Matt Wilkinson on granddad Tom, his new book's journey, and why salads don't need leaves

By
Jane Willson
Added
28 August, 2014

Matt Wilkinson shares the inspiration for his latest book, 'Mr Wilkinson's Simply Dressed Salads'.

Behind the scenes photos by Deb Kaloper and Matt Wilkinson

Mr Wilkinson is a real character. He exists. That was the foundation for Matt Wilkinson’s first book, Mr Wilkinson’s Favourite Vegetables, and it has shaped the evolution of his second, Mr Wilkinson’s Simply Dressed Salads, too.

“He’s not made up,” says Matt. Rather, he is a character that the Melbourne chef always returns to in his head. “It’s the belief of both my grandfathers, they taught me things, I grew up, so it’s things from childhood, and what I’ve discovered along the way.”

Simply Dressed is in production right now (out in March), but we didn’t want to wait that long to talk to Matt about the place it all comes from, how he sees the book, the standout design – and a few choice recipes.

“I have a series in my head,” says Matt, explaining that a third book is also loosely evolved, based around the concept of cooking for a family in a time of need (as in, after work, when the kids are mad with hunger).

Matt has worked with the design talents Studio Racket, who are also responsible for his business branding (he co-owns Brunswick East cafe Pope Joan and produce store Hams & Bacon, as well as having a stake in the franchise Spud Bar).

He spent a few days early this year in the Blue Mountains with the Studio Racket team telling his story and it’s quite fair to say they got the message.

Matt told them that granddad Tom Wilkinson used to come home every night from the mine (in Barnsley, UK), shower, and change into his best clothes ready for supper. On Fridays, when he went to the club, he would always have a handkerchief and flower on the lapel. Hence the book cover’s tweed suit jacket crowned by a passionfruit flower. It had to be so: Tom grew a passion vine in his greenhouse – because he liked the flower.


Of course, Simply Dressed Salads is not a sartorial guide. “The context of Simply Dressed is getting the right amount of dressing into what you are using. That is being simply dressed, an amalgamation of the two: ingredient and dressing.”

Why salad? “In the intro, I explain, I was brought up in a pub and the salad was just the thing on the side – an add-on, rubbish food.” Matt’s eyes were opened when he was 17 and moved to London for his first job, running the salad section at the Warren House Hotel. Potato salad; cobb salad; nicoise. “I didn’t know any of these”.

He believes the perception has endured that to be a “real” salad, it must involve leaves. Not in his book. Simply Dressed Salads is divided into recipes for each season (salads, fruit salads, cordials), as well as a bunch of more whimsical ideas (“take a bit of this, a pinch of that …”) for smaller windows of time (early, mid and late summer, for example) when the hero ingredient is at its absolute best.

Matt has been in the news when we talk, quoted saying chefs are ignorant and lazy. “Yeah, chefs at the moment are not liking me,” he says when asked about it. “I actually really believe it: I’m not saying ignorant and lazy in terms of work ethic, but knowing where food comes from, absolutely.”

He says what he’s on about is not just getting to know the middle-man, it’s the next step – the actual grower. “I reckon 10 per cent of chefs in the world actually care about where stuff comes from.”

So he lives the seasonal thing at home, too? Absolutely. His two young boys wouldn’t know a tomato in winter, and they’re not eating Peruvian asparagus right now, either. 

Matt with his wife Sharlee Gibb and their sons Finn & Jay. Photo by Jacqui Melville

“Yes, it’s how I like to live my life; [but] it’s actually really hard,” he says. “All I’m trying to do is to encourage people to let themselves be taken on a voyage of discovery using food – and, for those that do that, their journey will be better.” 

Does he have a favourite recipe? For late winter, he suggests his brussels sprout waldorf salad (recipe below). He also names a salad of kale, cheddar and fried egg, plus one with clams, potato, sorrel and sour cream that calls for the right potato (“for me, it’s jersey royals every time; brilliant for boiling”) and takes him back because the saltiness of the clam liquor reminds him of what was used in the tinned potatoes of his childhood. 

What about authors? Which ones does he return to? “My three favourites are Tessa Kiros, Nigel Slater and Simon Hopkinson. Nigel Slater, I mean, that’s just the pure writing of a man that knows about food.” 

Back to granddad Tom: He cooked simply (“bread with dripping, fry ups”). But his garden was full of potatoes, onions, leeks, every brassica you could imagine. “The front garden was all roses, but even in the middle of the grass lawn, there was a circle for radishes and carrots and beetroot.” And tomatoes. “The smell of them still reminds me of him.” In season. Of course.

My Waldorf-style salad of brussels sprouts & guanciale

Photo by Jacqui Melville

Okay, so the only thing that makes this salad remotely Waldorf-like is the celery, apple and walnuts … but that’s the great thing about cooking. A few changes here and there, based around a simple foundation, and you have another lovely dish.

Serves 2–4

Ingredients

  • 8 thin slices guanciale or pancetta, from ya butcher
  • 2 teaspoons icing sugar 
  • 50 g walnuts, lightly toasted and roughly chopped
  • 200 g brussels sprouts
  • 1 small apple, cut into matchsticks
  • 2 large celery stalks, peeled and sliced on an angle
  • English mustard dressing
  • 11/2 teaspoons hot English mustard
  • 50 ml chardonnay vinegar
  • 150 ml pouring cream
  • pinch of salt flakes
  • pinch of sugar

Method

Preheat the oven to 180ºC. Place a sheet of baking paper on a baking tray and lay the guanciale slices on top. Carefully dust the icing sugar all over the guanciale, then bake for 7–9 minutes, or until crispy. Take out of the oven and let cool.

Meanwhile, spread the walnuts on a baking tray and bake for 3–4 minutes, or until lightly toasted and fragrant. