Many chefs claim they knew they were born to cook from the earliest age but there are those who discover their calling in one life-changing moment. So it was for Matthew Butcher.
“That was it! Twice cooked duck leg with pomme mousseline and red wine sauce was the dish that did it.” An instant, mouth-watering taste of his future for a young 17 year-old student.
“I was in my first year of university studying Business Management when my study group decided we would book somewhere for dinner during Melbourne Restaurant Week. It was this little French restaurant in Carlton called Vue de Monde, and I had no idea that visit would change my life. When I saw these chefs working at this mad pace behind the pass, creating amazing food, something inside me just clicked. The next week I quit university.”
Today, Matthew is Head of Restaurants and Bars at ETO Collective, a hospitality group developing unique food and beverage concepts across Salter Brothers hotels in Australia and the USA. A career summit, upon which Matthew began his ascent when he made that fateful decision to return home to Echuca, Victoria.
I wrote Shannon Bennett a letter saying I would love to work in his kitchen
Set on his new career path, Matthew started straight away at the Border Inn Hotel in Echuca, “working hard and learning the basic skills.” Soon he was running the kitchen and then, after only 24 months, another fateful decision.
“I took Mum to Melbourne, back to Vue de Monde for dinner where it all started for me. Being the ballsy kid I was, I wrote Shannon Bennett a letter saying how much he inspired me and how I would love to work in his kitchen.” Bennett – a regular guest judge on the popular cooking show MasterChef Australia – was the restaurant’s revered head chef.
Matthew handed his letter to their waiter and asked him to pass on to Bennett. He recalls: “Half an hour later Shannon was at our table organising an interview with me for the next week.”
Most chefs we interview at Life on the Pass highlight the importance of mentors guiding them in the kitchens where they work. Mentors help to steer their young charges in the direction they need to develop their culinary skills and creative cooking potential. Matthew says his years at Vue de Monde taught him “a lot about cooking in an ‘elevated’ style, how to build resilience, and how to work in a team who were all striving for perfection.”
Gordon Ramsay taught me so much about the business side of things
Nearly all chefs also tell of their desire to learn, which takes them out of their comfort zone and into kitchens in different parts of the world. So too, for the aspiring young Matthew, who was given an opportunity to head off to Singapore to work with Ryan Clift. The former Vue De Mode chef had just launched the Tippling Club, hailed as one of Singapore’s top restaurants, and named in the annual Miele Awards “Top 20 Restaurants” in Asia.
“To this day,” says Matthew, “Ryan is still one of my all-time favourite chefs and my greatest mentor. He taught me so much about molecular gastronomy and how to be creative with dishes that continues to influence how I cook today.” Molecular gastronomy is based upon exploring the science behind traditional cooking methods. The physical and chemical transformations that take place are used by chefs to creatively alter ingredients.
Another mentor was Gordon Ramsay OBE, the renowned multi-Michelin starred, international TV celebrity chef and global restaurant group entrepreneur. In another career-defining move, Matthew had departed Singapore and headed for New York City to work with the fiery-tempered Ramsay, and then accompanying his group to Melbourne and Los Angeles.
Gordon taught me a lot about the science of traditional cooking and using great produce, but also so much about the business side of things. His approach to operating a global hospitality group has been the biggest influence on how I approach my role today.
There is always an opportunity to be creative
As head of multi-venue restaurant and bar group, ETO Collective, Matthew says he’s able to take everything he’s learned in his career and “apply it creatively to each venue.” It ensures they are “developing something that the market will love.” Elaborating on the day to day running, Matthew is passionate about their approach.
“I love how no two days are ever the same, it’s a constantly evolving process. You never stand still. Whether it’s figuring out what ingredients to add or remove that will make your dish the best it can be or how to make a customer’s experience incredibly memorable, there is always an opportunity to be creative.”
Matthew says that for him “there is nothing more rewarding than watching people’s faces as they get to enjoy what you have created for them. I am also really big on storytelling and always take my team on a journey with me to help them understand how a dish has come to be. I really believe that back-story element is what helps a customer’s experience go from good to great.”
Each venue concept is different – my approach to food is different too
Here, once again, valuable career experience comes into constant play. “Each market is different,” says Matthew, “so each venue concept needs to be different and therefore, my approach to food is different too.” One example is flagship venue Estate in Coogee, 8 kms south-east of Sydney.
