Why Chef Matt Wilkinson Worships Vegetables

Melbourne chef Matt Wilkinson is coming to Auckland Restaurant Month for A Taste of Pope Joan, presented by Viva


Melbourne chef Matt Wilkinson. Picture / Supplied.

In the fickle world of the trending vege, you’re still cool if you eat cauliflower, carrots and kale. But hipsters take note — romesco broccoli, that luminous green brassica that resembles a seashell, is having its time in the sun. So says Matt Wilkinson, the British owner of Melbourne’s Pope Joan, who’ll be putting on a vegetable-inspired banquet A Taste of Pope Joan as part of Auckland Restaurant Month.

“I’m also loving golden beetroot, which is yellow-gold,” says Matt, on the line from Melbourne. “I like to boil then peel them, sprinkle on a good homemade vinegar and some homemade creme fraiche, chopped herbs, salt, dill and parsley. It’s ridiculously delicious.”

Considering meat is usually the exalted item on the plate, Matt’s infatuation with peas, pumpkin and parsnip makes him somewhat of an anomaly. But the author of Mr Wilkinson’s Favourite Vegetables (which sold more than 100,000 copies and was translated into nine languages) and its follow-up Mr Wilkinson’s Simply Dressed Salads, is no vegetarian. He spent his childhood hunting rabbits in South Yorkshire and even has a butcher’s shop called Hams and Bacon attached to his restaurant. His upcoming banquet will also celebrate Kiwi seafood and venison.

It’s the diversity of Earth’s bounty, he explains — the way produce at the height of its season can elevate a dish — that has him singing vegetables’ praises.

“You could have beautifully roasted carrots with sage and olive oil. You could have carrot made into soup. Or steamed, fried, dehydrated. You can’t do that with a pork chop. I’m always adding flavour to pork.”

Every cuisine has salad, he adds, yet many of us are not adventurous enough to think beyond lettuce and tomato. Matt makes them out of nearly everything, adding feta, dressing and herbs to leftover roast veges, throwing quinoa, tzatziki and chopped mint in with the leftover lamb. If you must have leaves, he recommends tossing cos with toasted sesame seeds, mustard dressing and blueberries, playing with flavour combinations and textures.

It’s due to this simple approach — starting with seasonal produce and building around it — that Matt calls himself a “gourmet home cook”, despite having worked in fine-dining restaurants, including under Michelin-starred chef Martin Wishart before he moved to Australia.

His formative years in South Yorkshire, a place he describes in unprintable terms, was somewhere you’d be more likely to find fish’n’chips and a famous lamb chop dish known as Barnsley’s Chop, than fancy restaurants. But its semi-rural environment gave him an appreciation for its abundance of lamb, beef and vegetables. It also ignited his interest in hospitality. His dad owned a pub and it was where he grew up, working there on the weekends until he left school, which he hated, at 16.

Picture / Annika Kafcaloudis

His ambition was to become the country’s youngest publican, an idea his dad vetoed. Instead he sent him on a hospo and catering course. Cooking wasn’t an instant love affair, but his tutor spotted his potential and sent him to London on a white lie. Matt turned up expecting to work front of house at a boutique hotel; instead he was put to work in the kitchen. Inspired, he moved to London, eventually landing the job with Wishart.

“I got the bug. It was chaos and high pressure and hard work, lots of drinking and lots of women. It was a wild time.”

He was 20 when he arrived in Sydney for a debaucherous few more years, before honing his skills at Melbourne’s fine-dining French restaurant Vue de Monde, and the two-hatted Circa, where he became head chef. In 2010 he opened Pope Joan, a cafe by day and wine bar by night, designed for a relaxed dining experience.

In the following two years he became co-owner of Spudbar, a healthy, organic alternative to typical fast-food lunch options, and opened bar Bishop of Ostia. Next year he’ll release his third book, about cooking for “the hooligans”, sons Finn and Jay. The idea is to feature family-friendly recipes but it won’t be a “lovey dovey” ode to his perfect home life.

Rather it will touch on how he and his wife plan and cook healthy meals and snacks, and structure their eating around the table. Because ask anyone what they’d choose for their last supper and most wouldn’t pick a 20-course degustation, he says; they’d want to sit down for a meal with family.

“You don’t need money or power, you just need manners,” he says, adding that it’s a rule in their house the TV is turned off when the food comes out. “It’s bloody hard. The boys just decided they don’t like tomatoes in their bolognaise. I’m like, when did this happen? They’ve also decided they like orange foods but they don’t like green. The other day I raced home and made meatloaf with mashed potato, only for them to tell me they didn’t like mashed potato with butter, and they didn’t want meatloaf because it wasn’t shaped like a sausage.”

Maybe not, but at least they’re eating their vegetables.

• Matt Wilkinson will cook at A Taste of Pope Joan at Odettes with Josh Kucharik on August 10 from 6pm. Tickets, $190, include 12 dishes served banquet-style and matching wines, from iTICKET.

WHAT ELSE IS COMING UP AT AUCKLAND RESTAURANT MONTH?

Every Wednesday
A Taste of Pope Joan is part of the Chef Dining Series, running each Wednesday in August. The series features chefs from renowned international restaurants including Sydney’s Momofuku Seiobo (only very limited tickets remaining for this event), Melbourne’s Grossi Florentino, Los Angeles’ Osteria Mozza and our very own Federal Street culinary superstars cooking up some very special one-night-only events.

Every Thursday
Fancy sitting down to a dish of crab, sunflower and sweetcorn matched with a Neudorf Albariño in the evocative surrounds of Clooney or a fried oyster sandwich with a glass of Nautilus Chardonnay right by the harbour at Soul Bar & Bistro? These lofty experiences and more in some of the city’s top restaurants can be yours for just $25 each Thursday of Restaurant Month with Raise the Bar.

Every day
Make the most of Restaurant Month and try something new, with over 100 special menus to choose from at $25, $40 or $55+ in restaurants throughout the central city. Tempt your taste-buds and plan your August dining calendar by checking out all the menus online. (For example, El Faro at Elliott Stables is offering a 3-course dinner and sangria for just $40.)

• For further details, visit heartofthecity.co.nz

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