Matt Gillan

Matt Gillan

Matt Gillan

A protégé of Daniel Clifford, Gordon Ramsay and John Campbell, Matt Gillan is well versed in the hallmarks of high-end cuisine, yet he retains a dazzling streak of originality.

Growing up in the small army town of Bordon, in Hampshire, Matt Gillan told us he grew up around a mother who 'cooked everything', but preferred to occupy himself with 'more important things like football and games consoles' rather than help out in the kitchen. His first real taste of the profession was aged fifteen when, after turning his back on the wind, rain and snow of a paper round, he joined his friend in the kitchen of a local pub as a kitchen porter. When his friend left his job as a chef he thought 'that has to be much better than washing up' and took up his position. 'It was just that buzz of a Saturday night and a Sunday lunch time' he says. 'It didn’t take long before I was saying to myself ‘this is something I really enjoy doing and I can see myself doing’ – and the more involved I got the more responsibility I had.'

In 1998 he followed his then head chef Nick Wentworth – without whom he 'wouldn’t be cooking now' – to Hunters restaurant in Winchester, before spotting an advert for Midsummer House and taking up the position in Cambridge. A two AA rosette restaurant at the time, Daniel Clifford had only been there for six months and the restaurant was in the process of a complete refurbishment. Over the next three-and-a-half years – 'a real journey' which saw the restaurant move up to two Michelin stars – he adapted to Daniel’s style of French discipline, growing into the role and leaving as junior sous chef. He still considers Daniel a good friend, mentor and his greatest inspiration. Citing his approach to learning – questioning the whys as well as the hows of cooking – as particularly educational, telling us: 'We kept asking ‘why do we do it this way?’ From that we found better ways of doing things. Some things were done classically because they are much better, but we can find a way of making things much better just by questioning it.'

Inspired by watching Gordon Ramsay’s television programme Boiling Point, he secured a commis position at his eponymous three-star restaurant, but found the repetitive tasks and dictatorial style of learning at this level less appealing. Leaving this job for a position as senior chef de partie at two star restaurant The Vineyard Hotel in Berkshire, he spent a year working with John Campbell, an experience he loved. Here, he not only returned to a more questioning style of learning, he also experienced the kind of kitchen management he has continued in his own kitchen – 'firm, but nurturing' – more of a two-way conversation about how things could be done. He told us: 'I’m just an inquisitive person and I like to know how things work. This is the reason why I don’t have to scream and shout at my chefs, because I’ll explain why something's gone wrong and how we can correct it and then we won’t have the same problem. People can make mistakes which I understand. If you can explain why these mistakes are happening then it just gives people knowledge. For me knowledge is power and so if everyone is knowledgeable, if you are teaching them in that way, you’ve got a really strong team.'

Leaving in 2005 for a long-planned trip to Australia, Matt spent a year travelling the country, during which time he spent a painful couple of weeks vegetable picking. This experience instilled in him a real respect for the patience, dexterity and hard labour involved in producing fresh foodstuffs. Returning from Australia in 2006, he started working at South Lodge Hotel in Sussex, where he remained for the next ten years. In 2008 he moved from the hotel’s Camelia restaurant into a purpose-built extension to head up The Pass – a twenty-two-cover restaurant with eleven chef’s tables, each inside the kitchen, eating the chef’s tasting menus. The chefs delivered the food to the tables, on hand to explain the thinking and inspiration behind every technique and ingredient. In 2011 Matt received his first Michelin star, as well as 4 AA rosettes and 7/10 in the Good Food Guide, the latter describing his offerings as 'small plates of phenomenally dynamic food … What arrives is inventive, clever and full of flavour.' The dishes at The Pass changed very regularly, but his duck breast salad with burnt coconut, pineapple and cashews or steamed duck leg with glazed carrots, lemon and turnip show his style at the time well.

When pushed to describe his style of food, Matt reluctantly sums it up as 'progressively British', but with the caveat that 'we do take influences from everywhere'. He elaborates: 'To me it’s whatever excites me really. I like something a bit unusual to feature in a dish, a new ingredient that I, or a lot of people, haven’t seen before.' His dishes are neither traditionally French nor British; instead, they couple the styles of multiple food cultures with both classical technique and modern technology, taking the best various countries have to offer and presenting them in a new way.

In April 2016, Matt left The Pass and spent a couple of years working on his own projects, including the Pike & Pine restaurant in Brighton and his own Electro Pirate brand. In late 2018, he stumbled upon an old pub – The Chequers Inn – not far from Horsham where he made his name. He took to Kickstarter to raise £60,000 required to turn the pub into a restaurant to call his own and raised the funds in just six days, finishing with a grand total of £89,000. Six months and a lot of hard graft later, Matt opened Heritage in Slaugham – a beautiful restaurant with rooms, a bar and lounge, and gorgeous views of verdant Sussex countryside.