Matt Watson - Matt in the Kitchen
Two years ago, Matt Watson transformed his cottage in Bruton, Somerset, UK, into a local restaurant. This bold and eccentric move has turned out to be a roaring success, and Matt's Kitchen is going from strength to strength. Localeyez catches up with food maestro Matt Watson to talk about his passion for flavour, great customer service, German Techno music, Mangalitsa pigs and how to run a recession-busting restaurant.
Tell us about your background and how you arrived in Bruton, Somerset?
I was born in the small village called Cookham in Berkshire, and then moved to South London just outside Brixton. At the time I was picture painting and had a couple of really rough experiences. I was once mugged at knifepoint right on my doorstep, and then experienced an armed robbery at the off licence where I was working. A friend of mine who had just moved to Bruton invited me down to stay to recuperate from that whole experience. So, that's what I did, and ended up setting up a painting studio in my friend's house, started painting landscapes, and fell in love with Bruton and its community. I bought a period cottage, which has now become Matt's Kitchen, from a friend I was working for at the time.
And what do you love about the area?
I loved Somerset as soon as I got here because of its sense of community. Where I was completely anonymous in London, here it's completely the opposite situation. You walk down the street and people say hello. Some people don't like the fact that everyone seems to know your business, but I like that honest, warts and all style of living. Also, what I found in London, even though I was living in this huge metropolis, with all these facilities and people, I was only really spending time with a close circle of friends and mixing with a very small number of people. Yet here in Bruton, I'm interacting with a much larger group of people, covering various activities and age groups. I think the openness and accessibility of the community makes that happen.
You've had quite a colourful background as a musician and painter. Do you still find time to follow those passions?
Not at all really. I officially downed tools on painting a while back and had my last commission down at an eco holiday park in Mawgan Porth. While I was converting the upstairs mezzanine in my house, I managed to board up some of my larger remaining paintings in the loft by accident. This felt like a sign from the universe to move on and maybe to revisit things later on. In terms of the music, I've done loads of stuff, including running a record label in London, and I still play in a band called Jesus Kenevil. However, because of all the work I'm doing with Matt's Kitchen, I've decided to take a break from that as well. Nonetheless, I've still got stacks of ideas for future projects.
How did you get started in the world of gastronomy?
I'm totally self-taught, with no training whatsoever. I only managed to get an E in GCSE Home Economics, probably because I turned up drunk for the exam, but that's another story! But I've always loved cooking.
And how did you hone your skills as a chef?
I did a bit of freelance catering for a friend's Middle Eastern catering company and prepared food for crew and artists at festivals, which really taught me about preparing food for large numbers.
I also used to have a group of friends called The Ladies Who Lunch. I would invite them round to dinner every couple of weeks. All the girls would dress up in fancy clothes and I would do a three course dinner. We'd usually end up drinking too much and just have a laugh, but it also enabled me to try new and sometimes quite complex dishes and experiment with flavour. Tomato and cucumber consommé with crème basil, celeriac valoute and truffle oil. Ultimately, it gave me confidence to cook for people and eventually open my own restaurant.
Do you have a chef idol?
I don’t really have one but if it’s anybody it would have to be a friend, and ex-Brutonian, Scott Eggleton, who used to run the Bruton House Restaurant. This is simply because of his balls out pirate approach to cooking. He would say: “Just cook, get on with it and don't be shy”. I also admired Keith Floyd. His A Feast of Floyd book was my very first cookbook and it was all about having a glass of wine, enjoying the process and not taking yourself too seriously. For me, cooking and eating out is about fun, beauty and good times.
A few years back you decided to convert your home into Matt's Kitchen. What motivated you to create your own restaurant?
