Despite the inconsistency of the judging, the clearly unrepresentative editing (even before I read accounts from contestants), the nauseating sexualisation of desserts by one of the judges and the bizaare nature of some of the tests, I rather enjoyed Masterchef 2009. There’s much I’d love to change about the format, mind, but I enjoyed it nonetheless.
And for once, I picked and supported the winner early on. The discussion and debates about the entrants (not to mention the judges decisions) raged across food discussion boards (such as the BBC Food Chat board) but both Pete and I were firm followers of Mat Follas aka Ming The Merciless and his appealing, heartwarming personality and unique brand of comforting food, well cooked and simply presented. There was much screaming at the telly during the final stages and much elation when his triump was announced.
Keen to keep up with what Mat was doing following his win, I quickly came across his blog and became a regular follower, leaving a comment now and again. We touched base on the UKFBA website and became twitter friends too. (Mat’s a gregarious chap and very much a part of the foodie twitter community).
I followed with interest his posts about finding a suitable venue, cleaning and decorating it, choosing the right furniture, taking on staff and working on the menu.
And shortly before it was due to open back in June, my brain finally made the connection between The Wild Garlic’s Beaminster location and our annual holiday with big gang of friends. Once I realised that our Charmouth location was a mere half an hour’s drive from Mat’s new place, I immediately got in touch to arrange a group booking.
Mat is – as anyone who watched him on Masterchef could no doubt guess – a helpful, friendly and gracious person to deal with and we pinned down a booking for 15 adults + 6 kids.
Of course, I couldn’t miss the opportunity to interview Mat for the blog so Pete and I made our way to the restaurant two days ahead of the booking. Pete got far more sympathy than he deserved for his truly atrocious hangover and I very much enjoyed grilling Mat, though I’m afraid I’m really not much of an interviewer – what played out was more of a (very enjoyable) two-way conversation than a professional “I-ask he-answers” affair!
Unlike many restaurants serving food of such a high calibre, Mat has deliberately created a casual and welcoming interior. The Marnie Moyle tables are a great style anchor.
I’m amazed at how Mat and his team cope with such a tiny kitchen. After enjoying the evening meal on our second visit, my amazement verges on complete astonishment!
Mat’s ethos is to use natural, locally sourced ingredients, (many foraged or provided by local amateurs) and to bring out the best in each. Both flavours and presentation are beautiful.
Fast Rider & Restaurant Style
Mat’s philosophy about motorbikes gives quite an insight into his feelings about restaurants – he says, “The scruffy bike in the square is mine. My philosopy on motorbikes is that they’re ridden not cleaned. If the day’s good enough to clean it then I’ll get on it and use it.”
And that’s kind of how Mat is about restaurants – Mat’s restaurant is all about the food and the company. As those who read his posts on the Guardian WoM blog will know, he certainly put a lot of thought and effort into décor. And I can tell you that he succeeded in creating a a warm, welcoming interior with a kind of Scandi-Dorset casual chic! But what he’s most focused on is ensuring that the food and drinks served are exceptional and that his customers are encouraged to relax, settle in and enjoy their visit.
We talk a little about a restaurant local to me – it sadly closed some months ago – which excelled at providing consistent good quality meals coupled with a genuinely warm welcome. Unsurprisingly, they had a large base of loyal and very regular customers! Mat nods in recognition and says how keen he is to ensure that he gets it right for the locals. This seems to be going well so far – it’s locals who’ve encouraged him to open for morning coffee/ brunch and he already has regulars, including a Tuesday Lunch Club of OAPS.
Happily for our group (of 15 adults and 6 littles ones), Mat says he really likes having children in.
I respond that “a lot of places can be quite funny about it. I understand there are some types of restaurants and occasions where taking kids doesn’t make sense. But there are some people who think kids should go everywhere and some that think they shouldn’t go anywhere.”
Mat answers: “I think kids should be out with you as part of their growing up. But we do struggle with it… we do dishes like a whole spider crab on the table and smooth rocks off Chesil beach [to crack it with] – a lot of customers love it and a small percentage absolutely hate it just because it’s a bit noisy…
I’ve had a few people come in and be determined not to like it.”
K: “I imagine it will get to the point where those who don’t like it will find a restaurant that suits what they’re looking for better…”
M: “There’s a very good restaurant down the road there that does linen on the tables…”
Mat’s approach to table setting is suitably relaxed. He uses paper napkins instead of cloth serviettes, places cutlery on the napkins instead of laying a formal place and sets out drinking glasses and jugs of tap water rather than a selection of wine glasses, many of which must simply be cleared away again when customers order other drinks.
