Great Pub Chefs - Soaring High - Matt Tebbutt

By Mark Taylor

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags Marco pierre white

Acclaim for his Monmouthshire pub has proved that Matt Tebbutt was right to abandon a career with the RAF. Mark Taylor pays a visit to the...

Acclaim for his Monmouthshire pub has proved that Matt Tebbutt was right to abandon a career with the RAF. Mark Taylor pays a visit to the award-winning chef at the Foxhunter inn, near Abergavenny. As a schoolboy, Matt Tebbutt always dreamed of working in the top flight of his profession, although cooking for a living wasn't quite what he had in mind.

Matt, who runs acclaimed gastro pub the Foxhunter near Abergavenny, may be one of the most gifted young chefs in Britain, but his career path started very differently.

"I had one of those schoolboy dreams of becoming a pilot," he laughs. "I had a scholarship to go into the RAF and was doing flight training, but when it came to leaving, the 12-year sign-up just seemed like a bad idea. When I went to college I joined this air squadron thing and on days off I was taught how to fly. It was great fun, and there was a great social side to it, but there was a backlog of pilots from the Gulf War and there was every chance that I could be sat behind a desk for the next five years waiting to get the call. I thought that was too long.

The only thing I enjoyed apart from flying was cooking for friends. I used to come back from flying absolutely exhausted and to unwind I'd just go up to Tesco and come back and cook up a load of food. It was like Ready Steady Cook. My friends bought me a Raymond Blanc book and we cooked a bit from that,but it was more like a few guys jumping around the kitchen and having a bit of a laugh. It was more fun than getting up at 6am to go flying!"

With the RAF career on the backburner,it was time for Matt to decide on an alternative career and it didn't take long for him to decide that a life in the kitchen beckoned.

"I used to go up to London quite a lot and go to Soho. I loved the whole thing about restaurants, the theatre of it. There's a buzz about a restaurant being run properly, with the waiters sliding in and out.You can sit back and watch the flow of it all and that's quite inspiring."

With no experience of working in restaurants, Matt decided to enrol for a course at Leith's School Of Food and Wine.

"It was such a good school," reflects Matt, "and it annoys me when I hear other chefs saying catering schools are crap. It wasn't like that at all. It was a good grounding."

With a diploma from Leith's on his CV,Matt soon found himself working his way through some of the best restaurant kitchens in London under the tutelage of some of the biggest names in the business. By 2000, he had worked with Marco Pierre White, Bruce Poole and Sally Clarke, but his biggest influence remains Alastair Little. Matt says,

"The whole pleasure of food for me was brought about by working with Alastair, where it was one man and two other guys tearing around like headless chickens, making simple things taste great.Alastair has a very laid-back attitude and he was one of the only chefs who seemed to be enjoying what he does. Everything he did had soul and heart in it. The food wasn't all towers and [just] pretty,and the ingredients and thought behind his dishes were spot on."

One only has to look at the menus at the Foxhunter to recognise how strong the Alastair Little influence is. Seasonal, bold and simple, Matt's dishes embrace the flavours of Italy, Britain and the Far East. A typical December menu includes spaghetti with venison meatballs, tomato sauce and Parmesan (£7.95), local woodcock, cavalo nero & bruschetta (£15.95),wild line-caught sea bass with mild creamed curried leeks and mussels (£17.95) and quince, prune and sultana crumble with clotted cream (£5.95).This is a chef who sources local organic produce and refuses to compromise with quality or seasonality. This is not a place to expect asparagus on the menu in December, or partridges in May.

Dishes may have only two or three components, but everything on the plate is there for a reason and in a country pub restaurant in rural South Wales, that takes guts.

"The biggest challenge here has been getting the confidence of the locals," Matt admits.

"Initially, we were getting the old pub trade who just didn't understand what was going on. They were full of comments like 'when they used to sell gammon, this place was busy'!Believe me, when you've been in the kitchen since 8am, making fresh bread and some old tosser comes up with that kind of comment, it makes you angry!"

Matt and his wife, Lisa, had initially been looking around London for a gastro pub, but when they got married, they decided to return to Wales.

"It was in a terrible state - an old man's pub with lino and carpet and rats in the walls. The whole place had to be gutted. Fortunately, for the price we sold our London flat, we could do it up and also live above it. All in all, with buying it and kitting it out, it was about £500,000."

A Grade II-listed building, the Foxhunter was originally the station master's house for the old Nantyderry railway station, which closed in the '60s. Since taking over, the Tebbutts have attracted several awards and national reviews, including AA Restaurant of the Year for Wales 2003-4.

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