Head Chef Matt Smith – Food is Life & Life is Food

Matt Smith loves people who “appreciate a good meal!”

In particular, “how much a good dish can impress someone, and stays in their memory”.

At 23 years old, the Head Chef of Ocean Ended Restaurant, which overlooks the Maroochydore river on Queensland’s Sunshine Coast, is passionate to “give every dish 100 per cent!”

“We are trusted to cook a meal for someone… there’s expectation of what that meal is going to be. So to me, when someone chooses to eat out at a restaurant, it’s a big deal…”

For Matt, “food is life, and for some of us, life is food”. It’s a lifelong passion and a “knack for cooking”, he says, started from a very early age.

“I’ve been able to cook since I was four years old, and make my parents a bacon and eggs breakfast in bed by the time I was five. My mother used to be a bistro cook when I was a kid, so I grew up seeing her going to work in a kitchen and seeing that lifestyle. I’ve always liked doing it”.

It wasn’t until reaching the end of high school that Matt decided he would pursue a career as a chef, despite never taking any hospitality classes. Apparently, his mind was made up when he saw the 2014 comedy drama film, CHEF, starring Jon Favreau and Scarlett Johansson. “That movie inspired me with the colours, and the passion somebody could have for food”.

Six months later, Matt secured himself a position as a restaurant kitchen hand and pushed himself hard to obtain his apprenticeship. “It took about six months of working and killing it in the Larder section. It wasn’t until I handled a night of 250 people on my own that I got the recognition”.

I competed in the Nestle Golden Chefs Hat for two years in a row

Matt says he was very much left to his own devices at the start of his apprenticeship. He continued to “learn on the job” over the next two years until he thought he was ready to apply for a position as an unqualified chef. Matt was offered to finish his apprenticeship at the Brightwater Hotel on the Sunshine Coast.

“I worked for about a year before starting TAFE (Australia’s leading provider of education and training courses). With three years of cooking experience behind me, everything sort of came naturally, which made my education a lot easier –  and also led me to teaching a lot of other students around me how to do things”.

During this period, Matt also decided he would test his cooking abilities by entering competitions –  and achieved remarkable results.

“I competed in the Nestle Golden Chefs Hat for two years in a row, receiving Bronze in my first year and Silver in my second. I was lucky enough to travel to Melbourne for four days, and see some amazing produce, eat incredible food at amazing restaurants, and meet fantastic people including, master classes with award winning chef Scott Pickett, acclaimed pastry and dessert chef Christy Tania, and Charlie Carrington”.

For the competition, Matt entered a sweet potato and ricotta tortellini with blue cheese foam and zucchini flowers, which was judged by Scott and Christy.

“It was an amazing experience – I even saw my recipe published as a one-off – and to wear a jacket with my name on it was certainly something I will never forget”.

Refined his technique of farm-to-table dining

After completing his apprenticeship qualification in 2019, Matt was asked to stay on at the Brightwater Hotel just as COVID-19 struck in February 2020. However, six months later, Matt was better able to move on with career, and spent some time at Flame Hill Vineyard in Montville. With a market garden and a herd of Black Angus cows on site, he refined his technique of farm-to-table dining, including aged beef. “They’re at least 4 or 5 years old when taken to slaughter, and having developed such an intense flavour, were amazing to work with!”, say Matt.

In September 2020 – only two weeks away from his 23rd birthday – Matt took over as head chef at Paul Holmes’ Ocean Ended restaurant, which offers a ‘homestead’ feel and a tantalising menu of “seasonal, diverse, locally-caught seafood”.

Matt says they do a rotation of barramundi, salmon, and swordfish, and occasionally other fish such as, mahi mahi (also known as dorado or dolphin), kingfish (normally as sashimi), either with chips salad and tartare or seasonal accompaniments. “It’s a free rein special for me to come up with something to offer for the week, and definitely keeps me on my toes!”

According to Matt, “there are a few classic favourites that have always stayed on the menu, such as twice cooked crab souffle, crab linguine, and the Australian classic, sticky date pudding”.

The autumn menu features a very popular ‘Nordic inspired’ venison dish – originally “a push to get on to the menu”, says Matt – with celeriac puree, buttermilk cabbage, pickled onions, and juniper berries. It’s no surprise to learn that steak is always a big seller, currently served with a potato and turnip gratin, sauté green vegetables, and a Worcestershire cream.

