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Chef Q&A Matt Davies: Moat House Acton Trussell, Staffordshire

Chef Matt Davies, The Lewis Partnership

Chef Matt Davies, The Lewis Partnership

Matt Davies (43) is the Group Executive Chef of the Lewis Group – an integrated group of fine dining hotels and inns in the Stafford area based at the Moat House hotel, Acton Trussell.

Interview conducted by Philippe Boucheron (PB)

P.B : I believe that congratulation are in order for your latest culinary award?

Well thank you.  Yes earlier this year  I won the much coveted British Culinary Federation’s Louis Cipolla National Chef of the Year Award. Although over the years I have been fortunate enough to win a great number of prizes, the importance of this particular award is that it is chosen by my fellow chefs and not a panel of judges.  You know there is nothing nicer than public recognition from your peers, especially when as in this case, the award is for service to the industry .

PB. What was it that decided you wanted to be a chef?

Well, I came into it almost by accident.  The year before I left school in 1982 I got a part-time job washing-up in the Market Hotel, Birmingham. One evening one the chefs rang in sick and the head chef told me that I was on garnish, from there I discovered that I had a flair for cooking and the rest is history.

PB. Where did you train?

I did a two years City & Guilds course at Solihull Technical College which as well as cooking also covered food and wine service. It was here that I won my very fist prize as Chef of the Year.

PB.  Where was your first job?

At the Albany Hotel in Birmingham under a chef called Peter Ingger.  I was only there for a few months when, through Solihull College – as a result of beings their Chef of the Year – I was offered a three month stage at the Savoy in London cooking for both the restaurant and the grill room.  When I finished my stage the Savoy offered me a job, and of course I thought about it very seriously, but I wanted to return home so I wrote off to the Plough & Harrow, that was then THE place in the Midlands.  In fact it was the only place between London and the north and there were queues of people wanting to work there.  I went up and was interviewed by Charlie Anderson who had just left the Savoy as head banqueting chef.  He remembered me and I was offered a job and began work under John Sweeny.  After some six months Andreas Antona took over the kitchen and I spent five and a half very happy years with him, as well as other chefs like Luke Tipping and Andy Waters.

PB.    Which chef has inspired you the most?

It’s got to be Andreas.  The way in which he runs his kitchen is infectious.  He runs them, not on fear, but on pure people skills; and I still remember them today. In fact I try and do the same and its works because the core of my team here at the Moat House has been with me for ten years now.  Kitchens are hot, hard places and aggression can sometime creep in, but you have to rein that back.  Andreas showed me how.

PB.    British cooking is going through an enormous change; what aspects opf these changes interests you the most?

I was trained as a classical chef, and that is still the way I cook today. To me the most important change is the development of the traceability of produce; we can easily establish a
full ‘audit-trail’ of where it comes, from and where it has been, before being delivered to us. However, working in a county like Staffordshire with a rich farming heritage gives us access to some excellent local produce.  Depending on the time of year we purchase from a third to two thirds of the produce for all our operations within a 15 mile radius.  For example both the asparagus and rhubarb that are on our menu today actually come from the village, while our beef is county bred and reared.

PB.    As a chef what gives you the biggest ‘kick’ out of your job.?

Being a chef, for me, is not a job – it’s a passion and the biggest kick I get is nurturing my young chefs, seeing them progress, watching them work as a team building up our
reputation.  Altogether in the Lewis Partnership we have some 40 chefs: 16 here at the Moat House, ten each at the Swan and the Dog & Doublet and two each at the Deli and the Bear
, with up to 30 part-timers and kitchen assistants, so it is a big brigade.

PB.    What are your main criteria when you select suppliers?

First they have to have an excellent reputation as a supplier of quality produce.  All my suppliers work with me on a personal basis, I am not interested in so-called National Accounts, I want to work with and talk to the people who own and run the company.  We have that relationship with all our suppliers for meat, fish and veg’. On a weekly or monthly basis we discuss the seasons and obviously we discuss prices.   But fundamentally the secret of a good supplier-chef relationship is all about communications coupled with mutual respect for each other.  When ever possible we like to buy within a 15 mile radius, both to support the local community, of which we are a part. as well as getting the freshest produce with the lowest carbon footprint.  After all the Lewis family, who own the business, are all farmers.

PB    How would you describe your style of cooking?

Classic British, wholesome and definitely flavour-led  We make a full range of stocks every day; veal, chicken and double chicken, lamb and fish.  The beef sauces are made  from veal, the lamb from lamb, the poultry can be 50/50 veal and chicken and fish a mixture of fish and chicken stock.

PB  When  you get home at night what do you cook?

Nothing.  Its usually a cold beer and my wife Tina, bless her, might make me a cheese on Toast. Nothing like keeping it simple!

PB.  How important is eating out to you?

Very important really, especially as the executive chef in the leading regional hotel group that prides itself on serving fine food.  We all need inspiration and the only way is by seeing what your peers are doing.  For example I will go and eat at Simpson with Andreas, with Richard at  Turners, Loves and Andy at Edmunds; incidentally Andy’s style of cooking is very similar to mine.  We worked together for many years on the sauce station at the Plough & Harrow. I do try and stay Midlands based, because that is where we are based and its good to see what is happening at the moment.  We like to dine at some of the new restaurants opening in the Midlands, as well as some old favourites to keep up with trends.

PB What is your favourite ‘comfort’ food?

If I am off duty on a Sunday then it’s a roast, carved at the table, fresh vegetables, a glass of wine and masses of conversation.  It’s the time when I catch up with what my three children are doing.  I am not a sweet man, I prefer savouries and I am mad cheese, but my wife does a lot of baking, so its usually left up to her. I am a classic chef and that’s what we have at home.  But if we go out with the children it could be for a curry or to a Chinese.

PB   What are your ambitions?

You know, I think that I have the best job in the world.  I am in charge of a number of restaurants.  I also  teach NVQ level 3 part time at Stafford Tech. as well as being chairman of judges for the Taste of Staffordshire, hugely into schools judging competitions – I have my fingers in a number of pies.  My ambition is to make the Lewis Partnership better known and better recognised for the quality and excellence of our restaurants.

PB. What would you say is your signature dish?

That is easy to answer.  A couple of years ago I entered a pasta dish in the Restaurant Magazines Dish of the Year Competition.  It was my ravioli of lobster and Loch Duart salmon, fondue of leeks, lobster bisque and Avruga caviar.  That came second in the country to a Marco Pierre White dish.

Ends. Information (c) 2011/12 Eat-the-midlands. Interview conducted by Philippe Boucheron on behalf of ETM & Gourmet-life dining Club.

More on Matt Davies’ recent Award HERE

More on the Moat House Acton Trussell HERE

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