AS a small boy Matthew Whitfield was being driven past the Montagu Arms Hotel with his grandparents when he confidently announced: “One day I’m going to work there!”
Not only did that prophecy come true when, as a teenager, Matthew started his career in the kitchens of the hotel in Beaulieu. But now at the age of just 30 Super chef Matthew has returned to where it all began – this time as head chef of the prestigious Terrace Restaurant
Matthew laughs as he says his new title would have astounded his grandmother who was actually responsible for getting him his first job at the hotel.
Southampton-born Matthew revealed: “I had just finished my training at catering college in Eastleigh when my grandmother saw an advert in the local paper for a job in the kitchen of the Montagu Arms. She rang up and got me the interview.
“She would be absolutely thrilled about me becoming head chef at the hotel. I am very pleased to be back here, there is something very special about this place.”
Matthew was around 18 when he started at the Montagu Arms, spending most of his time as a pastry chef saying: “Apparently I have a flair for it, but I’m definitely not a pastry chef.”
He then went off to work for the famously hot-headed Marco Pierre-White at the Yew Tree Inn at Highclere, Hampshire, for two years.
Matthew admits: “It was intense. His kitchen was very fast and you really had to move. Marco would do mad things like once he went out and shot a deer, then brought the whole thing to the restaurant in the back of his truck and we had to butcher and cook it.
“I learnt so much from Marco, he was a genius. We did the TV show Marco’s Great British Feast and a recipe book on the series, which two of my dishes are in which is really cool.”
After two years at the Yew Tree Inn Matthew returned to the Montagu Arms where he worked under Matthew Tomkinson as a sous chef.
Matthew said: “Matt is such a humble guy but he is probably the best technical chef I’ve ever worked with. He was a fantastic mentor, he encouraged me immensely.”
After four years Matthew went to Brussels where he worked in the two Michelin starred Sea Grill. He spent a year there before heading back home and settling in Cornwall at The Driftwood Hotel where he worked under chef patron Chris Eden for three years.
But his big ambition at the time was to work in New York – especially at the restaurant Eleven Madison Park which in 2017 was voted number one in the top 50 restaurants in the world. The three Michelin starred eatery run by head chef Daniel Humm attracts celebrities like Taylor Swift, Roger Federer and Kim Kardashian,
Matthew said: “I ate there while on holiday and it was sensational. I asked if there was any chance of getting a job there. It took me six months of badgering before I got an interview.
“I flew over for a trial shift and I had to cook in front of a panel of judges. I was expecting to be given a piece of fish, or meat. They gave me a potato!
“I had an hour to come up with a dish, so I created sweet potato fondant, crisp potato with roast onion consome and a purple potato fondue.
“The panel absolutely loved it and I started there a year later.”
He said: “Throughout my career I’ve tried to stay very humble, I’m there to learn. I kept my mouth shut and got on with it.”
His talent must have shone through as within five months Matthew had been promoted to chef tournant – to gain that role in such a short time was unheard of – working directly under Humm.
Matthew said: “Daniel is one of the most amazing people I have ever worked for. His kitchen is so well disciplined.
“It’s very quiet and incredibly clean, one reason being that there is a guest viewing area where customers can see the chefs at work –something I’d like to introduce at the Montagu Arms. We’ve got a fantastic new kitchen here so we might as well show it off!”
He left New York because he wanted to “do my own thing” revealing: “I had some really amazing offers, including in London. But then I was approached by the Montagu Arms.
“I love this place. Whenever I came back to the area, I always stopped in to see Matt and eat here.”
He say his style is “very different” from his predecessor, explaining: “It’s more modern, more refined. I’m going to take a bit from everywhere I’ve been proud to work at and use that influence. For example Eleven Madison Park is famous for a lavender duck dish and I have a dish on the menu which is duck with a Szechuan spice; it’s a homage to theirs not a copy.
He intends to use the best of the New Forest and the hotel’s own produce. He picks the vegetables for the daily menu himself every morning and has already changed the bread to a sourdough with rosemary plucked from the garden.
Smell is something important to him as can be seen from a dish that incorporates the aroma of gorse burning in the New Forest.
“It’s a partridge served in a cloche and when you remove the dome that smell of gorse burning drifts up. But I haven’t gone all Heston and just thought let’s just stick some smoke into that. I’ve only used ingredients when I feel they suit.”
Another smell and taste he intends to use is the malt left from the brewing process at his dad Paul’s brewery based in Botley. Matthew is currently experimenting with a beef dish braised in its CrackleRock beer and a malt, cider and apple cake.
He has already changed The Terrace a la carte menu and introduced two new £70 tasting menus including a vegetarian one which can easily be adjusted to become vegan.
Matthew said: “I don’t agree with chucking a load of veg on a plate and that’s it. Or serving pasta, or risotto as the vegetarian option. Chris Eden’s father was a vegetarian so he was always very respectful of cooking for them
“Our vegetarian tasting menu includes a Jerusalem artichoke salad with a slow cooked hen’s yolk which comes from the chickens we have in the garden.
“There is also a crisp pink stem radish salad served with a Cabernet Sauvignon vinegar which the restaurant manager, who is not vegetarian, thinks is the best dish on the Terrace menu!”
Apart from changing the menus at The Terrace, Matthew has also revised the way his team work saying: “I have worked some horrendous hours in my career. But you don’t need to. I’m very mindful that some of my team are parents and have partners.
“I want them to have time with them, they come back into work refreshed and excited, ready to go.”
As a result The Terrace is now closed on a Monday and Tuesday so his staff can have two days off in a row.
He also encourages anyone in the kitchen to approach him with ideas.
“I’ve been very lucky to have had that chance during my career. When we were trying out ideas for the vegetarian menus, one of the guys came up with an incredible cauliflower dish. To be offered that involvement gets them excited, gets them thinking.”
He is loving being back at the Montagu Arms and asked about the possibility of reclaiming getting back the Michelin star the hotel lost in 2016 after holding it for eight years, he ponders before responding: “Obviously I would love the hotel to win it back.
“But here and now what is most important is to develop a style and a standard that is as profitable a business as it can be – and if accolades follow, that will be amazing.”