Matt also says his Rhubarb Basque cheesecake has been a “massive” hit! The dish is served with a rhubarb and apple compote, honeycomb, and salted caramel gelato. “For something with so many strong and individual flavours it is just so well balanced! You can taste every individual part, but yet they work in harmony! It’s a dish I’m so proud of!”

Huge Believer in Balance – and Sustainability

Warming to the theme, Matt is adamant he is a “huge believer in balance”, which brings everything together, and is passionate about never ignoring the salt and pepper! “Seasoning is such an important part of food, and something that can either be overlooked or underappreciated”.

“The amount of times I go somewhere and something is under seasoned really just turns me off and takes away from the whole meal. Especially when you go somewhere that doesn’t have salt and pepper on a table, I would expect things to be seasoned correctly, but I do understand that everyone’s palate is different”.

Balance is very much part of the food concepts Matt always wants to work on, alongside versatility, reusability, and minimal waste. “I believe sustainability is going to become one of the most important things in our line of work in the future”.

Sustainability is an issue very much part of the young chef’s food philosophy, particularly the importance of “continuing to get amazing ingredients”, which Matt feels is limited to certain people.

“Continuing access to amazing ingredients allows apprentices, and young chefs like myself to understand and build a database of more ingredients, and better flavour profiles for things. I was lucky enough to experience some farm-to-table for a short while that definitely opened my eyes to a bunch of ingredients, and the way I looked at produce and understanding seasonality”.

“I went hunting for wild kangaroos…”

Sustainability and indigenous ingredients can often be mentioned in the same breath by many Australian chefs, and Matt may be more familiar with the concept than most as he recalls a boyhood memory.

“I lived in a remote Aboriginal community for about three years when my parents were nurses working there and I went to a boarding school in Alice Springs.

My dad having aboriginal heritage on his side of the family said he wanted to connect to his ancestry. So he decided to go and work out in a community and we followed. This exposed me to so much, I went hunting for wild kangaroos, bush turkey (different from the scrub turkey you see around here), Goanna, wild buffalo, and fishing for catfish in Arnhem Land.

I got to see a lot of different bush tucker. Eating native honey directly out of a tree and then picking up bits of gum tree bark out of my teeth was certainly amazing!”

Matt says his experiences taught him that “native fauna and flora definitely have a long history with its native peoples, and there is so much to share”. Being able to turn native ingredients into a fantastic dish is something Matt says he really would love to do.

Cooking game and grilling are ‘stand out’ techniques

Currently, Matt enjoys cooking game using ingredients that can sometimes be overlooked. “Whenever I go to make corned beef, and make the brine for it, I rely on lavender and Juniper, as well as traditional citrus and other bouquet garnishes to add subtlety and difference”.

Matt is also mindful to not only push for new and innovative ideas, but also refer to classic ingredients or time honoured techniques.” It’s almost become a fusion of Old and New to me.”

Matt is keen to point out that he really enjoys kangaroo, as he believes has really been overlooked, especially in Queensland.

“We have an excess of supply, and that it’s considered a pest which makes it hard to source good quality kangaroo meat. However, things like duck and spatchcock are becoming more mainstream, I believe, so why not go a little bit more left of centre and try something really different and learn to appreciate what this country naturally has to offer”.

Another favourite cooking techniques Matt says he loves to explore is ‘Sous vide’ – vacuum-sealing food in a bag and cooked to a very precise temperature in a water bath – but his definite ‘standout’ is grilling or charring.

“Whether it be gas or charcoal, grilling just seems to add depth. Another amazing element added to something because you can change something quickly or leave it to basically burn and become something totally different. Time and heat are amazing in how much they can change an ingredient on a grill. It can be overlooked as a technique and only used for meat but it also gives vegetables and even fruits a whole other meaning!”

That amount of negativity was just disgusting

Every chef is bound to have their favourite techniques and items they always need in the kitchen. But what about those things they could well do without? Matt points to “people’s ego” making them “pig-headed” and hard to work with or just having a “general negativity about everything”.

Matt recounts a story about a ”mentor” chef who was supposed to be showing him the ropes.