Well, it was during a period where I was working as a painter decorator and really living hand to mouth. My girlfriend suggested it, based on the fact that I loved cooking and already had a great venue for it. She had the vision for the concept, the space and how I could make it work. The idea was so beautifully simple. It involved turning the downstairs living space into the dinning area, and using my own kitchen to prepare the food. The challenge was overcoming the prospect of dealing with the influx of people into my home, and sharing my living space. I've only got one bathroom and it's got my bath in it, but it works well as the punters loo and adds to the restaurant's charm. But now I love the idea of sharing my home and it's not a problem for me.
What sets Matt's Kitchen apart from other restaurants?
Well, what really works in terms of it as a business is not wasting anything. In this sort of climate, we're trying to economise and put less of a strain on the environment. I know exactly how many people are coming into the restaurant every night and so I can manage the supply of food, and apart from say bones, there's pretty much zero wastage. Everything else gets turned back into stock, and we have an ethos of reusing as much as possible. Because we're a small business it's really manageable. We aim to offer a value experience to our customers, where they know exactly what their main meal will cost, whether it's beef, chicken, lamb or fish. It's always a set amount of money, and there's a range of starters and desserts. We keep it really simple and the customers seem to like it.
Country Calling ran a feature on Matt's Kitchen and called us a recession-busting restaurant, because our philosophy is to provide a really good menu and great service for a modest amount of money.
What's your cooking philosphy?
I'm always looking at new ways to do things and like to reinterpret the classic recipes in a really easy and affordable way, which kind of fits in with the simplicity of Matt's Kitchen and the way that I like to cook.
Scott Eggleton, who use to run The Bruton House restaurant gave me one of the biggest pieces of advice when he came round for Sunday lunch one day. I was doing this chicken casserole number and adding the usual salt and pepper and then he started talking about vinegars and sourness and how adding a tiny bit of vinegar can help to blend flavours together. This really gave me an insight into taste and how to balance flavours and get them to work together.
What's the key to your success?
We really set out to be a restaurant for local people. Although we attract a lot of custom from outside, it's primarily designed to be restaurant you can walk to and bring your own booze to drink. I want people to have great culinary experience and I always aim to entertain them and produce top-notch dishes. The other day, someone commented on one of the desserts by saying it was the best dessert they've ever tasted! People like our philosophy and our community focus, and as a result we get a lot of people returning for more.
I'm very front of house and not afraid to interact with my customers. We have a menu written on the board and I love to talk about the food and actually sell the menu to my guests. You know there's a lot behind it, the blend of ingredients that I've used, the depth of flavour to make it taste the way it does. I think these things are really important to share with people before they order. I get really excited about the food I cook and love talking about it to people. Some people don't like that approach and just want to order their food, which is fine too. They're just never allowed back in the restaurant again, sorry only joking!
Often we use our ovens on starters temperatures, which on a 12 hour period, uses 1 unit of gas at 12p. We use a slow cook low temperature process over longer periods, which not only saves energy and money, but also makes the food taste fantastic.
What's your philosophy for living?
The only thing I ever say to myself when I'm getting into a panic about things is "It's only cooking". I need to put this above my cooker and when things get too much I take a deep breath, have a sip of wine and relax. Another thing is do what you love doing. I feel really blessed by this thought, the fact that I love my job.
What makes a great dish?
Flavour, flavour, flavour! If you're in any doubt look to add more salt, more pepper, more sour or more sweet, more meat, more heat. Give it some more. In my style of cooking, although there are subtleties in flavour, it's about banging it in. For example, all the potatoes we cook we par boil them earlier on in the day and then soak them in butter, mint, garlic, salt and lemon juice, let them sit and then pan fry them in evening. They taste brilliant! The chicken I'm using today has had a marinade on it for 36 hours, the lamb has had a 12 hour marinade on it and then it will be cooked for 12 hours. Then the beef we’re preparing for Saturday is already in its marinade made with star anise, red wine and curing salts. That's what I mean by pack it with flavour.
What's your favourite food?
