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Ten years at The Terrace: Matthew Tomkinson and his producers

Ten years at The Terrace: Matthew Tomkinson and his producers

by Tom Shingler 24 September 2018

After ten years at the helm of The Terrace at The Montagu Arms in Hampshire, chef Matt Tomkinson tells Tom Shingler how things have changed and brings together some of his favourite suppliers to prove how important quality produce is in the kitchen.

‘You rarely get the chance to reflect and look back on things,’ says Matt Tomkinson as we sit in the garden of The Montagu Arms. It’s a stunning place to visit, with beautifully manicured gardens, a bright dining room and smiling staff making sure all the guests and diners have everything they want. It probably helps that the sun is out in full force, bathing the grounds in buckets of natural light, but the place is such a tranquil idyll it makes you forget about the world outside whatever the weather.

I’m there to talk to Matt and five producers which supply The Terrace (the name of the restaurant at The Montagu Arms) with meat, fish, vegetables and butter. The occasion? Matt has now been at The Terrace for ten years – a long time for a chef to stay put – and I want to know how things have changed. The fact that he’s brought his producers along makes it clear that the ingredients he uses are at the fore of everything he does.

‘We’ve certainly become much more aware of provenance and quality of ingredients, although I still think buying local is misunderstood,’ he says. ‘Just because you buy some carrots from a local farmers’ market doesn’t mean they were grown locally, and if they’re not as good as carrots from further afield then why buy them? Luckily, Hampshire has some incredible people doing amazing things with food, so I can get a lot of what I use from down the road.’

Matt says the sheer number of producers, suppliers and artisans in the UK has grown massively in the past ten years, as has the average diner’s interest in and knowledge of what’s on the plate. This means chefs have no excuse not to spend time seeking out the best suppliers they can find or afford. But what else has changed when it comes to the finished dish and how it’s served?

‘Initially I thought I haven’t really changed much in the past ten years, but when I actually think about it it’s clear a lot has,’ says Matt. ‘I think the same things still matter to me and what I do has got to feel right, but our food has really progressed. There’s a pressure to change in this industry, but there’s also pressure to be consistent. It’s hard, because if you don’t change things up you’re treading water, but if you do you run the risk of losing why customers liked coming to the restaurant in the first place. You’ve almost got to change without changing at the same time.’

That’s perhaps why Matt tends to steer clear of trends or anything too gimmicky; his style of cooking is honest, classic and reflects the refined surroundings The Montagu Arms offers. ‘I don’t want to change the nature of an ingredient too much,’ he explains. ‘Once I put a mangetout jelly on a dish, but I took it off again as I realised I’d rather have mangetout as it is if I’m going to serve it. Things have to make sense to me. You can see so many different interesting things on Instagram and such these days, but you have to know what will work at your own restaurant before you rush off and start implementing them. The food and the service here has a specific style that suits the property, and we want everything to be a nice seamless package.’

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One of the most obvious changes Matt has implemented during his decade at The Terrace is how the food is served. The restaurant and kitchen were completely refurbished in 2016 to make things more relaxed, and that was reflected in the service.

‘I think in the past we were trying to be too formal and, over time, I don’t think people want that anymore,’ says Matt. ‘There are definitely some places which suit that incredibly prim and proper silver service style of restaurant, but we don’t want to be like that. Customers use restaurants like ours to enjoy time with people they like and to celebrate, so they want to feel relaxed, chat and enjoy themselves. I think we’ve got a lot better at reading what the customer wants, too. Some like it when you explain every detail of the dish to them as it’s set down in front of them, others just want the waiter to say ‘here’s the lamb, sir’.

Better ingredients and a more relaxed service have meant Matt can keep things fresh at The Terrace whilst keeping true to the food he likes to cook. He doesn’t have any grand plans to bring in sweeping changes or try something completely different for the future; instead, he just wants to get better at what he already does. ‘I think going forward we just need to focus on really refining what we already do, and that’s what I really enjoy about working here. I want to give people the chance to learn new skills as well. If you start using a water bath and vac-packing everything, you will soon have staff who can’t do much else. To ensure those craftier, more artisan skills are kept alive, you need to make sure you’re training people to do it.’

This love for doing things the ‘old-fashioned’ way is especially important to Matt, as all the technology available to chefs now must make it very tempting to change things and let machines do a lot of the work for them. Perhaps he’s inspired by his suppliers – many of them are incredibly small because they like doing things naturally and only sell locally (or, in some cases, only to Matt). Below are the stories of five of Matt’s top producers – get to know about them and why Matt feels it’s so important to champion them.

Jonny Godden, Flying Fish Seafoods, Cornwall

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‘I own a company called Flying Fish Seafoods, and we deliver dayboat fish from ship to plate within twenty-four hours. So, our idea of maximizing quality is by getting it to the chef as quickly as possible, hand-picking the best quality fish. We work with the seasons to make sure that we get the best out of them and educate chefs to understand when the seasons are right and wrong, so that they don't put certain fish on when it's not in season.

I started Flying Fish in 2006 and actually met Matt within the first six months of setting it up. I originally wanted to be a chef, but after getting a job at a fish company when I was sixteen I fell in love with seafood. After twelve years there I set out on my own and moved down to Cornwall from Gloucestershire, as that’s where you’ll find the best quality. It’s gone from me and a van to twenty-five vans and 100 staff members, but we’ve always made everything about quality.

The relationship between us and the chefs we supply is really, really important. They need to understand what we do and how we can only get certain fish at certain times. We both have to trust each other – I need to trust Matt that he will buy my fish on a regular basis and he has to trust that I’ll get the very best quality fish delivered to his door as quickly as possible. We haven’t taken on a new customer in the past eight months, as we’re quite selective about who we work with – they have to understand our ethos. I don’t really have a desire to get any bigger; it’s all about getting better.’

