Matt Tebbutt worked as a chef in top restaurants before opening his own, The Foxhunter, with his wife Lisa. He took over from James Martin as the host of BBC One’s Saturday Kitchen in 2017. This month he came to my kitchen where we chatted about 96-hour weeks, being sacked by Marco Pierre White, and how he got the best job in TV.
Emma You’re not like the other chefs I’ve talked to in this series.
Matt Oh no, why?
E With everyone else, being a chef was almost a vocation – they knew from a young age that all the signs were pointing to a life in the kitchen. But you came to it later – you chose it as a career. Why?
M I enjoyed food, but I never thought of it as my future. I wanted to become an astronaut, or fly planes, so I focused on going into the RAF. It was fantastic, but exhausting. An hour’s flight was mentally the most draining thing I’ve ever done. I had a girlfriend in London and restaurants at that time were transforming. My professional interest in food was ignited around then. I applied for work, and my first kitchen job was in Marco Pierre White’s Oak Room.
E Your first job was in a three-Michelin-star restaurant? How did you wangle that?
M I really wanted to work for him so I rang the restaurant and said, ‘I’ll work for free, I just want to watch the kitchen in action.’ And this bloke on the phone said, ‘Ok, come tomorrow.’ I said, ‘When I turn up and Marco Pierre White asks me who the hell I am, who shall I say I spoke to?’ And he said, ‘Me. I am Marco Pierre White.’ The next day I spent all day in the kitchen cooking French beans and he offered me a job.
E How was it?
M Tough. There was no conversation in the kitchen, because all the boys were working so hard. Then one day I body-swerved Marco in service, he dropped a beautiful plate of food on the floor, and sacked me.
E Where did you go?
M Oh, he took me back the next day, but moved me to his other restaurant, The Criterion, where we did 400 covers a day and 96-hour weeks for £200 a week.
E Are you serious? 96 hours?
M Well, that was a hard week. An easy week was probably between 60 and 80 hours. It was brutal.
E How long did you survive it?
M I did 18 months until I burned out and I needed a bit of rehab. So I left and I went on to work at Chez Bruce, then for Sally Clarke, then for Alastair Little.
E So by the time you opened your own restaurant in Wales, you’d had four famous but very different influences – what was your food style?
M In Marco’s restaurant, I spent 18 hours a day splitting French beans into four, which would then decorate a plate around the terrine. When the plates came back I would scrape all my French beans into the bin, and think, ‘This is my life.’ So when Lisa and I opened our own place, I knew I didn’t want to do Michelin cooking. We drove around France to all the little bistros. I wanted a restaurant where there was a husband in the kitchen, the wife was front of house, the kids were running around and it was all very relaxed. You’d order a terrine and it wouldn’t come neatly on a plate surrounded by French beans, it’d be served out of a big dish, but it would be amazing.
E Was it great, finally being the boss?
M (He roars with laughter.) I didn’t realise the amount of work it takes to create that beautiful idyll. We couldn’t afford staff. In the mornings I’d hoover, clean the loos and then spend all day and night cooking.
E Did it ever get easier?
E You’ve made up for it now, presenting Saturday Kitchen. It’s probably the best job in Britain. Can you tell me a better one?
M (He thinks). No, you’re right.
E Why did you get it over all the other chefs out there?
M I don’t know. The biggest compliment I ever get is when I meet people and they say I’m exactly the same as I am on the telly. Some people can turn their personalities on and off, I sometimes meet presenters and you can tell it’s just a façade.
E I’d also say that you’ve done the hours – you’ve earned your stripes in those high-end establishments.
M I think working in those kitchens gives you enormous confidence to stand alongside the likes of Michel Roux Snr and Marcus Wareing and be able to talk in the same way. It wouldn’t be the same if I was intimidated by the people we have on.
E The pasta recipe you’ve given me is a real joy. Did you steal it or invent it?
M A bit of both. The orecchiette is known as ‘peasant’s pasta’ because it’s just semolina and water. I added the crab. So, you’ve got a very basic Puglian element, and then an expensive element with the crab.
E Problem is, nobody likes people that make their own pasta.
M They don’t?
E Nope. It’s a bit show-offy. Almost as bad as saying, ‘Do you like the courgettes? I grew them myself.’
M I grow my own courgettes.
E Oh. Sorry.
Find the recipe for orecchiette with crab, broad beans & chilli in the August 2019 issue of BBC Good Food magazine.
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Good Food contributing editor Emma Freud is a journalist and broadcaster, director of Red Nose Day and a co-presenter of Radio Four’s Loose Ends.
Photographs: David Cotsworth