“He did nothing but judge and question my every move I made in the kitchen. There was no positivity towards anything I did. I know it was my first time as a head chef and in a big leadership role with a lot of responsibility, but to get that amount of negativity and unsupportive nature was just disgusting.

Yes, he had more experience than me, and would use that against me to bring me down rather than to help build me up. Basically, if you’re not going to be a constructive person in my kitchen, regardless of your position, we’re probably not going to get along!”

If one person goes down it can drastically affect the whole team!

As a result of his experiences, Matt has very definite views of how to manage the demands and stress of the kitchen.

“Mental well-being is something I deeply care about because it can throw you off your game and throw off the rest of the team so much. If one person goes down it can drastically affect the whole team! I’ve witnessed it first hand, not only in my work life but in my personal life as well.

I try to create a positive work environment so there is minimal stress and then people understand the demands that I make of them. But they are more productive when there’s great communication and support.

I’m fine with someone if they have to sit down or go outside and take a breather, whether that’s 2 minutes or 20 minutes, until they’re ok.

I’m really supportive when somebody is struggling, the moment there’s any kind of problem with either work life or home life. I like to sit down with them and talk about it to understand what they’re going through and work out a way to bring them back to being himself and get them back working 100% and feeling confident.

People are important! It is important to keep people in this industry, so the attitude of new generation chefs is changing, and is changing for the better!”

I’m good at switching off and not thinking about work  

Matt also highlights the importance of his time away from life on the pass. “For me, when I get home and leave the kitchen, I’m good at switching off and not thinking about work!  Unless it comes to new menu design or functions – which is work I have to take home with me and I can’t ignore – sometimes that can stress me out but I deal with it”.

Matt says that “talking it out” is a great tool for relieving stress.

“Normally what causes my stress is not communicating what I’m dealing with, so nobody knows what’s going on, and therefore they can’t help me, so talking it out makes things better”. 

I really enjoy 3D printing and love Dungeons and Dragons

Chefs often indulge a love of a sport or hobby while relaxing away from the pass. Matt claims to do “many different things”. Currently he is working on a project car and engine swap. “It allows me to engage a more mechanical side to my mind and a different kind of physical work with my hands”.

At the same time, Matt is “heavily” into technology. “I have built two or three computers in my time. I really enjoy 3D printing as a hobby, because it can feed back into what I do with my cars in terms of printing replacement parts or printing accessories”.

Matt professes to also be “bit of a nerd /geek”, and loves Dungeons and Dragons, and other card games, saying they are “a great way for me to either meet other people, or form better bonds with my work mates! And definitely develop problem solving and team communication”.

There’s also a mention of his current favourite reads, a mix of recipe books such as ‘Devil in the Kitchen’ by Marco Pierre White, which he has read twice, ‘Humble Pie’ by Gordon Ramsay and ‘What Einstein Told his Cook by Robert L. Wolke.

The last one’s “a fantastic entry into culinary science” says Matt who is also partial to ‘Every Tool’s A Hammer’ by Adam Savage. “Amazing advice on mise en place, and general organisation and motivating yourself in every day, and time management!”

It never hurts to aim big, at least if you think you’re ready

Taking stock of his career so far, Matt considers himself a chef who “doesn’t necessarily practice food, but just has an idea and goes for it” . He calls it ‘off the cuff cooking’.

“The amount of times a random idea will just strike me and I have the need to do it, to see if it’s going to taste like I imagine it should!”

He recalls his mother watching him cook and the numerous times he would not follow a recipe correctly –  it would scare her! “To this day she is still rather nervous whenever I tell her about what I’m thinking of trying to do, she’ll ask me if I have a recipe or if I practiced, and when I say no, she winces and there’s a look of panic on her face!”

“Going for it” is always likely to be the advice for a young chef starting out. At 23, years old and still a young chef himself, Matt says “It never hurts to aim big, at least if you think you’re ready. There will be someone out there who will give you a shot, they’ll take a chance on you, just make sure you work hard for them and show them they took the right chance.

Just make sure you have some backup whether that be your knowledge, or the people around you, and never be afraid to ask for help! It’s easier to help someone off a ledge than pull someone out of a hole. the sooner you ask the sooner the problem gets solved and you both feel better for it”.

I did, I aimed big and got somewhere with it, definitely got given my start, it’s been an amazing run so far and I can’t wait to keep going.”