In Conversation with Matt Wilkinson
For a man who hails from South Yorkshire, England, chef Matt Wilkinson has an unparalleled love for Australia. Then again, you could drop this green-thumbed chef into any corner of the world and he would, no doubt, create dishes that sing of their surrounding land.
The Pope Joan founder and creative director of Four Pillars Gin now boasts another role, that of the self-titled Culinary Captain at the Mornington Peninsula’s Montalto. Working amid the estate’s lush three-acre kitchen garden, Wilkinson may well have found his home away from home. Here, EatWell talks to the chef about his accidental journey into the food world, the power of growing and the joy in sharing a meal with loved ones.
Matt, tell us about your journey into the food world. Where did it begin and how?
It’s a funny story really as I hated cooking to begin with. My parents split when I was little and my father moved above a pub where I started working from a young age. When I left school, I wanted to run a pub but at the age of 16 I couldn’t drink, let alone manage a pub, so I did a hospitality management course. Part of the course was spending one day in the kitchen, which I hated, but my tutor John Stevenson (a former chef) saw something in me and arranged for me to go to work at a boutique hotel on the outskirts of London where his son was the sous chef. It was a two-week placement during which I was supposed to do one week front of house and one week in the kitchen. The crafty old bugger organised two weeks in the kitchen, and after day one I was hooked. The next morning after my first night’s service, I got called into the office with the head chef and general manager of the hotel. Now no good had ever come of me being called into an office before, so it was to my great surprise that they sat me down and offered me a job. I started one month later and have never looked back.
You recently took on the role of culinary consultant at Mornington Peninsula’s Montalto Estate. What is it like creating food from the famous estate gardens and do you have a favourite dish?
Yes, I am now officially staying on as the self-titled Culinary Captain. The main reason for me staying is the garden and estate — looking around to see what is available locally and then putting that on the menu is how I cook. It’s a flavour thing; take for example a dish that will be on until the end of summer: fire-roasted zucchini, ajo blanco, dukkha. Such a simple dish but with the zucchinis coming straight from the ground and within minutes being in the kitchen, it turns into a flavour bomb.
Tell us about your relationship with sustainable eating?
My love of sustainable eating starts with good produce grown with thought and care for the environment. Creating a harmonious environment, not just in nature but in your life too, brings balance and creativeness. Add a little fun to it all and that’s the recipe for a great life. Food and the joys food and drink bring is what I focus my life around.
Is there a particular style of food or eating you enjoy bringing to Australia?
I have now lived longer in Australia than I did in England, but my upbringing and connection to British nature is still raw within me and is the reason why I love nature and the countryside so much. My cooking has nods to the UK: a love of seafood, root vegetables, brambling and offal. These indicate that my heritage still plays a role in what I love to cook and eat.
What is your perfect dining experience?
The people you share it with. Food is just a tool to bring happiness and communication to the table; it’s who you share that love and laughter with that makes the dining experience special. My favourite meal will always be my nan’s Sunday roast as a young one, when we all came together as a family. Now it’s sharing meal time with my own family, especially a fried English breakfast, which makes it the perfect day.
What is something that has inspired you lately?
Julie Bennett, the gardener at Montalto, is such an inspiring human; her hard work, natural care for her environment and sharing of knowledge are phenomenal. I love learning and watching how she goes about her day, like a little flower pot of sunshine.
Are there any food trends you’re bringing to your cooking?
I’m not really a trends kind of guy; cooking over fire is hot right now (literally), but I’ve always loved cooking over coals.
What are you enjoying eating at the moment?
The beans have just started and corn; the two for me aren’t just a marriage in the garden, but on the plate too. Freshly picked corn with its slightly liquorice sweet tones is such a joy, as are beans simply boiled and dressed with feta, the oil from the feta jar, lemon juice and a few soft herbs like parsley, mint and tarragon.
How do you think our food choices impact society more broadly?
We have completely lost connection to our food sources. I don’t want to talk doomsday, but I think we are too far gone. Hopefully the challenges of 2020 bring back some form of connection to the land and what and why we eat, and the impact that has on the world.
Do you think food can play a role in shaping a better future for the world?
Most definitely; all agriculture does. We all have a part to play in that through the choices we make about what we consume or wear.