MAT FOLLAS – THE WILD GARLIC – MASTERCHEF 2009.
The green oak tables for Mat Follas’ new restaurant were being carefully unloaded under many a watchful eye as I arrived to talk to him.
Designed as outdoor furniture they seemed rather unwieldy and momentarily at odds with the interior. There was an ample trestle table that absolutely refused to go inside until partially dismantled by Mat’s crew of helpers. It was eventually inched inside the door, taking a few fingers as victims but avoiding the huge sheet of plate glass at the entrance etched with the herb eponymous with the new restaurant in town, The Wild Garlic.
However, once installed they quickly blended with the muted greens of the décor, and made themselves at home. The edges were patiently carved with snatched sayings from West Country writers such as Thomas Hardy. Others were inscribed with wild ingredients that will soon grace them thanks to the innovation of their new owner.
Inside, things were busy – there was a crew attending to the legion of snagging jobs that any site requires to bring it up to the mark. Things were really taking shape however – a cleanly scrubbed blackboard sat above the fireplace awaiting its plat du jour to be announced in a few days’ time. A wood burner was sitting patiently for its turn to come into the limelight – it will see little action in the summer days to follow, but judging by the advance bookings taking Mat right into September already, it will very soon warm the ambience of this very special space.
The front of house was alive with a score of conversations, questions and mobile calls – all of which were aimed at Mat. Yet, while I waited for him, he patiently dealt with each person and their particular query. He smiled the whole time. A man clearly happy with the gradual achievement of a cherished dream – to open a restaurant and cook the food he loves for others.
Mat’s pre Masterchef existence was that of an IT engineer. He learned to cook out of necessity as so many do. However, he did admit to a secondary motivation, which was to impress the ladies. Back then, it was none of your nettle soup or elderflower sorbets. He stuck to the culinary standards of spaghetti bolognese, stir fries and the odd curry.
So where did the love affair with wild food come from?
He cited three major influences.
He has had a love of scuba diving for many years and described the buzz he felt when coming up from a dive “with about a hundred and fifty quids’ worth of free seafood”.He used to set about cooking some of the catch for friends and family, and traded the rest for meat from his local butcher and Guinness from his local. Barter at its best.
His second inspiration came from his environment – his home town of Beaminster has a strong tradition of foraging, and Mat was keen to join in the fun when he moved there six years ago with his family.
Thirdly his wife Amanda has always been a keen gardener and in tune with her husband’s affinity for the wild, quickly turned her garden from “pretty to edible” Herbs and flowers soon became available for the Follas family to consume at table.
His love of cooking and a desire for change from a corporate work life were prime movers in his application to become a contestant in Masterchef 2009. He modestly claims never to have set out to win – he was simply contented to “not make a fool out of myself” in his heat.
Events were to prove otherwise and during the filming from June to September last year, he quickly found himself in the semi finals, with a one in six chance of winning. It was at that point Mat realised what he had been too modest to see – he could cook. The odds were favourably stacked at this point and he, like his fellow contestants tried to be very tactical on the ensuing round.
Mat leapt out of his comfort zone, and pushed his wild food creations to one side, cooked a very safe and bland dish and nearly lost himself the competition.
The judges’ acerbic off screen roasting soon pulled him to his senses.
He regrouped and prepared for the final. He strapped a brace of wild rabbit and some spider crabs to his Harley and rode off to compete for the final accolade.
He went, he cooked he conquered. Mat became this year’s Masterchef.
The Wild Garlic morphed from a dream into a reality when the chances of winning were looming large on the horizon. Beaminster, while being Mat’s home town, was just one of the candidates to open up a restaurant. He says that the ultimate choice of location “just felt right”
The building goes back almost 450 years and still retains grazing rights over the village square. It has housed a multitude of commerces including, a bookshop, pub, hardware store, furniture suppliers and of course a restaurant.
Mat will open his doors for a launch on the 20th June followed by opening to the general public from 23rd of the month. The menu has a 24 carat hallmark of foraged food. It includes his Mastechef signature dishes of Trio of Wild Rabbit and Spider Crab Thermidor. As I wrote, Mat was planning to bake truffle bread with fellow cook Heather Badcock for the launch, and the appearance of Hand Dived Scallops with Wild Garlic Butter bears testament to his continued desire to source some of his food personally.
He will be showcasing Montana Wines to accompany the food, proud of his Kiwi heritage.
Whilst the menu is concise. it offers daily specials according to season and availability.
I naively asked if he intended to change the menu four times a year to reflect each season.
He calmly retorted that he will in fact change it for every month of the year.
Fighting talk for even the most dedicated wild food aficionado. But Mat has gleaning from Mother Nature off to a fine art. While he was off dealing with the umpteenth query, I looked at his work schedules pasted on the wall next to me. His next days’ duties including a foraging sortie in readiness for the launch meal.
It really did bring a whole new slant on ringing an order through to the local Cash and Carry.
He seemed undeterred by the threat of inclement weather or low stocks in the hedgerows. He will work around any shortfalls by simple substitution.
He will of course use local suppliers , and he has graciously highlighted these on his website, to allow full transparency as to his raw ingredients. As time allows, I feel he will offer the locations of his wild food as well, give or take the odd secret stash of harder to get ingredients!
Although not a big exponent of organic food, preferring to use well managed locally stocked foodstuffs, Mat will ensure from the outset that his customers will be highly aware of the provenance of each carefully selected ingredient.
Mat has had the courage to realise his creative side and risked his shirt to bring the Wild Garlic to fruition. Even now when asked about book deals, product endorsement or TV appearances, he reverts to a self effacing character. “If it comes my way I’ll take it – I am flattered by it all . I only did Masterchef because I wanted to become a chef”
Modest words indeed from a man who is on the verge of opening a restaurant destined for success by virtue of its completely unique bill of fare.
His success will be very much deserved.