Just three months after opening The Pass at South Lodge Hotel, an in-kitchen restaurant in Horsham described by some as ‘a novelty’, head chef Matt Gillan received the first three AA Rosettes of his career. But surprisingly the 28-year old chef did not undergo any formal training. Here, in BigTalent’s latest profile, Gillan tells Becky Paskin how having the right mentors, the monotony of working in Gordon Ramsay’s kitchen and courgette picking led him to head up one of the most eccentric restaurants of the year.
A desire to earn more money pot washing at Hampshire pub the Hen and Chicken than delivering newspapers kick-started Gillan’s career in the kitchen, and despite an attempted day release course at Basingstoke College of Technology, the young chef found training in the workplace rather than the classroom a more fruitful path to travel.
“A lot of chefs that go to college and then come into the industry don’t last more than a couple of years because they’ve not had the experience of what a real kitchen’s like,” Gillan muses. “But I’ve been here since day one and know what to expect, so I think I’ve actually lasted longer by not going to college.”
Claiming he picked up more skills in two years working under head chef and mentor Nick Wentworth than if he had attended college, Gillan explained how necessary having an active role model was in his decision to ditch classes for workplace experience.
Someone to look up to
“You need somebody who’s going to be truthful with you and not colour the industry with rose tinted glasses. It’s a difficult trade and you do need someone who knows what they’re doing, who’s going to encourage and build your skills, and will give you a good base when you start in your first couple of years.”
After spending a further eight months with Wentworth at Hunters restaurant in Winchester, Gillan saw the opportunity to take the next step in his career and moved to Cambridge to work as chef de partie at the two Michelin starred Midsummer House, although the position was not at all as he expected.
“The chef de partie role at Hunters was nothing like the position at Midsummer. I found it tough, really tough. While Hunters was very relaxed, the head chef at Midsummer House, Daniel Clifford, used to work for Marco Pierre White, and is a two star chef himself now, so he was very strict. I think I was a little bit na?ve but they took me on anyway and I managed to get a real grounding and training from there.”
Gillan spent three years at Midsummer House working under Clifford, counting himself lucky he had found a second mentor to help develop his culinary knowledge and presence in the kitchen. If it wasn’t for Clifford, Gillan says he may not have had the confidence to apply for a commis chef role at Restaurant Gordon Ramsay in Royal Hospital Road.
“Daniel gave me a lot of support and cemented what I wanted to be as a chef. He pushed me hard but only because he saw I could be pushed. When I applied for Gordon Ramsay, it was because of Daniel saying I was ready to go.”
The repetition of Ramsay
Gillan grasped his opportunity to move on to one of the only restaurants in the UK to hold three Michelin stars, a respected establishment at which one would expect to learn more intrinsic cooking skills. Gillan however, was surprisingly disappointed, lasting just nine months.
“It was quite repetitive, it was the same thing everyday. When I was at Midsummer there was a reason why we did things. If something went wrong I wanted to understand why it went wrong, and at Gordon’s, it was just wrong because they said so. It was good to do it, but that’s not the way I like to learn. I like to keep busy and do different things, and although I did learn about organisation, efficiency and consistency that was the ultimate reason why I left.”
Gillan moved onto a year’s position as senior chef de partie at two Michelin star restaurant The Vineyard at Stockcross, before deciding the time was right to do something he had always dreamed – travel. He spent four months working at a small restaurant in Melbourne before travelling up the east coast of Australia to experience life at the other end of the catering spectrum.
“I spent two weeks picking courgettes because there was no other work available. That was physically the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do,” he sighs. “When you have to constantly take painkillers to get through the day there’s something seriously not right there.”
Upon returning to the UK, Gillan applied for the position of sous chef at the Camellia, South Lodge Hotel’s three AA Rosette restaurant. Executive chef Lewis Hamblet made Gillan head chef after a year, although he claims he ran the kitchen from the moment he stepped into the hotel.
“Lewis just left me to it really, and gave me a lot of free reign over the food although it was quite restrictive because of the clientele. I did get to put my stamp on the Camellia though, which was good because it kept me and my imagination going.”
Handing over The Pass
With a year’s experience leading a team of chefs to cater for the 75-cover Camellia, Gillan was approached with the unique notion to head up a new, much smaller restaurant inside the kitchen, adequately named after the point a dish is handed from the kitchen to the restaurant.
“The Pass came about because we needed a new kitchen at South Lodge. The restaurant around it was growing so plans were in place for a new kitchen with a Chef’s Table, which everyone does now, so it was a bit of a joke that we put the restaurant in the kitchen. One of the directors jumped on the back of that idea, thinking it was completely unique.”
But while Chef’s Tables are cropping up in high-end restaurants around the country, some have described The Pass’s concept as a gimmick, with Jasper Gerard of the Telegraph commenting that ‘in an age of themes, it was inevitable that someone would plonk a restaurant in a kitchen.’
“We have been described as a novelty by a national newspaper, yes, but I try not to read too much into that. If you look at the way that restaurants are now offering taster menus, which are very much focussed on local food, and how people are a lot more interested in chefs and behind the scenes in the kitchen in general, we’re just catering for people’s interests really. And it’s only going to get bigger as people aren’t going to lose interest in food.
“Now I keep getting told, ‘this is your baby Matt, look after it.’ We opened in November and it’s done fantastically well,” he beams. “We got our three AA Rosettes in record time.”
The AA’s swift recognition of The Pass is testament to the work Gillan and his team have put in over the last three months. With a restaurant philosophy of ‘seasonal food with an element of fun; basically (Gillan) on a plate’, the head chef that began his career pot washing with no formal training has proven success is possible if the hunger to learn is there.
Now, after sister restaurant The Latymer at Pennyhill Park this year won the Exclusive Hotels group its first Michelin star, Gillan jokes the expectation is there to be the next in line.
“It puts a lot of pressure on us, and there is an expectation now because we got three rosettes in such a short space of time, but if it comes it comes, and if not we’ll just work a little bit harder,” he shrugs.