Driven by the understated beauty of local, seasonal produce, Matthew Mason, Head Chef of The Jack in the Green, has built an unrivalled regional reputation for his fresh, innovative and exciting menus using only the best of ingredients.
Choosing to cook with only seasonal, local produce means that not only is every dish Matthew produces vibrant, full of incredible flavour and carries very few food miles, it is visually stunning too. Precisely pairing fresh, seasonal flavours as well as combing interesting and inventive textures results in dishes pleasurable to every sense.
Matthew is a big fan of Jan’s edible flowers and looks to use them not only as a garnish, but as an ingredient that adds depth of flavour and delicate seasoning to his dishes. Their vibrancy and vivid colours are simply the icing on the cake!
We caught up with Matthew to chat about his passion for good ingredients, what it’s like to work at The Jack in the Green, the importance of supporting local producers and what he likes to cook at home…
ABOUT BEING A CHEF
At what point in your life did you decide to become a chef?
Sadly at the tender age of sixteen I was told that perhaps I might not actually be the next David Beckham and that my intended career of multi-millionaire footballer was off the cards… so off to college I went to learn to cook.
Tell us how your career unfolded?
Two years at college followed gaining the necessary credentials to get a foot in the door. Then numerous trials in big fancy London hotel kitchens only to find that Gidleigh Park, one of the finest Country House Hotels in Europe, was right here in Devon.
Who was, and still is, a major influence on you, both in terms of food and otherwise?
The entire staff at Gidleigh were a huge influence – it’s a way of life at that two star Michelin level. I was young and impressionable and had a huge amount to learn. Somewhere down the line things must have ‘clicked’ because I stayed for a number of years. My mentors, in particular Duncan Walker (the sous chef) and Shaun Hill who was at the helm, are two chefs that I still hold in the highest regard today. Looking back, I think this is the time that I also fell head over heels in love with Devon.
ABOUT THE JACK IN THE GREEN
Tell us a bit about The Jack in the Green… how long have you been working there, location, your team etc.
The Jack in the Green is a humble roadside Inn situated is a small village called Rockbeare, about a 15 minute drive from Exeter. I love it and it’s as much a part of me as I am of it. Set amongst the rolling East Devon countryside I would not be anywhere else. I have been head chef now for 21 years, and needless to say, I am very proud of the team’s achievements both past and present. I am eternally grateful for their hard work and thankfully they share my passion for our product.
Describe the experience of working in such a beautiful location.
It really is an honour to work in such a beautiful part of the world. As always though, what makes a place special is the people and there are many a colourful character that grace our doorstep. When it comes to food I am hugely influenced by my surroundings and what is going on outside. Be it the fields full of bright yellow rapeseed, bees making honey in the garden, planting strawberries with my sons Max and Charlie or the scent and sight of the apple orchards in full bloom as I travel to work. In fact, I’ve discovered a number of our suppliers just through my early morning runs around the pub. We now have the most amazing blueberries on the menu from May to November that are grown just 3 miles away in Aylesbeare.
ABOUT THE FOOD
Do you source as much local produce as possible for each restaurant and does this have a big impact on the menu?
In the last 24 years the pub has spent over £5 million on local food alone (£6.2 million if you add in the local drinks producers that we trade with) and not many people can say that! At times we have had to fight for what we believe but thankfully our customer base have faith in what we do and what we are trying to achieve. We know this because they keep coming back. We have been flying the local produce banner since day one when nobody else really was. Thankfully now we have plenty of great places to eat here in Devon including our own sister pub, The Five Bells, which, by coincidence, now has another former chef of Gidleigh Park (Ian Webber) manning the stoves.
Which season do you look forward to the most for its ingredients?
I think my favourite season would have to be summer simply because of the sheer abundance of quality ingredients at our disposal. The choice is outstanding and it still excites me what comes through the kitchen door every morning. Homegrown tomatoes are hard to beat and have a fabulous aroma there are so many great varieties including the attractive heritages ones. A favourite dish of mine is gazpacho. I love it perhaps because of my love for Spain and its food heritage. Here at the pub we have tweaked it a little by adding some super sweet ripe pineapple and Tahitian vanilla to our tomatoes for an excellent and very elegant pre-dinner appetiser.
Do you have a “signature dish”?
Whilst we don’t have a signature dish we have plenty of pub dishes on the menu; fish pie, bangers and mash, lamb hot pot – all the classics, just done the Jack way with a little twist. My favourite food to prepare and cook is fish or bread. Great seasonal food, prepared lovingly from locally sourced fresh ingredients should be at the heart of any menu. Our hard work has got us a Bib Gourmand from Michelin for the last 5 years as well as inclusion in the UK’s Top 50 Gastropubs – 26 for 2015.
What is your favourite meal to cook at home?
My favourite meal at home is anything that involves me not cooking! Although, even if I do say so myself, my Roast Turkey on Christmas day is legendary. On a cold Sunday afternoon it’s nice to show the children how to make a crumble, some pizza dough or bread. Those are skills they’ll have for life.
FIND OUT MORE ABOUT THE JACK IN THE GREEN
FOLLOW CHEF MATTHEW MASON