The 2009 BBC One MasterChef winner, Mat Follas, runs the Wild Garlic in Beaminster, Dorset, where he offers an inspired menu that balances innovation and tradition. Michael Raffael reports
It's 10am and the Wild Garlic is doing business. Coffee - Starbucks take note - costs a pound. The blackboard promises toasted fruit bread and brownies. In the kitchen there's a pile of 30 wet fish fillets -whiting and brill - for a school lunch.
Chef-patron Mat Follas says he does things his way and he does. Open four days a week, he has integrated himself into his Beaminster, Dorset, community. At 12.30pm the dining room has started to fill. By 12.45pm the front of house is turning chance customers away. The 24 seats often sell out at lunchtimes, always at dinner. A year after opening, the 2009 http://www.masterchef.com/ "The BBC MasterChef website"" target="_blank" rel="noreferrer">MasterChefwinner is making a profit - even though cash flow can hurt when the VAT is due.
His menu, like his thing about rectangular plates, is personal. Yes, he did a stage at Noma, but he's an engineer, not a chef who came up through the ranks. "I often arrange things in trios," he says. Not always. A swirl of miso and sweet potato purée goes in one direction, quince purée in another, for a starter topped with locally cured Bath chap, chorizo and pancetta. He describes dishes with neat, accurate one-liners: "West Bay crab, coddled egg, Old Winchester gratin"; "Melbury Sika venison loin, venison and red wine sausage".
Pricing is tidy too, with two courses at £20 and three courses at £25. A la carte starters range from £6-£9, mains from £16-£22 and puds from £7-£8. Fish from Davy's Locker Bridport changes according to the daily catch or the weather: gurnards, lemons, plaice or wild bass. A footnote advises: "We don't add a service charge to your bill, so if you've had great service leave a great tip. If you haven't, don't."
Echoes of his Copenhagen interlude are few and far between: a wild spelt and mushroom risotto (£16) or foraged wild herbs mixed with micro salads added to some starters. The ex-rugby hooker lifts his head with a Guiness and ginger cake, orange custard, liquorice (£6). He's secretive about his recipe for smoked mash served with fillet steak and Béarnaise, which at £22 is the most expensive item, and probably the one with the smallest margin.
When planning he tries, he insists, "to get the balance right between not scaring people and meeting their expectations". Challenging customers to recognise his imaginative talent takes a back seat to pleasing them. He picks his daily five main courses from a short repertoire of about 10 seasonal ones. Rose rose (sic) veal fillet, almonds and roasted roots (£20), combining a rose petal infused butter with ethnically reared veal hints at where he draws the line.
His engineering skills help him to function in a galley of a kitchen less than five feet wide. At a pinch there's room for himself, a sous chef and one other. He has tinkered with the controls of his water bath, confesses to a dependence on a Thermomix, but isn't dabbling with molecular tricks.
Nearly two years on from his moment of fame, he admits to keeping on an agent and to driving her crazy. He turns down so many options to return to the spotlight and instead limits his appearances to local food shows. It's a policy that's working. He's already in the guides and, more important, he's a hit with rural Dorsetshire.
SAMPLE DISHES FROM THE MENU
Starters Warm salad of pigeon, Buttervilla mixed herbs, puffball and mulled pear purée, £8
Salad with roasted butternut squash and goats' cheese, £7
Pan-fried sprat and aïoli, £8
Main courses Venison loin, game pie, red cabbage and mash, £18
Smoked partridge, bread sauce, roasted fig, £18
Smoked Rampisham rabbit spelt risotto, £16
Desserts Autumn berries clafoutis, £6
Hot chocolate fondant, lavender shortbread, white chocolate citrus mousse, £8
Apple tart tartin and sorrel ice-cream, £7