Ollie Bloxham, Bloxs Butter, Hampshire

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‘All butter in England is pretty much straight out of a big batch machine, where it’s continuously churned, spat out, packaged and sent away. When we had a bit of a cheese revolution in the UK and there were suddenly loads of artisan cheeses, I thought it was time for butter to get a bit of time in the limelight. So I started Bloxs Butter, and we make cultured butter ourselves from start to finish. We get lovely Geurnsey cow milk from the Isle of Wight, ferment it and then work with chefs to create something bespoke for them. How salty it should taste, the texture and mouthfeel, the size, the acidity – these are all things we can adapt and change.

I was a chef for seven years before starting Bloxs Butter, and I always loved fermenting and how lactic acid can create such amazing flavours. I was always making sauerkrauts and various alcohols, then one day I made cultured butter, which was how butter was made before refrigeration as the fermenting could be done at room temperature. After a few months I decided to start selling it at markets, but soon enough chefs like Matt started messaging me and it’s just gone from there.

There are only about two or three people in the UK making cultured butter, but I think we’re the only ones who can offer something truly bespoke. For example, if a chef serves a sourdough bread, you don’t really want a very acidic cultured butter, as you’re pairing something sour with something sour. However, if it’s going with a dark rye bread or a baguette, then it harmonises with it really nicely. With Matt, we worked together to get the salt content just right. The Terrace's butter is now three percent salt, with one percent being very fine and the other two percent big crunchy Dorset salt crystals. But we’re always playing with the flavour, and if the bread course changes or Matt wants butter for something else, we can adapt it.’

Richard Mabbutt, Pondhead Farm, Hampshire

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‘We produce pork and beef with animal welfare as a top priority. All the needs of our animals are met and they’re very well looked after. It’s a family farm – it was started by my late father after he retired from being a lawyer and bought a herd of pedigree Saddleback pigs. We originally sold at farmers’ markets when they were huge in the 1990s, but now we rely on wholesale customers like Matt for regular business.

What sets our herds apart is that we grow our own silage, so we can control what our animals eat, and we don’t buy in any calves to fatten – we keep the mother cows. Our pigs are given a complete meal rather than a specific diet that fattens them quickly, so while they grow more slowly they are a lot tastier. They’re also what’s called pannage pork, as the pigs are let out into the New Forest for a couple of months every year to feed on acorns. The forest is an open common, and we’re allowed to let out pigs out between September to November. They eat the acorns which are very poisonous to the local ponies and cattle, so the more the pigs can eat the better. It also happens to give the pork a very distinct flavour – very different to when they’re corn-fed.

Working with Matt is great because if something isn’t quite right with what we’re doing he’ll let us know. He understands how our on-site butcher works, so if he needs something cut or rolled in a certain way they can talk it through.’

John and Catriona Kennard, New Forest Salads, Hampshire

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‘We grow vegetables and salad leaves just four miles away from The Montagu Arms. We started off selling vegetables plants in biodegradable pots at farmers’ markets, but then we decided to start actually growing the produce ourselves. Matt was our first customer about ten years ago – we gave him a ring as he was the most local to us – and he’s been super supportive from the very beginning.

We originally thought Matt would be after very unusual things that were pristine and perfect to look at, but that wasn’t the case at all. He wanted fresh produce full of flavour above all else. I remember when we brought some cabbages in – you think they’ll be pretty much the same wherever they’re from. But when we showed them to him the whole kitchen came to a grinding halt because they were so fresh and juicy.

We don’t make a huge amount of money and we only supply about three or four restaurants. They all happen to be on the school run, so it works out quite well! But being small has its benefits – we talk to Matt every week and grow a bit of everything for him. These days we just turn up with the best of what we have and he takes it all. There aren’t many vegetable farms in the New Forest because the soil is quite acidic, but we grow in raised polytunnels to get around that.’

Dan ‘The Lamb’ Smith, Hampshire

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‘My family has been farming in the area for generations, but we’ve always been focused on dairy and arable crops. That changed in around 2010, when I got a dozen breeding ewes on a smallholding, just so the family had a bit of lamb to go in the freezer. One day Mr [John] Leech, who owns The Montagu Arms and a lot of land around where we’re based, approached me and asked if I would be able to supply Matt. It basically went from there, although I still only supply The Montagu Arms and nowhere else.

I started off supplying maybe eighteen lambs a year to The Montagu Arms, but last year I think it was up to around thirty-five. I also rear the sheep to hogget and mutton stages, which Matt takes too. We work together to make sure we’re both happy, and because it’s such a small-scale venture I can change things and do things differently easily.

My father told me to never go into rearing sheep, as there are so many things that can cause problems. But I went for it anyway and it really worked out. I still keep back a couple every year for the family – there’s nothing better than a whole spit-roast lamb for entertaining lots of people.’

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The Terrace at The Montagu Arms is never going to be somewhere that serves The Fat Duck-style experimental cuisine or pushes the boundaries of what we think we know about food. Instead, Matt and his team are focused on serving delicious, impeccably cooked food that’s familiar to everyone in beautiful surroundings with top-quality service. After a decade, Matt has honed and refined what he does whilst staying true to what he loves. The next ten years will see him continue to do this, constantly making things tighter, slicker and better than they were the day before. At a time when restaurants rely so heavily on doing something different, new or leftfield in a bid to stand out, The Terrace happily sits in the beautiful New Forest serving exactly what its customers want. In a way, that makes it stand out much more than the trend-chasing restaurants in places like London, and at the end of the day, if the food, surroundings and service brings a smile to your face – that’s more important than any Instagram post or experimental dish could ever be.

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