The head chef at Simpsons, Matt Cheal on how he went from a teenager washing pots for pocket money to leading the kitchen at Birmingham’s Michelin-star restaurant
Matt Cheal is the perfect role model for any youngster aspiring to make it to the top in the world of food. A local lad, born and raised in Solihull, Matt began his love for food right from a young age when he watched his dad cook at home. As a 14-year-old he was working as a pot washer to earn some pocket money, before later moving onto the stove and being trained at University College Birmingham. In 2000, while still a student, he began his career at Simpsons. Now 15 years later he runs the kitchen as head chef heading up a talented and committed team as well as looking after Simpsons Cookery School which takes places every Saturday. Over the years Matt has picked up a number of accolades including Junior Sous Chef of the Year in 2004 and Chef of the Year in 2010.
Tell us about your cooking
It is very natural and all about being inspired by the best produce available and then I let the ingredients speak for themselves. It’s really important that we stay abreast of the new techniques available to help extract the very best flavours available. For example, we’re currently using an indoor barbecue called the Big Green Egg. It’s really popular in Michelin star restaurants at the moment and it’s amazing!
Describe your perfect meal
I’m lucky because I eat out a lot and at some of the very best restaurants as it’s the best way to soak up some inspiration. However my perfect meal would be in a restaurant in Mallorca called Wellies where they serve the best burgers – and I’d be with my three favourite girls (my wife Emma and my two daughters Jessica and Phoebe) in the sunshine with a pint of San Miguel.
How did you become a chef?
My family have been in the hotel game for nearly 50 years and so I was always hanging around the kitchen and would often help out for some extra cash. I really enjoyed it so I decided to go all the way and enrolled at the College of Food (now UCB). It was a phenomenal place to learn about cooking and they arranged for my first placement at Simpsons. I was hooked from that very first service. Along with my dad and Luke Tipping, Andreas [Andreas Antona, the owner of Simpsons] has been my biggest influence.
What do you eat when at home?
With a young family we try to eat as healthy as possible with loads of fresh produce and vegetables. It doesn’t always go to plan as Emma makes a mean lasagne! It’s important to get kids involved in food and my eight-year-old has no qualms letting me know if her steak isn’t done right!
Who’s the best chef in the world and why? And who’s the best in Brum?
In the world I would say Massimo Bottura, he is an Italian restaurateur and the chef patron of Osteria Francescana, a three Michelin-star restaurant based in Modena. And in Brum… well that would be me of course!!
Is the customer always right?
Of course. We’re lucky that we have such a loyal clientele at Simpsons and they come here to experience a special meal, so we have to give everything to try and deliver that experience every time.
What’s the best thing about being a chef?
The kitchen banter. It’s something that just doesn’t exist in most other lines of work. Seeing people eating and enjoying your food is an amazing feeling too.
What’s the worst thing about being a chef?
The long hours mean that you don’t see your family much. I’m lucky that Emma and my whole family are so supportive. There are no locks on the door in the kitchen – we all choose this way of life because we have a deep passion and love for what we do.
If you weren’t a chef, what would you be?
A Michelin star inspector – it must be a wonderful life swanning around eating in the best restaurants on earth!
What do you recommend from this evening’s menu?
Duck egg to start followed by the pigeon and Yorkshire rhubarb crumbed souffle for dessert
Matt’s recipe for a stunning Raspberry Sable Tart
For the Sable Base
- 60g egg yolk
- 120g caster sugar
- 120g butter (at room temperature)
- 190g plain flour
- 11g baking powder
For the Creamy Raspberry Mixture
- 100g raspberry coulis – save some extra for the plate
- 30g egg yolk
- 35g egg
- 30g sugar
- 1½ gelatine (soaked in cold water for 10 minutes and squeezed dry)
- 35g unsalted butter, softened
For the Vanilla Ice Cream
- 250ml milk
- 175mil double cream
- 1 vanilla pod, split and deseeded
- 100g sugar 100g yolks
- 2 punnets fresh raspberries
Method For the Sable:
1. Whilst the sugar and yolks until pale then mix in the soft butter
2. Sift the flour and baking powder together then stir into the mix to give a smooth, soft dough
3. Chill the dough for 2-3 hours or until completely set
4. When thoroughly chilled, roll the dough out between 2 sheets of baking parchment to the thickness of a pound coin
5. Then child, or even better, freeze the dough until completely set again (it is easier to handle when frozen)
6. Cut the chilled dough to fit the base of your tart tin or tins. We use a 10cm ring for an individual serving or you could use a large ring and cut a wedge of tart for each person
7. Bake the sable inside the tart ring or rings at 165◦C until risen and golden brown. Cool and remove from the ring
Creamy Raspberry Mixture:
1. Mix the eggs, yolks, sugar and raspberry purée in a heatproof bowl and place over a pan of simmering water. Whisk the mixture regularly.
2. When the mixture is hot to the touch and has thickened, remove from the heat and whisk in the gelatine to dissolve. Allow to cool to blood temperate then whisk in the soft butter. Pass the mixture through a sieve and store, covered, in the fridge.
For the Vanilla Ice Cream
1. Bring the milk, cream, vanilla pods and seeds to the boil
2. Meanwhile whisk together the sugar and egg yolks
3. When boiling, whisk the milk and cream onto the yolks and sugar then return the mixture to the pan
4. Cook the mix over a low heat, stirring at all times until the mixture thickens slightly (about 85◦C). Pass the thickened custard through a sieve and cool
5. When cool, churn in an ice-cream machine and reserve in the freezer To finish and serve