This seems to be working. Mat tells me, “I’ve had people coming for anniversaries and they absolutely loved the atmosphere and that they don’t have to dress up. We have more and more locals coming, they can see what we do, they come with the right expectations…”
The Family, Changing One’s Life and Sourcing Food
K: “What do your family think of your new restaurant venture?”
M: “The family are enjoying it. Jasper, my oldest, loves it. He comes and works Saturday and leaves with a good amount in tips, about £10. At 11 that’s pretty good pocket money. And they all love coming to the restaurant. And they see me…I don’t know if they see more of me, but it’s quite nice that they can actually see what I do… When you have a corporatey job and it’s not relevant to their lives, the kids have no interest… whereas here there’s a direct relationship.”
K: And I assume you can bring them with you and involve them in finding the ingredients and supplies?
M: “Yeah, they came along to the water buffalo supplier this morning to get the meat and they loved it! They point at the animals and say yummy!”
I tell Mat about my sister-in-law. A few years ago, when her kids were younger, she not only grew lots of fruit and vegetables in the back garden, but also raised rabbits and chickens for meat. The children had a healthy understanding of where meat comes from. They knew that the animals they enjoyed playing with would end up on the table. I have a huge respect for the lesson she gave them.
Mat immediately identifies: “To me, that’s what we are, we eat meat, that’s what we do!
You’ve probably seen some of my innocent [online] exchanges with the veggies – I do understand their point of view but I don’t agree with it, frankly.
I do make a point of having vegetarian dishes on the menu. It’s interesting actually because on the blogging sides it tends to be very London focused and I’ve had discussions with people [who have said] “you should have two or three selections for vegetarians on the menu” – actually, last night I had just one vegetarian in so I’m just not going to do it. I’m not going to do a whole big menu for vegetarians. I need to do a veggie option that I would eat. I’m now doing that. What we have on today is a fennel thyme gratin, it’s really really nice, it’s really – meaty is probably the wrong description – it’s got a lot of umami flavour – that’s meaty by another name!”
I remember that there were some great veggie ideas in the comments to Mat’s Guardian blog entries on this topic.
M: “And I’ve gone and bought some of the books that were recommended on that and that’s where we’re getting some of the dishes from. I’m doing a thing for the Dorset County Show in a couple of weeks and their whole marketing angle is about loving your veg and the thing is that parents who don’t like certain vegetables put their kids off those vegetables so the whole point of this is to make dishes that the parents will start eating – rather than trying to convert the children to eating more veg we need to convert the parents first. So I’m doing a sprout dish, a celery dish and a broadbean dish. I need to come up with dishes…”
At this point we interrupt our chat as a bag of salad arrives. It’s collected by a local lady and includes a mix of salad leaves and edible flowers. And it’s stunningly beautiful!
Mat jokes : “It’s really hard dressing a plate with a salad this good isn’t it?”
Where did it all start?
Salad admired, I change tack and ask when Mat first realised he was interested in food, because clearly, it’s not a career path he chose until recently.
M: “Not so long ago; probably only 3-4 years ago. I was doing a lot of scuba diving, getting lots of crabs and scallops and things that you can eat and I was just conscious I wasn’t making the best of it. And My wife just bought me a day’s course at Rick Stein’s which I loved.
I mean I’ve always cooked but it’s always been the lasagne, the chillis and fairly standard kind of things. So then I started cooking with that [fresh seafood] … and I’m a bit of an obsessive so it just became an obsession and now we eat really well and the cooking’s gone pretty well…”
I want to go further back and ask Mat, “what are your favourite dishes that your mum used to make? Or childhood food memories?”
M: “Childhood? My mum used to make mince that was boiled and deep fried potatoes and that’s what I grew up on. I lived on grey mince and potatoes.”
K: ” I’m seeing why the foodie stuff came later! What about school dinners?”
M: “I went to boarding school when I was 10. I can remember being told I was going to boarding school. The best thing about it was I didn’t have to eat my mother’s cooking any more. I genuinely grew up with just a complete desert of any cooking talent.”
K: “No grannies that cooked great stuff?”
M: “No, my gran brought me up. From the age of 10 on I lived with my grandparents. And she did mince as well and she made curries which meant she got a teaspoon of curry powder and put it in the mince.”
