26 March 2009
A passion for simple, local ingredients took Mat Follas to Masterchef victory. He treats Sophie Morris to a foraged feast and lets her in on his future plans
Mat Follas, winner of this year's Masterchef, thanks the woman who congratulates him in his local greengrocer in Beaminster, Dorset, somewhat coyly. It is three weeks since he won the television cookery competition with his beautifully presented menu of trio of rabbit, spider crab thermidor and lavender mousse, but he's still not accustomed to being recognised almost everywhere he goes. The contest was tense until the end, with no clear winner until Follas revealed his final dishes, cooked tenderly and expertly using ingredients local to his Dorset home.
"Once I had got to the final, it didn't matter whether I won or not," he claims six months after filming ended, as we shop for a rack of lamb and freshly foraged razor clams, earthy beetroot and purple sprouting broccoli. Follas and his wife, Mandy, had made a pact that if he made it as far as the final, he could give up his day job with IBM and pursue his dream of opening his own restaurant.
This prospect is now a real possibility, but the deal is not quite in the bag. Follas has a backer and a business plan, and he has even found several potential properties, including one in Beaminster.
This weekend, Follas braved the cold Dorset waters to collect a handful of razor clams for our lunch. The rest is foraged, and the restaurant already has the working name The Wild Garlic, after the plant that grows in abundance on Dorset's grassy banks and hedgerows. He also has a blog of the same name.
There has been considerable speculation about his next move in recent weeks. He has been offered a short stage with Michel Roux Jnr at London's Le Gavroche, which he will take up when some spare days present themselves. Yet his employer, IBM, has just refused him the sabbatical he was hoping would bridge the gap while he made the transition from struggling start-up to successful restaurateur.
Shopping done, we drive the few miles to the village of Cattistock in Follas's messy 4x4. The family decamped from Beaminster to Cattistock a few months ago after the series began and the frequent knocks on the door and windows from appreciative tourists became too much for Follas, who is welcoming, but softly spoken, far from the booming, exuberant character his stature and New Zealand heritage suggest. He is confident, but not showy. He nurtured a loyal group of fans during the Masterchef series with his genuine passion for food, guileless gratitude whenever he was praised by judges John Torode and Gregg Wallace, and his willingness to develop from a keen, hard-working cook into a top-flight chef. Not to mention numerous bouts of tears.
He wears a short goatee and owns a Harley-Davidson, and since the win has been assured that he is a gay icon. One imagines he is a housewives' favourite too. His competitors in the final, though accomplished and imaginative, were young, skinny and certainly a little green. To see a big hulk of a man like Follas put together intricate pastry dishes and arrange fragile sprigs of lavender atop steaming plates is a treat. His tiny canapés of burnt cream served on individual spoons were a wonder. The way he handled preparing 200 hundred portions of finicky crab, gravadlax and mackerel for a posh horsy event – his own style is much less fussy – was impressive.
When putting together a complex dessert for eight Michelin-starred chefs he mastered the sugar stick garnish on his second attempt, something trained pastry chefs might take years to perfect. When, in the penultimate challenge, he visited noma in Copenhagen, the owner decided the signature dish was too easy for Follas's final challenge, given the flair he had displayed during lunch.
In terms of training, Follas got this far with two one-day cookery courses at Rick Stein's school and a week's course at a local cookery school. If the hyperbole makes his journey from food-loving IT consultant to Masterchef winner sound like a done deal from the outset, this wasn't the case. When he cooked for three notoriously harsh food critics, he forgot to add the sugar to a lime tart, remembering his mistake just after serving. The main course, intended as a sort of deconstructed steak and oyster pie, was scuppered when he served up a piece of undercooked steak. One critic likened his smoked oysters to "huge bogeys". "It was a disaster," he admits.
Other mistakes occurred when he tried to prepare food he imagined the professionals wanted to taste instead of sticking to the plates of simple meat and shellfish flavoured with foraged or home-grown herbs that first ignited his love of food. "But by the final I had relaxed," he says. "We knew I was going to have a go at the restaurant by then. So it became more important to me to cook my kind of food and then the people watching could make their own minds up if they liked it or not."
Follas's kind of food, he says, is "lots of seafood and lots of wild food – crab, venison, fish, wild mushrooms". He has a few pieces of professional equipment including an induction cooker and a smoker – new toys, but not expensive ones – and Mandy is in raptures about the smoked mash he is making to accompany our rack of lamb, a dish she must have tasted dozens of times before.
First, though, a few nettles from the garden are whipped into a fresh green broth with a satisfying kick, served with hunks of toast smeared with garlic and butter.
The razor clams are steamed for two minutes, if that. "The art to seafood," he says, "is not really to cook it at all." They are then sautéed with peas and rich, smoky bacon from the nearby Denhay farm. Ask for a chimed and debarked rack of lamb, Follas advises, and score the fat before rubbing your seasoning into the grooves. We start cooking the lamb in a pan lined with half an inch of bubbling butter. A few minutes and several turns and generous dressings of warm butter later and the racks are transferred to the oven. Some of the beetroot caramelising in honey in a shallow pan (though he recommends maple syrup for an earthy flavour) has burnt while we talk. Follas rejects the charred pieces and starts a fresh batch – even at home, the perfecting standards Masterchef demands are adhered to. He turns his attention to the smoked mash, laying boiled and cooled King Edwards inside a smoking tin with a layer of sawdust in the bottom, which is then placed on the hob.
There has been such a build up to these potatoes that they are certain to disappoint; I am only worried to what extent. They are only plain potatoes, after all, mashed with cream, but one mouthful reveals that the smoker has infused the entire mound of smooth mash with the flavours given off by a wood-burning stove, a bonfire or barbecue. It's delicious and I immediately want more. In my view The Wild Garlic can't open soon enough.