DONKEYS and weekday tourists stroll in the winter sunshine past the window of the wood-panelled room of the Montagu Arms where Matthew Tomkinson is recalling moving from where he grew up in the north-west of England to Beaulieu in 2008.
“I came for the job and it felt, for me, like I kind of discovered this area and it felt really lovely. I love it. I do not give to the area, I feel. I take, really, because it’s such a good place to live,” he smiles, in a voice that still holds a regional twang.
“It’s one of those places where people come on holiday. I think there’s a really nice atmosphere in the New Forest.”
With his partner of 25 years, freelance journalist Alexandra Coxon, and his three-year-old daughter Esmé, he’s putting down roots in Pennington where he recently bought a property having previously rented on the Quay in Lymington.
It’s the latest step in the 42-year-old’s successful career which turned up the gas in 2005 when judges including Gary Rhodes and Rick Stein awarded him the Roux scholarship – a scheme launched by luminary cooking brothers Michel and Albert Roux to boost British food.
It earned Matthew a three-month stint at Michel Guérard’s three-Michelin star Les Prés d’Eugénie in south-west France and he never looked back.
He’s reluctant to describe his style for fear of sounding “poncy” and he admits to avoiding “confrontational” cuisine. It’s been described as “French-influenced” and at the Montagu Arms’ fine-dining Terrace restaurant diners can rack up a bill of £175 each for his signature tasting menu paired with fine wines and featuring local, seasonal ingredients.
Matthew’s first Michelin star came in 2008, just months after arriving as head chef at the Goose in Britwell Salome, Oxfordshire.
He modestly calls the Michelin awards just “a guide book” but he recalls the first win: “I sat upstairs just looking at the list posted by [food writer] Jay Rayner. I was speechless – and I can chat quite a bit. We knew we had been inspected but we did not expect to get a star.
“The impact it had on the restaurant was amazing. We did seven covers the night before and the next night we could have sold the restaurant out three times over. It was just ‘boom’. I was so proud.”
The triumph of 2009 when he won his second star at the Montagu Arms was followed in 2016 by the disaster of losing it following a bad inspection, which was blamed publicly on the kitchen being midway through a refurbishment into the impressive operation it is today. It was a loss to the New Forest too which still lacks a venue boasting such official acclaim.
Matthew got the bad news in a call as he was dropping off his daughter for swimming and had to dash back to the restaurant where he was confronted by the inspector.
“He was sat with his legs out and glasses on his nose,” he recalls. “It was like a horrible rinsing out from the head teacher – it was horrible, really bad.
“It was gutting. We knew something was going to happen. Like when you’re not 100% but you have a feeling. I thought we would lose it.”
Chefs have been known voluntarily to return their Michelin stars, such is the pressure of trying to second guess the inspectors’ standards.
“You look at everything you do and ask, is this good enough? I am not convinced it’s always a positive influence, for that reason.
“I was not a kid but you still question yourself. You never really know what they are looking for. You say you do not cook for [the inspectors] and we cook for the customer. But it felt a little like a weight. I did not realise how much it had ravelled round me.”
In fact, the loss of the star helped him relax his control of the kitchen, he says, which fostered more of a team spirit. “We’re better now,” he insists, but determined to reclaim Michelin status. “No one would want to go through that again.”
Possibly his proudest dish is a direct result of that – one in which he had no input but was suggested to him by a collaboration of his more liberated chefs. He expected to hate it and demoralise his team with his reaction. But he loved it.
His own talents have caught the attention of the BBC’s popular Great British Menu series which annually pits regional chefs against each other for the honour of cooking at a glitzy four-course banquet. Last year’s celebrated 140 years of the iconic Wimbledon Championships.
Researchers test-filmed him but he sensed they were unimpressed with the level of tele-friendly drama he was able to generate.
“I do not spend a lot of time slapping myself on the back or kicking myself in the nads,” he surmises. “I just do not think it’s what they are looking for – TV is TV. When you talk to chefs they get very excited and they think it’s all about them. But it’s not; it’s a TV programme and that conquers all.”
Despite not shining for the TV cameras, his enthusiasm for his vocation is evident as, during the A&T photoshoot, he dives into a locally bought bag of salad leaves, tearing it open to hand out their extraordinary flavour of potato-and-mustard mash.
That enjoyment he traces back to when, as a child, he would sneak in his pyjamas to the top of the stairs with his little brother during one of their parents’ dinner parties. There he would drink in the scented atmosphere of perfume, glossy fur coats and kitchen aromas.
“That’s where it started. It’s the glamour. It was so glamorous, I thought. It wasn’t, obviously – but I thought it was.”
His A-levels weren’t those of a chef: French, economics, craft and design, and general studies. When he announced his intention to go to catering college his parents were summoned by the school for a chat.
Instead, however, he “did a deal” with himself and with better-than-expected results went to study in Birmingham for a four-year degree in hospitality management – where he completed a chef’s placement.
“It was to get it out of my system but it did the opposite and I loved it. That’s when I realised that’s what I was going to do.”
He even toyed with being a Sainsbury’s canteen manager, such was his love of the kitchen. Spices were the mementos he brought back after a trip to India in his early 20s – while his friend selected a haul of cheap Valium. Neither made it past customs.
His secret food sin? White chocolate Magnum ice cream lollies. “I properly adore them. The flavour and the texture of the ice cream. As a chef, I think the way they’re able to produce that is incredible.”
How does this Roux scholar and two-time Michelin star chef rate the New Forest’s recent tourism efforts to become a foodie destination?
“I don’t know. It’s a tricky one,” he says, trying hard not to offend. He admits rarely eating out locally but adds later: “We have all the makings of it.”
He criticises some eateries for lazily trading on their location without focusing on the food. But he points to encouraging signs, such as in Lymington where he name-checks the Elderflower restaurant, run by chef-patron Andrew Du Bourg, and last summer’s inaugural Lymington Seafood Festival, the brainchild of Domine and Richard Nowell.
“[Domine and Richard] are coming from a different angle. They are meeting resistance – and that’s a good sign; they’re seeing it differently.
“We had a stall there and did demos. It was not just about making money and just having a burger van. It was about doing it properly. That’s an indicator of change. I think people are demanding better.”
As further evidence he points to Lymingtonians who were so unimpressed with the arrival of the Subway fastfood sandwich chain on the high street that its presence there was short-lived.
From his years at the stove, he doesn’t recognise the reputed ferocity of professional kitchens personified by TV chefs such as Gordon Ramsey. He’s witnessed staff ordered to run laps or do press-ups after making errors but he points out the industry has escaped the abuse claims emerging in other sectors.
“The kitchen is a level playing field; it’s down to ability. If you’re no good at your job you will struggle. If you can do your job and you’re punctual, clean, interested and committed then it does not matter who you are. I love it for that. The industry gets a lot of flak – but it’s level and fair.”
He himself works 60-hour weeks made up of five 12-hour shifts and he adds: “Discipline is important. But we’re the opposite of screaming and shouting.”
He’s very happy where he is – “as long as the management want me” – and he says he harbours no ambitions to make his name in London, where he has worked before. “I’m a country boy,” he laughs. “You can live in London or work in London; it’s hard to do both.”
What he has learned is that food only makes up about 40% of a dining experience. The rest is hospitality: “Good service can make up for a bad kitchen; but a good kitchen can’t make up for bad service.”
He’s as good as his word as he takes the trouble to walk me back to the car park, through the garden of the Montagu Arms’ where neat rows of veg supply some of the menu’s needs. Then he’s back to the kitchen to turn up the heat.