The chef director at Cheals in Henley, Matt Cheal on how he went from a teenager washing pots for pocket money to running his own stunning restaurant – and serving mum’s fruit cake with seared foie gras!
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. My training was very French and I love the way food is cooked and served in France and for me it’s still the food capital of the world. I like to think I’m developing my style every day in terms of inspiration and flavour combinations and it’s really important that we stay abreast of the new techniques available to help extract the very best flavours. We’re doing a lot more smoking, brining and because of our amazing location, a lot more foraging which is really inspiring. I bought an allotment too, so we’re growing a lot more of our own stuff which is just fantastic.
How did you become a chef?
I’m a local lad, born and raised in Solihull, and my family have been in the hotel game for nearly 50 years so I was always hanging around the kitchen watching dad cook 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 there for about 15 years working my way up to head chef before I opened my own place in Henley two-and-a half-years ago. Where has the time gone? Along with my dad and Luke Tipping, Andreas Antona 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 but it also tends to be a lot of simple food like beans on toast! My wife always cooks an amazing Sunday lunch and we try to eat out at least once a week with the girls as it’s such a great way to catch up without the distraction of phones, iPads and swimming.
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 who’s the chef patron of Osteria Francescana in Modena and I recently had an incredible meal at Quique Dacosta in Denia. As for home soil, there’s such a glut of top chefs in the Midlands. I think people like Brad Carter and Luke Tipping are both great guys and great chefs. All the chefs from our region with Michelin stars fully deserve the accolade.
Is the customer always right?
It’s a tricky one. Feedback, both good and bad, is so important and you have to be sensible about criticism but the simple answer is yes and no! However, happy customers is what it’s all about and we give everything to try and deliver an amazing experience every time.
Share a cooking tip
It sounds so simple but you’ve got to season food properly. Keep tasting and remember you can always add but you can’t take away.
What was your favourite food as a kid?
My mum’s fruit cake. It’s unbelievable good and I actually served it in the restaurant recently with some seared foie gras. It went down really well – I guess I should have given her a credit!
If you weren’t a chef, what would you be?
Well I wouldn’t mind being a Michelin star inspector but my uncle was in the air force so I think I might have followed him and become a jet fighter pilot. Top Gun was definitely one of my favourite films.
Food heaven and hell?
A guilty pleasure would have to be Five Guys! As for hell, I really don’t like squid but top of the list would be Nandos; deep fried hell.
Most unusual thing eaten?
Not so much unusual but I had jellied eel recently in a very well-known restaurant that was particularly unpleasant.
What do you recommend from this evening’s menu?
We’ve just revamped the menu and we’ve added a Cornish Brill dish which I’m very excited about. It’s served with braised celery, truffles, pomme pure and an apple vinegar. Very nice.