes and we’ll all talk about it and then we’ll put them on for that week. And the booze, there’ll be 9 to 11 things, that’s the bracket, just things that we want to drink. The idea is that if you imagine coming to my house for a barbecue or fire pit, you wouldn’t have a selection of all things, you’d be ok with whatever there is and that’s the idea. There are four or five snacks, some turkey dim sims, some charcuterie, some miso radishes and then there’s salads; a zucchini salad, a cauliflower salad and a brown rice salad and then from the drums, we’ve got these drum fire pits, will be the old cow, some quail, some mussels with smoked tomato romesco, and some calamari with sea salt and aioli and lettuce. Then dessert is grilled strawberries with crème fraîche and a little white chocolate and tim tam bar and some cheese. The drinks are Jimmy’s punch, Pope Joan’s spritzer, which is sherry with orange juice and spritzer, which is absolutely delicious, two beers I love drinking at the moment and a cider, four wines that I love drinking. The idea is to do that through summer and then see where it takes us. But it’s me back cooking with my team and having some fun. For me, I’ll keep driving it, it’s ever evolving. I love this place. I think it’s an unusual space.
It is an unusual space, but it’s a great space and what I’m really enjoying is, I feel as though your passion for what you do and your enjoyment of life must come through your food and I’m a real believer in that side of things.
Definitely. That’s nice to know. To be honest, I’m crazy as. But more for enjoyment of life. The glass can never be fuller. It’s never empty. It’s not half full, it’s not half empty, I just keep topping it up. I like that. We often take ourselves way too seriously and I think there are a lot of things that are serious but then there is also a funny side of life. I enjoy it.
75 – 79 Nicholson Street, Brunswick East
Mon – Sun 7am – 3pm
Summer nights Wed – Fri Summer Camp Cookout
Photography by Lizzie Halloran