Behind The Blue Door

Statement Dining | August 22, 2016 |

Think like a chef:

Secrets of next-level dinner party inspiration

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ThinkLikeAChef:TheSecretsOfNextLevelDinnerPartyInspiration

When you’ve got a Michelin star, run one of the Sunday Times top 100 restaurants and your Sunday lunch has been voted among the ten best in the country, it’s safe to say you know a thing or two about cooking.

But ask Matthew Tomkinson, head chef at the Montagu Arms Hotel in Beaulieu, how the home cook can take their skills to the next creative level and he’ll bat the question right back.

“Most of the food you eat at home is made by women,” he told us, “And it’s soulful and satisfying and nurturing. Not all restaurants can include that soulful element.”

Whoever is at the stove, Matthew believes it’s conviviality – not cheffy tricks and techniques – that makes home cooking so special.

“My mum gets it,” he says, “She does about three dishes really, really well and I love going home to eat.”

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Chef Matthew Tomkinson

But let’s go back to the restaurant. Matthew presides over two dining options at the Montagu Arms. The fine-dining Terrace Restaurant is the Michelin-starred part, with a £75 à la carte menu and a tasting menu priced at £95.

You may choose to dine on roasted Woodside Farm lamb with slow-cooked breast, black olive polenta, marinated peppers and salsa verde. Or perhaps you’d prefer escalope of south coast turbot with sauté wild mushrooms, braised pearl barley, caramelised endive and cep sauce.

thinklikeacheflambImage source: The Montagu Arms Hotel

Less pricey is Monty’s, the bistro, where a dinner comes in at about £30. Currently on the menu is a home-ground Hampshire beef burger with spiced tomato and red onion relish, smoked bacon, gruyere cheese, gherkin and crispy french fries. Or try Ringwood Ale battered haddock with Cornish sea salt and black pepper chips, crushed peas, tartare sauce and lemon.

It’s easy to see that Matthew takes inspiration from the bounty of the New Forest that surrounds the Montagu Arms – but he’s determined that simply being local isn’t enough to get it on the menu.

“I spend £20 – £30k a month on food and I feel that brings a responsibility. We don’t only go for local but we do want to support businesses we like. There are some great suppliers round here and we’re lucky. But they still have to prove themselves on their merits.”

If it’s not just what’s on the doorstep, what does inspire Matthew when he and the team are creating new dishes?

“The spark can be anything. It could be my sous chef, it could be going out for dinner – it could be this conversation.”

Indeed, chefs often find inspiration in diverse places. Alexis Gauthier from Gauthier Soho adapted a chocolate dessert, decorated with gold leaf, to reflect the hexagonal motifs of Wedgwood’s Arris collection, on which it’s served.

And patisserie chef Vicki Wilson was also inspired by Wedgwood’s extensive archive, when she devised an afternoon tea menu for Chatsworth’s new Flying Childers tea room.

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In an era of scrubbed board tables, this approach to table setting will make your dinner stand out for the right reasons. Plus, devising dishes to complement your tableware really gets those creative chef cogs turning, particularly if you go to town on all the details, such as tablecloth, lighting, flowers and cutlery.

For example, modern classics would sing out on Wedgwood’s new Vibrance range, a bold and contemporary collection. The company’s designers have trawled the 250-year archive and pulled out floral design elements, which they’ve then re-drawn, mixed with modern shapes and saturated with a very bright colour palette.

ThinkLikeAChefVibrance

By contrast, another new launch, Gilded Muse, mines Wedgwood’s neo-classical designs, created in the late 18th century when the ancient art of Greece and Rome became terribly fashionable in Britain. For today’s homes, the art team has pixelated the figures and played with scale and placement for a contemporary take on the idea.

The warmth of the gold against the white bone china complements the natural tones of food – imagine a rich ice cream crumbled with honeycomb and drizzled with a butterscotch sauce.

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But taking care over visuals and ambience shouldn’t mean the food is overshadowed. When planning menus, Matthew’s advice is clear.

“It’s about shopping – it’s got to be about shopping. It’s about seeing what’s great. You might say to yourself, ‘I was going to do chicken but that lamb looks great.’

“It’s about cooking three or four elements really well and bringing the best out – lamb with garlic and rosemary and a great potato dish and perhaps two veg that leap off the shelf. That’s really good food. Don’t worry about the frou frou.”

Whatever your inspiration, Matthew’s message is clear: take care with ingredients and ambience but it’s the people around your table that really count.

Lead image source: The Montagu Arms

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