Matthew Tomkinson worked his way through the lowest to the highest kitchens, gaining a Roux scholarship and several Michelin stars along the way. Thirteen years after setting off on his culinary journeys, he is now head chef at the Montagu Arms in Beaulieu, New Forest.
How I got here
I was originally going to do psychology and be clever. But when I was younger I had a friend I used to go fishing with and he was a chef. I thought it was very glamorous and wanted to go into that. But I made a deal with my parents that I’d do my ‘A’ levels, and when I passed them I went on to do a degree in hospitality management.
I loved the more practical side of the course, and for my third year work placement I managed to work as an apprentice chef in a pub. I absolutely loved it, but at the time it was more about the camaraderie, it wasn’t so much about the food. In 1998 I went to work in a vegetarian restaurant in Cheshire, and that’s where I learnt about different types of ingredients I’d never known – I learnt about how different vegetables should taste rather than just being a garnish for a piece of meat.
My next job was in a pub in Warwickshire. I learnt a lot there about the way things work behind the scenes, but it was all about volume and being as fast as possible. In 1999 I got a job in the Simply Nico restaurant at Crowne Plaza. The head chef there, Craig Gray, was just fantastic. His menu blew me away, I didn’t know what half the things were so I knew this was a great place for me to work. He switched me on to the idea that cooking was more than just a belly for the food.
The next job I really learnt from was at the Ockenden Manor in West Sussex. I just clicked with the head chef, Stephen Crane. I owe him a lot, I wouldn’t be where I am now without him. I stayed at Ockenden for four and a half years. While I was there I won the Roux scholarship in 2005.
In 2007 I went to work at what I consider to be my first head chef job at the Goose in Britwell Salome in Oxfordshire, and a year later we got a Michelin star. But I left shortly afterwards as the company wasn’t doing well and I didn’t want to go down with a sinking ship. In June 2008 I joined the Montagu Arms as head chef.
Montagu is 22-bed country house hotel with two restaurants, the Terrace (Michelin-starred fine dining) and Monty’s, which is an informal brasserie.
Last year we put in our own vegetable gardens, which we look after ourselves. We also have 26 chickens for our eggs for breakfast. We have an ethical food policy, we only use meat that’s been ethically reared or free-range – the best we can buy. We also care a lot about our footprint so we recycle everything from the kitchen, it goes to composting.
The Roux Scholarship
The biggest challenge for me was entering the Roux scholarship, as I’m not a particularly competitive person. You learn so much by taking part in the competition, it makes you go out and read and learn, discover, try, and test. The competition is worth entering whether you win it or not. It’s a great experience, it really grows you as a person. The whole experience distilled in me is that the name of the industry is hospitality, and our objective is to be hospitable. That says so much about where the industry should be, can be and sometimes is.
Something I’ve learned
Years ago I went to work at the Ivy for 4 weeks – it was an eye opener. I was in awe of the place, I’d always wanted to work there, but it made me realise I never want to be a small part of a big team. I like being a large part of a small team. The Ivy is a machine serving hundreds of people every day at a really good level. But I felt disconnected from the diner.
For me it’s all about looking after your diner and offering hospitality. My mum and dad are very hospitable. People come round and they feed people to death, and I love that. And I get to do that for a career.