I love burnt meat on the bone and when things get hands on, sticky and messy! Real glutton food. Any food where there's lots of flavour and where some people might say the chef has gone overboard a bit, that's what I like. I love Sushi and you can't beat a bit of fried chicken, a beautiful steak, a gorgeous salad, lentil burgers. And what can I say, Cheese on toast with a splash of Worcestershire sauce - bosh. I love it! Best breakfast in the world: strong black coffee, freshly squeezed orange juice, Chorizo sandwich in a crispy white bap!
What's your favourite restaurant in the world other than Matt's Kitchen?
The best bit of food I had recently was a bit of street food in Morocco. There's also a really nice Italian place in Wells called the Gate House, which looks over the cathedral - properly old school and simple. I really like cafe Caldici in London which is once again very simple, good tasting food and unpretentious.
What's your top culinary tip?
Trust your taste buds.
What's the craziest thing you've eaten?
Nothing really that outrageous, although once I rustled up a really crazy chestnut dessert, which unfortunately ended up looking like a large poo.
What do you do in a typical day?
Well, today I took the boys to school, got back and sorted the logistics for the evening. Then generally I stick some good music on and go into prep. It's usually a pretty full-on day and I have to remember to take a good break half way through. Then it's just a matter of getting ready for business and realising that it's showtime! I think this is something that is often overlooked in the service industry. You know you're serving people and they're paying good money for you to be brilliant and friendly and not arrogant. I'm proud of what I do and I'm genuinely pleased when people say that they've had a good time.
Tell us about your relationship with pigs?
It's deep and very personal! [laughs]. I've always loved salamis and the idea of cured meat and selling salami, and after experimenting with raising geese, I decided to do the same with pigs. I found a smallholding over in Crewkerne where they're breeding these hairy Hungarian Mangalitsa pigs that were reintroduced into the UK about ten years ago. Physiologically they're very similar to the Iberian Black, which is the breed the Spanish use to make all their premium ham and chorizo. My breeder feeds them a unique diet including fruit syrup, so the pork they yield is wonderfully sweet, dark and marbled like a well-hung steak. I enjoy the local nature of my arrangement with my breeder who loves breeding these pigs, and although I'm paying her more for them than say normal pigs, it's well worth it as the flavour is just out of this world!
What are the best parts of your job?
The fact that I get my ego polished pretty much every night for what I adore doing.
When I first started Matt's Kitchen we had very unusual opening hours and that really impacted on my social life. The hours have changed since, but due to nature of the business, I still find it's a challenge to have enough time with my family and loved ones.
What makes you smile?
Really good food and very aggressive German Techno music.
How do you like to relax?
My new year's resolution was to go on as many holidays as humanly possible! I think it's important to be relaxed and fresh in order to deliver a good service. I've also just bought a calf massager, which looks like something out of Buck Rodgers, and I stick my legs into it after every service and it's great! I really like going out and socialising, and also having quiet time.
A dream dinner party at Matt's Kitchen. Who would you invite and what's on the menu?
You know what, I would invite The Ladies Who Lunch, and the menu would consist of a tomato and cucumber consommé with a sunken chilli and tomato sorbet, sweet langoustines and basil leaves, for the starter. My main would be rabbit done three ways: little chops, confit and loin rolled in pancetta (both the starter and main were inspired by dishes created by Scott at Bruton House). For dessert I would serve a chocolate torte with whiskey cream and orange syrup or my spiced cheese cake. And loads of really good wine!
What advice would you give someone opening their own business?
Keep things really simple. There's no point over stretching yourself and there's no point doing things that your environment won't support and you physically can't do yet. Don't worry about other people's expectations and if possible try and let things evolve organically. By taking small manageable steps you'll be successful.
What future plans do you have for expanding your empire?
Well, I’ve got a lot of salami, harissa and hot pepper sauces coming out of the kitchen. The plan is to do some farmers markets, local fairs and use the restaurant as a shop front for those products. Some of the cured hams will take up to a year to be ready, and so I have a little time to develop the Matt’s smoke and cure brand. Hopefully I’ll have someone to work with me on that side of the business, as I’m pretty busy already, and my down time is very important to me...all work and no play!