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Life Behind the Hot Plate

This week, our Catering Manager, Matthew Hewitt, discusses life behind the hot plate and the importance of teamwork, especially when working with the likes of Gordon Ramsay and Raymond Blanc...

Stood in front of the bench, fresh, crisp chefs whites gleaming and the nerves in my stomach churning, I had no idea that this day was going to be the start of my career as a chef.

I was sixteen and had collected my GCSE results three weeks before my first day at Barnsley College.  With no real idea of what I wanted to do after leaving school, the Catering and Hospitality course appealed to my creative side, so I enrolled and took my first anxious steps into the catering world.

In those first weeks, tutors taught me a wide variety of skills: how to hold and use a knife correctly, food hygiene and the importance of organising your time and workspace; skills that have proven to be invaluable throughout my career. However, it quickly became apparent, to both myself and my tutors, that I had a natural flair for flavours and I was mastering the skills to become a chef.

After completing Level 1 and 2 of the Catering and Hospitality course, passing all components with a distinction and being consistently awarded ‘Student of the Year’ accolades, I was chosen to progress onto the Professional Chefs Diploma. This was my game changer. This was where I really flourished and developed my passion for food. This was when I truly became a chef.

My skills developed quickly from this point and my dedication and determination began to open doors to some very exciting opportunities.  Six months into the diploma, I went to work at Le Manoir Aux Quat’ Saisons in Oxford and trained in the professional kitchen alongside Raymond Blanc. It was an eye-opening experience and a very steep learning curve! From there, I spent a few months at Chewton Glen, again building on my skills and encountering the adrenaline rush of a life in a busy Michelin-starred restaurant kitchen.

Life was exhilarating and full of promise!

The buzz of working in a high-pressure environment served only to drive my ambition further forward, so when I was nominated to continue my training at  Mosimann’s Academy in London, I jumped at the opportunity.

For me, this is where the camaraderie of the kitchen brigade truly showed its importance. Being a professional chef means working incredibly long hours, often working in confined spaces, being under constant pressure to create perfection and always looking for innovative and creative ways to use flavours and ingredients.  In order for this to be sustainable, having a good relationship with your fellow chefs is vital!

One of my first real chef friends, Mark Goddley, was actually taught at Doncaster College by Peter Curry who now works alongside me in the Hill House kitchen! Mark and I spent many years at Mosimann’s together, rented rooms in the same house in Victoria and even rollerbladed through Hyde Park each morning to get to work!  If we hadn’t had that friendship, the strains of chef life would undoubtedly have been much tougher to handle.

How else would I have got through having my fridge torn apart by Gordon Ramsay at 2am? Or pepper thrown at my stove to make me cough after not quite getting my timings right on my section? The pressure was immense and the job was, at times, very mentally challenging.

The importance of having somebody to lean on became very apparent. Today, as we come to the end of Mental Health Awareness Week, I know I am lucky to have friends like Mark to help me get through the tough times. Even in these trying times of social distancing, I urge everybody to check in on your friends and neighbours, it’s surprising how much a familiar voice and an easy ear can help a person when they are struggling.

So, where did life take me after Mossiman’s?

Well, during my three years in the City, I did placements with Gordon Ramsay (yes, he really does swear all the time!) and worked at Lord’s Cricket Ground and for Mosimanns Party Service, catering for the likes of Cartier and Wedgewood. Nevertheless, I wanted to experience other cultures and see what culinary delights were on offer around the world. Throughout my career, I’ve worked in Paris, Germany and Vancouver to name a few, and have had the most amazing opportunities to develop my skills and food knowledge in fantastic award-winning kitchens. Life inside them is highly pressured, but also extremely rewarding and I will always treasure the memories, skills and friendships that I gained during my time in restaurant catering.

Having a family left me needing to find a balance between being at home with my wife and children, and also still getting the chance to utilise my talents as a professional chef and have the adrenaline buzz of working in a busy kitchen.

Working as a Catering Manager for Wilson Vale has given me the best of both worlds!

Now, instead of working late into the night in a kitchen that might do 40 covers during an evening service, I’m at Hill House by 6am, baking bread, preparing desserts and managing a team of 13 to feed over 800 staff and students by lunchtime! The two environments couldn’t be further apart but the demands and stresses of kitchen life remain undeniably similar.

Creating dishes that use the very freshest of sustainable ingredients as well as enlivening the taste buds of even our youngest students is now my focus. Taste Buddies, a program designed to teach children about new products and flavours, links to our theme days, which are a spectacular way of introducing new ingredients, cultures and tastes into our daily diets. Nutritionally balanced recipes with reduced salt, 50% less sugar and catering to all manner of dietary requirements may now be a priority for my menus, however, as a chef, maintaining the appeal and excitement of food will always be at the heart of what I do. 

Giving the next generation the tools they need to feed themselves is hugely important to me. Running weekly cookery clubs at Hill House allows me to pass on some of my passion and knowledge to the children and is something that I enjoy as much as they do. To see their understanding of ingredients and development of new skills as the weeks pass gives me great pride. Who knows, we may have the next Paul Hollywood among us!