Matt Whitfield

Matt Whitfield

Following a year spent honing his skills at the legendary Eleven Madison Park in New York, in 2019 Matt Whitfield returned to where he grew up to take over as head chef at The Terrace at The Montagu Arms. He’s gone on to develop his own style, placing an emphasis on championing the local area’s fantastic produce.

Every chef will have a special affinity with the first kitchens they ever worked in – but few have the opportunity years down the line to return as head chef. After all, it’s almost impossible to predict where a career in cooking will take you. Yet for Matt Whitfield, who first worked at The Montagu Arms as a pastry chef in his teens, his journey came full circle. When given the choice years later between staying on at one of the world’s most renowned restaurants or returning to the New Forest hotel to take charge of the kitchen, his decision was easy. Now, as head chef at The Terrace Restaurant, Matt serves a menu which takes inspiration from both his life and the surrounding area’s amazing produce.

From an early age Matt seemed destined to become a chef, despite having periods of uncertainty as to whether it was the career for him. ‘I always had an interest in it even though no one in my family was a chef,’ he explains, ‘but I went through a phase of thinking I didn’t want to be one because of the long hours. Eventually I went to a careers advisor and they said I was best suited to being a chef. I thought fair enough! And decided to pursue it.’ Attending culinary college in Eastleigh, Matt quickly began to thrive in the kitchen, impressing his chef lecturers and winning awards, and at eighteen he started to work professionally as a chef for the first time.

The first few years of his career saw Matt land his first job at The Montagu Arms as a pastry chef, as well as working for Marco Pierre White at The Yew Tree in Highclere, where he developed skills that would prove useful down the line. ‘The Yew Tree was a real eye opener for me,’ says Matt. ‘It was high paced but we did stuff there that you don’t see as much anymore like whole animal butchery, which was great. Today I still get in whole animals to show the guys how to do it.’ Matt soon started dreaming of working in a Michelin-starred restaurant but didn’t initially have the self-confidence to make the step up: ‘I was definitely good enough but I would just make loads of excuses at the start of my career’.

Matt’s opportunity did, however, eventually arrive in 2009, when he had the chance to return to The Montagu Arms, which had by that point won a star under chef Matthew Tomkinson. Spending another four years at the hotel, he worked his way up to the position of junior sous chef, before moving to Brussels to take up a position at the two-starred Sea Grill, where he was quickly promoted to sous chef. ‘Everything was quite hard work there,’ says Matt. ‘I’m not sure I was ready for it at the time but it was a great experience and I learnt a lot from it.’ A position at another Michelin-starred restaurant soon followed, this time at Cornwall’s Driftwood Hotel, where after a year Matt became head chef for the first time in his career. In the back of his mind, however, he always had a nagging urge to up sticks and go and work in New York.

‘Throughout my career I’d known people who’d gone there and while I was at The Driftwood, we visited and ate at Eleven Madison Park. It changed my perspective on what a restaurant should be. It wasn’t just about the food anymore; it was about the experience and they could literally change people’s lives with that experience.’

Making it his mission to work at the three-star restaurant, Matt persistently sent in applications until he was invited for an interview, and after impressing Daniel Humm’s executive sous chef with a potato dish of his own creation, he was offered a one-year contract.

Going in as a commis chef, over the course of the year Matt was quickly promoted, moving around from section to section, but he took a particular shine to the meat roast. ‘You had to move really quick there,’ he explains. ‘They’d give you six hours of work and four to do it in, but I got on really well with it. It was just an incredible feeling to be stood there cooking the famous duck that the restaurant’s known for, knowing that people around the world are looking at their books and Instagram. I was humbled to be a part of it.’ Having impressed the Eleven Madison Park team with his ability, Matt was offered the chance to stay on for a further three years but ultimately decided it was time to start cooking his own food, so when the opportunity to return once again to The Montagu Arms to oversee the kitchen, he didn’t have to think twice.

In January 2019, over twelve years after Matt first set foot in that kitchen, Matt took over as head chef at the hotel’s main restaurant The Terrace. However, after so many years working in other restaurants it took time for him to find his own style. ‘For the first six months or so, I was doing food that was very influenced by where I’d worked,’ he explains. ‘I was still proud of it but I was definitely showcasing stuff that I’d learnt elsewhere. But over time I’ve really taken a step back and tried to think about the food here and what’s important for me.’ Since then, Matt has come to the realisation that championing the area’s amazing produce, such as the New Forest’s famous pannage pork, is what he wants his cooking to be about. He’s pared down his dishes as a result, allowing each ingredient on the plate to shine. ‘We really believe in where we are and the products we get,’ he adds. ‘We treat everything with the utmost respect and it seems to go down really well with the guests.’

Matt left The Montagu Arms in 2022.