You Brits are ashamed of your own food, says MasterChef champion

“I wasn’t particularly a restaurant person,” admits Mat Follas, winner of the BBC’s MasterChef and owner of The Wild Garlic restaurant in Beaminster, Dorset. “I’d never even held dinner parties.”

It’s fair to say that 2009 has been a whirlwind for the New Zealander. In February, viewers saw judges John Torode and Gregg Wallace bowled over by Mat’s menu of rabbit, spider crab thermidor and lavender mouse. With the MasterChef trophy thrust into his hand, Mat quit his job of 12 years in IT to follow his dream of running a restaurant serving “real food with something wild at its heart”.

At first the 43-year-old attempted to sell his home to raise funds for his culinary venture, but the collapse of the housing market ended those plans. Most aspiring restaurateurs would have thrown in the tea towel, but Mat had two tricks up his chef white’s sleeve; his new found fame as a reality TV star and, most importantly, his links to his local community. Before too long he was fighting off potential investors and soon found a business partner in the local area. On Saturday 20 June, The Wild Garlic threw open its doors and Mat hasn’t looked back since. The place has been fully booked from day one and, although they’re seeing lunchtimes slowing down now that the tourists are no longer in town, dinner bookings have been taken well into November.

Of course, a cynic would be forgiven in thinking that the customers are being drawn by the irresistible siren-call of celebrity, but fame is a fickle mistress and such curiosity is notoriously short-lived. Mat acknowledges that his appearance on MasterChef helped put bums on seats at launch, but hopes that the food and the ambiance of The Wild Garlic is now bringing in the punters. The critics are also starting to walk through the doors. The Guardian recently crowned Mat “an exceedingly rare talent” adding that “MasterChef should be very proud of itself indeed.”

“I’m not chasing rosettes or stars,” Mat claims. “And I have deliberately not gone down the fine dining route. You shouldn’t expect white table clothes and silver service when you come here. I don’t want people being faced by three wine glasses on the table and a sneering waiter. I want somewhere that’s comfortable with a little bit of background noise, not the kind of place where you’d feel awkward if you drop a fork on the floor. The Wild Garlic is about food, not intimidating surroundings.”

And in Mat’s mind that food must be locally sourced. “What’s the point of working in any other way? It simply makes good business sense. Why bring in something from miles away that is overpriced and over-packaged? When I get venison from the local estate, I get the cuts I want from the butcher before we work out a sausage and burger mix from the rest of the carcass. You just can’t do those kind of things unless you’re working very, very close to local suppliers.”

But isn’t the recent trend in local food just a fad among the middle classes, a foodie revolution which MasterChef is very much part off? To say that Mat disagrees strongly would be an understatement. “Perhaps that’s the case in London,” he says, “but come down to this little corner of Dorset and you’ll find local food is ingrained in everyone’s life. If people don’t buy it they hunt, shoot or fish for it themselves. Even my dishwasher came in today raving about the beech nuts he’d foraged over the weekend.”

And then Mat is off, fuelled by his both his love for British food and his pet peeve, how little we value our own produce. “It’s so damned frustrating.” He begins, his soft Kiwi accent thickening slightly as his passion grows “On our cheeseboard you’ll only find cheeses from a 30-mile radius, but it would stack up against any selection the world over. Why do the British think they have to buy French brie instead of their own soft cheese? Why chose parmesan over local hard cheese? It’s just bizarre. The problem is that the British – and I say this slightly as an outsider – have always been ashamed of their own cooking standards. Yes, you can go to certain roadside eateries and see why, but this cultural inferiority complex has crippled our cooking.”

Ironically, Mat places the blame at the feet of the very media that made him who he is today, our cookery TV shows and magazines. “Even when we do compare our own produce with foreign food the attitude is always ‘look, we’re almost as good as them.’ That’s just wrong. We need to change the psyche in foodie mags and foodie programmes from ‘we can do it if we try really hard’ to ‘we’re as good, if not better, as anyone else in the world’.”

As you hear Mat speak, you are reminded how often we seem to need folk from abroad to remind us how fantastic our own nation actually is. In the world of fine dining we have Raymond Blanc, who has chosen Britain over his native France and will happily tell all and sundry how amazing our food could be if we cared a little more about home-grown produce. Now, at the other end of the scale, we have another evangelist for local ingredients, a New Zealand chef with an impressive goatee and boundless enthusiasm for honest British grub.
“I consider myself a foreigner first,” Mat says, “but I love living in this country. People ask me if I miss New Zealand’s wide-open spaces and I think they obviously haven’t explored their own country. I have to drive half an hour from my home before I see my first traffic light.”
There is, however, a slight twinkle in Mat’s eye when he adds: “Perhaps I should consider myself lucky that most of the British haven’t realised what they’ve got on their doorstep. If they did, they’d all be living here in Dorset.”
Mat Follas will be joining the Fifteen Cornwall team on Wednesday 14 October to host an entertaining evening of great food as part of the 2009 Celebration of Food festival. For more information call 01637 861000.
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