Salad days in pub led to a life down under

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He may be at the pinnacle of his career running a restaurant and food empire in Australia, but Matthew Wilkinson grew up in a pub in Sheffield. During a visit home, Catherine Scott meets him.

He was born in Barnsley and grew up in a pub in Sheffield yet Matthew Wilkinson has made a name for himself on the other side of the world.

He may only be 35 but he has achieved a great deal, running a chain of top restaurants and cafes in Melbourne, his own Mr Wilkinson product range and a “corner shop”-style cafe/grocery store which he aims to expand.

“I want to create somewhere people can go that forms part of the community,” explains the father-of-two, who is passionate about produce .

He has just brought out his second cookery book Mr Wilkinson’s Simply Dressed Salads, which follows on from Mr Wilkinson’s Favourite Vegetables published in 2012.

You would be forgiven from thinking that Wilkinson was a vegetarian, far from it. He just loves veg and his passion for it shines out.

It is a far cry from his early excursion into food in a traditional Yorkshire pub, serving traditional Yorkshire fare.

“The Crown and Cushion was the pub I grew up in and was my first look at adult life and what work was,” he says.

“The food on offer was very similar to most other pub food – the plate generally consisted of a form of meat or fish taking pride of place on the whole plate, some form of potatoes, to cover the rest of the plate and then you got asked ‘vegetables or salad?’ These really were just the plate filler.”

It was this “salad” that offered a young Wilkinson an insight into what salad was.

“We’ve all seen it; iceberg lettuce, slices of onion cucumber, tomatoes,radish and carrot and some baby mustard cress on top, served with a side of salad cream.

“It was the staple for the masses in pubs, clubs and any food place that served a main meal.”

When Matt left school in Penistone he didn’t really know what he wanted to do.

“I’d played football for Barnsley under 16s and but I suffered a neck injury and didn’t make the grade.

“I loved history, English and sport at school and I also loved hospitality having grown up in a pub and so I went to Barnsley Catering College and did an NVQ in hospitality management.

“I hated cooking,” he admits, “I’d grown up washing dishes in a pub and I hated being in the kitchen.”

But one of his tutors saw potential in a young Matthew and sat him down and told him to give it a go.

“I told him I couldn’t stand it.”

But at 17 Matt went to work at Warren House, Kingston-upon-Thames, under the guidance of head chef Michael Taylor .

“I was there for two years and in those two years of my life I learnt so much about cooking and being a chef, but the lunch salad section was my first real insight into a proper salad, how to make a dressing and the many different types.”

At 19 he moved to London and Edinburgh where he worked for Michelin-starred chef Martin Wishart.

“After two years I was almost burnt out,” he admits.

“I was working 120 hours a week, starting at 6am and finishing at 2am.”

It was Martin Wishart who suggested he get away and go to Australia and travel.

But after three months of travel Matt was ready to get back behind a stove.

He worked at Vue de monde and Circa.

“It wasn’t until I was head chef of Circa in Melbourne that I realised how good a salad could be.”

In 2010, he and business soulmate Ben Foster opened Pope Joan in East Brunswick, Melbourne: a neighbourhood café by day and casually distinctive eatery by night, replete with wine bar and kitchen garden.

Pope Joan now has a produce store and takeaway hub, hams and bacon, nestled alongside – offering every cut and cure of meaty goodness imaginable, fresh and dry goods, and Mr Wilkinson’s own range of comestibles to slather on top.

In May 2015, Wilkinson and Foster welcomed a new addition to their growing family – canteen/grocery store Jack Horner – just around the corner on Weston Street, East Brunswick.

In 2012 Matt published his first book, Mr. Wilkinson’s Favourite Vegetables, which has been translated into nine languages and sold over 100,000 copies worldwide.

The book was inspired, he says, by his Nana’s cooking.

“Her roast beef and veg was always over-cooked, but it didn’t matter, it was the perfect meal.”

Never one to rest in his veggie patch for too long; Matt released his second cookbook Mr Wilkinson’s Simply Dressed Salads in March 2015 which came to the UK’s shores some months later. He plans to write another three books on a variety of subjects.

“I want to write a book about making cooking easy. Something to help with those Monday to Friday meals for the entire family. I get home and I have only 20 minutes to cook something.”

Despite living in Australia since he was 20, Matt is proud to be from Barnsley and from Yorkshire.

“I am from Yorkshire, but I am now Australian, I am marrying an Australian in January and my two boys are Australian. But it wonderful to come home.”

Matt lives in Melbourne with wife-to-be Sharlee, their dog, Quincy, and two sons Finn, four and two-year-old Jay.

When I speak with him he is on a six-week tour of the UK, including a visit to his mum who now lives in Lancashire. Matt says he is lucky to be able to combine all his passions.

“I do believe we create our luck,” he says of his career. “We make choices. To me it is better to make a mistake than live with regret.”

n Mr Wilkinson’s Simply Dressed Salads by Matt Wilkinson (Hardie Grant, £25) Photography: Jacqui Melville

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