Hand Picked Hotels is fanatical about locally sourced, seasonal ingredients, which is why we recruited a Group Executive Head Chef. We talk to Matthew Ashton to find out more about his role.
With the expansion of Hand Picked Hotels from 17 to 20 over recent years, and the importance of quality, locally sourced and seasonal food to the brand, a decision was taken to appoint a Group Executive Head Chef in 2012. The search to fill this role started internally and offered our experienced Head Chefs the opportunity to progress in their career. The successful candidate proved to be Matthew Ashton, who had worked at Woodlands Park Hotel for three years. The learning curve has been steep but rewarding; we managed to grab five minutes out of his busy schedule to find out more.
Please tell us a bit about your background before coming to Hand Picked Hotels?
Before I worked at Woodlands Park as Head chef, I worked at other country house hotels including Selsdon Park Hotel & Golf Course, South London as well as some establishments in the city, my favourite being The Savoy.
Has anyone had a big influence on your career?
So many chefs have been a great inspiration to me that it would be unfair to name one. When it came to my passion for cooking however, it was most definitely my dad. He was a chef in the army and used to tell me stories about what he got up to in the officers kitchen – it really fascinated me and spurred me to take up a career in cooking.
Can you explain your role in more detail?
One aspect of my job is building a bank of chef candidates for selection and ultimately their recruitment, I have to oversee the development of kitchen management skills as well as monitor health and safety. I am instrumental in product development, too, and work closely with the procurement team sourcing quality products for our customers. Since I took up this role four years ago, I have developed a Chefs’ Academy to train our apprentice and commis chefs. I also run regular development workshops with Sous Chefs to help prepare them for the next chapter in their career. I run an annual Chef of the Year Competition as well, to help recognise junior and senior chefs within the Hand Picked kitchens.
What has been the biggest challenge?
I have gone from looking after and developing my own team to getting all of the Hand Picked kitchens to understand and share my values. Nowadays, the head chef is not only a good cook but also a coach, accountant, human resources manager, parent figure and kitchen manager, and for some chefs this has been uncharted areas so I have had to help them prepare for that. It is also crucial the food is of high quality and consistent across the entire group and that all of my chefs are constantly progressing.
What are your top tips for an aspiring chef?
My favourite saying is “the more you put in, the more you get out” – being a chef takes a lot of hard work, tenacity and dedication – and the more you are willing to learn new skills the better the chef you will become. There is something to learn every day in this industry. In fact, with foods, flavours and tastes constantly evolving, you need to be always raising the bar and pushing boundaries if you want to be successful. I try to instil this philosophy into the chefs that I train and develop in our Chefs’ Academy at Hand Picked Hotels.
Autumn is just around the corner – what one ingredient are you most looking forward to cooking with?
Beetroot – it is so versatile, you can have it raw, roasted or pickled, and there are so many different colours available from gold to dark red and even lurid pink when combined with cream or yoghurt. I love the slightly earthy, sweet flavour and smooth velvety texture, many people are averse to beetroot having only experienced crinkle-cut slices soaked in overpowering vinegar, but this is a real shame as fresh beetroot has a lot going for it.
Is there a local supplier that helps Hand Picked Hotels to bring the best seasonal UK products to our kitchens?
Donald Russell – they are a beef supplier, but also pork, namely sausages and bacon, which we offer on our breakfast menu at every hotel. For almost 40 years, Donald Russell has supplied beef to some of the best restaurants in the world. Not only that, but the company has won numerous awards for the quality of their meat, and holds a Royal Warrant, granted by H.M. the Queen, since 1984. Our infamous Hand Picked Gourmet Burger, which is being rolled out across all of our hotels, uses only the finest cuts – fillet, sirloin and rib – from cattle fed on a natural grass-based diet.
Being the month of Sleeptember, are there any foods that can help you to sleep?
Most fish, particularly salmon and halibut contain vitamin B6, which is what you need to make melatonin, a hormone that helps control your sleep and wake cycles. Dairy products like yogurt and milk are calcium-rich – and there is research that suggests being calcium-deficient may make it difficult to fall asleep. Likewise green leafy vegetables, such as kale and broccoli, also boast healthy doses of calcium.
Lastly, if you were not a chef, what career would you have chosen?
I was a painter and decorator before I started cooking – and in fact, my wife would probably say it’s my second job at home, so I guess I would still be doing that.