“The best you’ll ever make”: Matt Tebbutt
"The head chef is shouting at you and there’s Marco towering over you with an enormous fucking fish that he wants to make space for in the fridge."
Unwrapped, Saturday Kitchen and Market Kitchen presenter Matt Tebbutt is a little more local to OX Magazine readers than his Welsh cooking background might at first suggest.
Matt appears at Foodies Festival in Oxford in early September, but we don’t only want to talk about Oxford – here, OX’s resident food fanatic Jack Rayner chats with Matt about fish soup, foraging and Marco Pierre White.
Hi Matt, what inspired you to get into cooking and how did you get your first job in the kitchen?
I was training for the RAF, and back then when I’d finished my training, I’d go back to my shared house and start cooking for all my housemates. That became more and more fun, and food gradually took over my interests. London was booming with restaurants in the mid-90s, and I used to go out to eat with my girlfriend all the time. I was so into food that when it came to signing up for the RAF at the end of my three years of training, I ducked out of it and did a cookery course instead. I then went straight into work in kitchens, including for Marco Pierre White, Alastair Little and Sally Clarke.
I think I’m one of the only journalists who have survived an interview with Marco unscathed and without bursting into tears. Does Marco’s attitude in the kitchen – when the cameras or dictaphones aren’t rolling – reflect the persona that’s portrayed in the media?
I met him in his prime – he’d made a lot of money and I think that mellowed him a bit and took a lot of the stress out of his life – but he was still formidable. He has the most enormous presence and is brilliant at what he does. When I first worked for him he said, “You might be making nothing but fish soup all day, but it’ll be the best bloody fish soup you’ll ever make.” That was Marco to a tee.
He’s the king of culinary soundbites, I think.
Haha, yep, he’s got quite a few. The guy was exciting to work for – you never knew what you were walking into, or what could happen that day. He was a big fan of fishing, so there were times where we were in the middle of service at 8 on a Saturday night, doing 400 covers, and Marco would just arrive with this huge fish and demand space in the fridges and freezers. You’ve got to deal with all the customers, the head chef is shouting at you and there’s Marco towering over you with an enormous fucking fish that he wants to make space for in the fridge.
That sounds like Marco to me.
It was never dull.
So how did you move from those fierce, 15-hour kitchen shifts to cooking on TV in perhaps a slightly more relaxed environment?
Well, I never went looking for it. It was a lucky break, I suppose. I had a lovely review in The Guardian by Matthew Fort some years ago, and then four or five years later Matthew became a judge on The Great British Menu. He then had to put names forward for each region, and put my name forward. I lost against my friend Bryn Williams, but a week later, I had a phone call from a production company asking if I’d ever considered presenting. At the time, my restaurant had just gone through an awful December in terms of takings, so when I was offered something that would help pay the bills, it had to happen. I was never a natural showman, but it was a lifeline and one of those moments where you think, “Well, what’s the worst that can happen?”
You’re appearing at Foodies Festival this year. What will you be showing the Oxford audience?
I have absolutely no idea at the moment! It’ll be something seasonal, for sure.
Doesn’t every chef have to say that their food is seasonal?
Now, sure, but when I started my restaurant 14 years ago, those words weren’t around at all.
So how have you seen this attitude to locality and seasonality change since you started in the industry?
Beyond recognition. When I first started, we used to use products from Wales in my restaurant in Soho. It was a time when nobody wrote about where the produce had come from – you didn’t see “Hereford beef ” or “Welsh lamb” or what have you on menus. Those ‘farm’ words weren’t written at all. It’s something that other European countries have done for generations.
It makes perfect, logical sense, but in Britain it seems that we haven’t really understood it until quite recently.
It’s cheaper and it’s better. When I moved down to Wales, we started to do that, and the menu would change daily. Then, the foraging trend came into the fore and you could make even more use of the seasons.
Around Oxfordshire you have chefs like David Everitt-Matthias and Emily Watkins who have keenly introduced foraged ingredients like sorrel and wild garlic to their cooking.
Exactly. It’s become a huge thing. A forager from the Forest of Dean approached me and asked me if I’d thought about using X, Y or Z foraged ingredient. At the time, I’d only ever really come across wild garlic, and it was used very rarely. Now, of course, it’s everywhere.
Obviously, in the 70s British food culture was shocking when compared with the rest of Europe. Do you think we’ve caught up with the French and the Italians yet?
I think, certainly in restaurants, yes. We might have overtaken them, even. Some of the restaurants across the UK now are some of the best in the world. What we don’t yet have in the UK is your average Joe at home having the knowledge to use seasonal, local ingredients. That hasn’t spread across the board. There’s a big, strong, middle-class niche who go to farmers’ markets, but right from the grassroots level, we haven’t caught up with Europe yet.
How well do you know the Oxford and Oxfordshire restaurant scene? Care to drop any names?
The Magdalen Arms on Iffley Road. They’re old friends of mine and I just love that place.
Likewise. The best Sunday roast in the city.
That’s a typical example of what a great pub should offer. I also love The Five Alls at Filkins – Sebastian Snow is a great chef and that’s a fantastic place. I think, again, he’s one of those brilliant chefs who never quite got the recognition he deserved. He’s part of that intelligent wave of chefs who were well-educated and made the decision to go into catering, rather than having it forced upon him because he couldn’t find any other work.
What does the rest of 2017 hold for you?
I’m pretty tied up with TV at the moment. Saturday Kitchen is ramping up, I’ve got another ITV show coming out, and Food Unwrapped is carrying on. That’s keeping me busy! I’m also thinking of book titles at the moment, and I’m looking to get back into professional kitchens and do something new and exciting restaurant-wise.