Ones to watch: Matt Ryle

by Henry Coldstream 16 March 2022

Beginning his career aged just fifteen at a Michelin-starred restaurant, Matt Ryle has gone on to spend time at a variety of different restaurants figuring out the style of food that makes him tick. Now as head chef of London’s gloriously French all-day brasserie Maison Francois, he’s found his happy place cooking simple yet flavour-packed classical food.

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Henry is the features editor at Great British Chefs.

Henry is the features editor at Great British Chefs. Having previously written pieces for a variety of online food publications, he joined the team in 2021 and helps with all editorial aspects of the site. When not writing, Henry can usually be found eating and drinking his way through London's many restaurants and bars, or cooking in his kitchen at home.

Working in a Michelin-starred kitchen is often the thing young ambitious chefs want to do more than anything else. But while some find exactly what they’ve been looking for in the upper echelons of fine dining, others learn there’s so much more to food than chasing stars. Matt Ryle, whose very first experience of a professional kitchen happened to be Michelin-starred, came to realise exactly that. Now head chef at Maison Francois, one of London’s most popular new brasseries, he is flourishing.

‘When I started cooking, I thought that Michelin stars and fine dining was the peak of food,’ Matt explains. ‘But over time as I ate in more of those types of restaurants, I started to realise that I didn’t enjoy those sorts of places as much as I first thought. It would be lovely mouthfuls but I wanted platefuls! At the same time, I was eating at restaurants doing food that was simpler but just as delicious, and started to think that maybe there’s a nice blend.’

Matt’s first foray into cooking professionally came as a teenager at the then Michelin-starred L’Ortolan – so it’s hardly surprising that he started off with Michelin in mind. Having obsessed over becoming a chef since the age of thirteen, Matt’s mother thought she’d get in touch with the renowned restaurant and in a matter of weeks the head chef had taken fifteen-year-old Matt under his wing. ‘He was really cool and gave me one of their cookbooks to read,’ he smiles. ‘And then he said ‘come in whenever you want to work’, so I started going in to help on Saturdays and fell in love with cooking.’ Matt may have only spent six months working part-time at L’Ortolan but, by the time he left, his mind was set on a career in the kitchen.

On the advice of a fellow chef at the restaurant, he quickly applied to Bournemouth’s highly regarded catering college and despite being unsure at first about the idea of moving away (‘I wore a hoodie and trainers on the open day because I didn’t think I wanted to get in’), he was soon accepted. As part of the course, Matt spent the next two years at The Dorchester, where he was able to put the classical French cookery he was learning about at college into practice, going on to work in a number of the prestigious hotel’s kitchens, including the three-star Restaurant Alain Ducasse. ‘It gave me such a good foundation from which to grow,’ explains Matt. ‘And I remember at one point thinking that when I left The Dorchester, I’d go to some amazing three-star restaurant in New York or something.’

The young chef’s plans soon changed when he was offered the chance to move to Dubai to work at a new French restaurant by the former head chef of The Grill at The Dorchester, Brian Houston. It was this move that saw Matt’s focus move away from fine dining. ‘The year I spent in Dubai really opened my eyes to what I wanted to do,’ says Matt. ‘The food I was cooking there was so different from the intricate stuff I was doing at The Dorchester with ten or fifteen elements on the plate, but it also made me realise how lucky we are with produce over in the UK. In Dubai, you don’t get loads of fresh food; there was only one meat and two vegetable deliveries per week.’

Returning to the UK in 2015 having met his wife, Matt began working at restaurants serving a simpler style of food. Initially he found himself at Notting Hill’s Casa Cruz, where as sous-chef he started to learn how to run a kitchen, and within two years the opportunity arose for Matt to become head chef at new Mayfair spot, Isabel. However, he soon found that even when leading a kitchen, he wasn’t cooking food that he was proud of. ‘I was coming up with the dishes,’ explains Matt. ‘But there were always guidelines and I became a bit of a yes man, so the dishes would change quite a lot during tastings.’ Matt needed something to refocus his energy and that ultimately came in 2018 in the form of MasterChef: The Professionals.

Having not really competed in many competitions at all up until this point in his career, Matt wanted to try something a bit different and even surprised himself, making it all the way to the final of the televised competition. ‘I think my self-confidence had been a bit knocked in the years leading up to entering,’ Matt explains. ‘But then on MasterChef I was cooking exactly the way I wanted to and judges like Marcus and Monica were telling me it was amazing. It made me realise that I was good enough to do my own thing.’ Matt came out of the competition reinvigorated, running a series of pop-ups with his fellow MasterChef finalists, before being approached by restaurateur François O’Neill, who asked him to be head chef of his yet-to-be-built all-day French brasserie, Maison Francois. Giving him the chance to make the menu his own, Matt leapt at the opportunity.

Just a few years on, with the hurdle of various lockdowns behind them, Maison Francois has fast become one of London’s busiest new restaurants, packed out during breakfast, lunch and dinner services. Matt’s deliberately over-the-top takes on French classics, some of which involved him dipping back into his notes from culinary school, are clear signs of a chef enjoying himself. ‘I think I’ve definitely found a happy place,’ he says. ‘I’m doing the food that I want and I’ve got an amazing team around me.’ Even now, you get the sense that there’s a nagging urge in Matt to one day return to the world of fine dining he fell in love with as a teenager (‘There is definitely still an appeal there’) but for the moment, he’s settled and delighting diners day-on-day.