‘Most days I pinch myself ‘ — Matt Wilkinson lives the foodie dream

Growing up, many kids would hear their parents urge, ‘eat your greens!’ — but few people have taken this advice as seriously as chef Matt Wilkson. Author of Mr Wilkinson’s Favourite Vegetables and Mr Wilkinson’s Simply Dressed Salads, Matt’s fond familiarity with vegetables is a defining characteristic of his successful career. This busy food entrepreneur is also chef and co-owner of Melbourne’s Pope Joan, Jack Horner, Spud Bar, Hams & Bacon and Mr Wilkinsons’s Relish Range.
A day in the life

Tell us about Pope Joan …
Pope Joan was born from me and my business partner Ben Foster deciding to open up a cafe together. I was originally only going to be an owner and work at another fine-dining restaurant, but from the get-go (after doing four months straight with no days off) I decided that the cafe was the way forward. We later opened week nights, doing delicious simple dishes for families (plus a bar). Later came the takeaway shop/produce store: Hams & Bacon.

When was Pope Joan established, and has it continued to grow?  

We opened in 2010 and have grown slowly — starting in street number 79, then into 77, and now into 75, with lane-ways between them. It has been amazing to watch the business grow and we are very proud, but I’m especially delighted that it has become a piece of the local area and a community hub.

Tell us about your background in the food industry and how it led to you opening Pope Joan?

My father lived above a pub in my hometown of Barnsley. I wanted to be a publican, but after finishing school I was still too young to drink, let alone own and run a pub, so I went to college. That lasted about three months — and my tutor, John Stevenson, sent me to the outskirts of London where his son was the sous chef. It was there I got the cooking bug. My head chef took me under his wing and is a hero of mine, and mentor. His name was Michael Taylor and he’s a legend. He organised for me to go work for his friend and a new mentor of mine, Martin Wishart, in Scotland. After two years I needed a holiday and headed to Australia with the intention of returning to keep cooking in the UK. I was the sous chef at Vue de Monde for three years, head chef at Circa for four years, then opened Pope Joan and released my first book. I met my now-wife and had two kids. It’s been an amazing seven years.

What’s your food philosophy?

I truly believe in produce-driven menus and seasonality for the pure fact that fruits and vegetables in season taste so much bloody better. I use Victoria, my state, as my country. If it grows there I buy it in season; if it doesn’t, I buy it from elsewhere in Australia. I believe 100 percent in knowing who the farmer is and love the relationships I have with them. I recently got married and there where 56 farmers or producers at the wedding. I am very proud of that and I have even started a one-day-a-week apprenticeship with my good friend and belted Galloway beef farmer Alan Snaith, to learn more about farming, land and animal management, and how the process of paddock-to-plate really happens. I’m going to do this for one whole year and, at the end of it, I’m looking after the farm for three weeks while they head to Scotland and England to do research.

Matt Wilkinson

What do you love most about running your own joint?

Most days I pinch myself that I do own it, and it has become such an icon in Melbourne. There are so many positives and negatives to owning your own business, it’s really only when you have your own that you understand this … kinda like having a child. People think it’s easy but it ain’t! Yet, it brings you so much joy it outweighs the bad.

What’s your biggest achievement or proudest moment?

I think finding myself in food, being proud of who I am and what I stand for is my biggest achievement to date. My family and I live and breath food. I love that we enjoy it together as a family and we centre our lives on that. I’m very proud of my two books and everyone that worked on them.

Any new projects in the pipeline?

I want to work towards having a farm and a restaurant. I have an idea about three one-acre plots and making dishes around those one-acre plots to celebrate food with a festival. It’s a big project but I’m super excited and want to take it one step at a time. I am also looking into coming back to England for a short stint, and would love to do a pop-up Melbourne cafe or night bar for a few months in London during summer. There is something very special about summer in Britain.

Best Kept Secrets

I khoollect a few …

I love old tea cups and saucers, and also hunting and foraging knives. I also love collecting menus from where I have eaten; they are like a photograph (they bring back memories). I also have this weird thing for collecting items from the beach, countryside or rivers, then putting them throughout the garden.

What’s your favourite item in your #khoollection?

My head chef made me a lamp out of a broken Kitchen Aid mixer for my birthday; he resprayed it and put a bulb in the whisk attachment. I went crazy at the guys in the kitchen when they broke it, but when I saw what they had turned it into I loved it. I also have my grandfather’s old pipe and cigarette holder. They are beautiful and remind me of my grandfather whom I adored.

What five ingredients are a must-have in your home kitchen?

Capers, berbere spice mix, butter, sauerkraut, Chinese chilli paste… oh and, I know it’s six: but, bacon.

Best thing you’ve ever eaten or happiest food memory?

I have had some amazing meals all over the world, from restaurants to street vendors, but it has to be me nan’s Sunday roast. Over-cooked beef, over-cooked cabbage with no salt in it, pickled red sliced onions, horseradish sauce, gravy, mushy brussel sprouts, two types of potato (generally cheesy mash and roast potatoes), and carrot and swede mash that’s watery and tasteless. Then, we’d wash it down with apple, gooseberry and rhubarb crumble, with lumpy custard. The family was all together, laughing, talking, sharing around a table … which is what great times and food is about. Now it’s the chaos of my own family table: my two hooligans eating spaghetti bolognese, a leaf salad and garlic bread washed down with some ice-cream. The food is delicious, but it’s how happy my wife and kids make me, catching up about our days. Food would be soulless eating it alone every meal time, I reckon.


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Sonya Gellert

Sonya Gellert is a contributing writer and associate editor for Khoollect. She lives in Sydney....

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Matt Wilkinson

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You can also try out Matt’s Rose-geranium-stewed blueberries with creamed rice pudding recipe. Share your results with us on social media. Tag @khoollect and use the hastag #khoollectcook to play along.

And, read Matt’s tips for succeeding in the food industry.

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Kate Berry