In a voice that’s both fascinated and horrified, I ask “In the boiled mince?”
M: “Yep. So that was my childhood diet! Never any other cultures, nothing.”
K: “But I thought NZ was a pretty good place for food?”
M: “It’s fantastic. It’s one of the best places in the world – Now! When I was growing up it really wasn’t. It was kind of like old England.
K: “Guess that makes sense in terms of the shared culture…”
M: “And I went to boarding school and that was like a public school here I guess. I know how to cook liver and I appreciate people who enjoy liver slightly pink and soft and tender and lovely but my liver has to be shoe leather. I love it but I grew up on it!”
K: “So what food makes you happiest when you eat it these days?”
M: “Well cooked comfort foods. I’m doing a bread and butter pudding for lunch. Things like that. I never used to cook them and I’ve started cooking them and I cook them a bit here. And it’s nice with the locals – especially on the Tuesday for the Tuesday Lunch Club – it’s nice to do them a bit of comfort food and they really enjoy it… and that’s quite nice. Apricot jam, nectarines and all sorts through it and it will be really nice.”
K: “And what about savoury? I’m guessing seafood rather than meat or both?”
M: “No both. I was always a really big big meat eater, a really good steak I love. Sunday roast, chicken roast all of that. I love my food. Seafood, good seafood I really love but it’s hard to get good seafood.”
The conversation moves on to London prices for seafood and how much more Mat can offer for the money down in Dorset. I mutter that “I’ve not eaten very much fish and I would like to start eating more but the trouble is when I see something really gorgeously beefy on the menu I just can’t resist it, or lamb. I always think I must eat more fish because I do enjoy it when I have it but it’s just so hard choosing it over some of the lovely meat dishes.”
Mat agrees, “Yeah I tend to order meat when I’m out for a restaurant meal. Especially when I know the fish isn’t going to be as good as what I’ve done, which is a bit arrogant… but I tend to go for the meat too.”
Travelling & Working
I ask Mat if he has travelled much and about his international food experiences and he tells me he travelled a lot in South East Asia.
K: “So what’s your favourite food things that you came across?”
M: “Thai! I lived on an island in Thailand for a year, worked as a diver and it was just heaven – food and drink and diving every day!
From there, Mat went back to university in his mid-twenties and by his third year, he was setting up a computer company with a bunch of guys from Hong Kong and Taiwan. There was lots of travel during this period of his life. From that, Mat continued in the world of IT, most recently working for IBM before giving it up to switch to a career in the restaurant industry.
Ming The Merciless
We stop for a coffee break and I meet Mat’s charming little girl, Meadow, before we turn back to the questions.
Having followed Mat’s progress throughout Masterchef, and quickly become used to referring to him as Ming, based on his resemblance to Ming the Merciless, I ask him what he thought of the nickname?
M: “Yeah, yeah I was cool with that… I wanted it in the programme… I said “I really hope News Of the World does the look alike”, coz they do that every week, and they did!”
I wonder if Mat is still in touch with his Masterchef fellow finalists?
M: “Yeah, Andy was down here a couple of weeks ago… and I offered Chris the second chef job here… which would have been ideal for him…”
I tell Mat that, as far as we could tell according to what the producers/ editors chose to show, it seemed that Mat and Andy were the stronger contenders, with Chris not quite up to the same standard.
M: “For us it was obvious it was a two horse race, and Andy was very much ahead way into the finals… “
K: “You could see the skill Andy had with certain types of food, unbelievably precise…”
M: “Andy is more skilled still – his technical skills are well above mine and probably always will be… but we do different things.
We got on really well – production hated it, production wanted us at each other’s throats but no we got on well. But there was definitely competitiveness, proper competitiveness, that was the fun of it. What I didn’t want to do was win or lose to someone who was mediocre. Andy understands why he didn’t win – he doesn’t have his own style yet…”
K: “Watching, it seemed that you developed during the series?”
M: “Oh definitely, my cooking is completely different to when I started…”
K: “Did you expect to get so emotional through it?”
M: “No, god no! I mean, well you know what it’s like in corporate life – you never show emotion at all ever. So it was kind of weird but it did mean a lot – it’s about putting a piece of yourself out there and it’s not something I normally do.
The final, I know I was emotional at the end of that, but that was the culmination of three weeks of just… not sleeping… I didn’t know I could do it so it wasn’t until the final… that I actually managed to cook the three dishes in the time allowed, I had no idea going into the final if it was going to be a success or a complete disaster!”