“The location lends itself to laid-back coastal dining. My time in the US has really influenced the dishes that I am creating there. It’s a real California-style approach, blending Asian, Mexican and American flavours into a seafood-focused menu, while still giving it a unique Australian spin. Think Moreton Bay Bug rolls instead of the standard lobster roll!” A Moreton Bay Bug is a flat-head lobster originally from the Indian and Pacific oceans but named after Moreton Bay, near Brisbane, Queensland.
Matthew also highlights their newest group venue, Ronnies, in Melbourne. “It’s heavily inspired by my Dad and his simple, generous approach to cooking. The New York-Italian style menu is designed for sharing, and to appeal to a Melbourne foodie audience who love hearty, but always intriguing food. Our signature dish is a Cacio e Pepe fermented potato waffle, which has been an absolute winner since the day we opened.”
Food is the thing that brings people together and creates memories
The influence of mentors throughout Matthew’s career continue to inform his ‘always learning’ approach to food creativity. However, Matthew admits that his food philosophy and menu development are based around his childhood memories.
“I was brought up believing that food is the thing that brings people together and creates memories, so a lot of what I do is centred around those values. It can be quite nostalgic – simple, hearty food done really well, regardless of the cuisine or influence.”
“Lately,” says Matthew, “I have been really focused on learning about fermentation.” Interest in gut health has seen a significant rise in fermented food and drink in recent years, leading to mass availability of products such as probiotics, kombucha, kefir, kimchi, and others.
“Like so many others, I struggle with processing things like gluten and dairy,” says Matthew, “but I still really love the kind of comfort food that is centred around these things! The idea that food fermentation and pickling can help improve gut health is something that fascinates me, and I am starting to incorporate these ideas into all of my menus. Fermented foods really do help cut through the richness of a lot of the comfort dishes I really love and makes it easier for everyone to enjoy.”
It’s really important to have guidance and support to get through the tough times
Elaborating on the theme of self-care, which Matthew believes “should be everyone’s number one priority,” attention turns towards managing the demands and stress of the kitchen. It was after all, the hustle and bustle of life on the pass that so fascinated the young student Matthew enough that he wanted to be part of the energy.
Matthew says he maintains a routine of “walking in the morning and focusing on box breathing” (taking slow deep breaths while counting to four). “It helps keep me grounded, sharpens my focus and relieves the stress. I also try to live by the philosophy of only focusing on that which I can control…which is still a work in progress, I must admit!”
To help work through many of the challenges faced daily in high-pressure situations, Matthew has engaged an independent coach. “It was the best thing I ever did! My coach is a pivotal figure in helping me develop the tools to manage stressful situations. So much so that I now have him on retainer and have made him available
to all of my team. It’s really important to have that outlet, that guidance and support to get through the tough times – especially with what we’re going through right now as an industry.”
Always a basketball game playing somewhere in the background
Life away from the pass is equally important to mental wellbeing, and Matthew’s favourite ‘downtime’ activity is to play golf.
“I love to get out on the course whenever I can. I also love immersing myself in a good TV show to give me a break from the real world for a while. Family time is super important to me, and I try to get home as often as possible to spend time with them. I’m a big basketball fan too, always got a game playing somewhere in the background! I have the biggest man-crush on Steph Curry!” (NBA basketball player for the Golden State Warriors).
Travel is also something that Matthew says he “really couldn’t live without” either. “There’s something very transformative about experiencing different cultures, understanding how people live, what their rituals are, what they eat… I get really energised by looking at what different markets are doing and what trends are emerging.”
Take the time to soak up all the knowledge around you
Opportunity and commitment have always played big part in Matthew’s career. Qualities that he believes are key for a young chef to succeed in their ambitions. His advice to those starting out is “put in the time, you will reap so many benefits from being loyal and taking the time to soak up all the knowledge around you.”
Matthew continues, “If you go all in and immerse yourself in the industry, that’s where I think you will really strike gold. As an up-and-coming chef you will have so many opportunities – the trick is to be selective and pick the ones that are right for you and your career plan. Surround yourself with not only hard workers but really good people.”
Achieving your ambitions is one thing, but it also brings its own responsibilities. Passing on the knowledge and the love of exploring cooking is important to Matthew. “Once you have achieved a certain level of success, it’s important that you pay it forward – that’s what will keep our industry thriving,” he says.
Matthew says that’s his “biggest focus” now. “I love finding young, passionate chefs and bringing them on a similar journey to what I had. I believe in rewarding people for their hard work – financially, but also with support and guidance and opportunities, so they are set up to be the best chef-operator they can be.”
Somewhere right now, a teenager could be walking into a restaurant. Suddenly the sights and the sounds, the flavours and taste awaken something powerful. A desire be at the centre of the experience. A career path beckons.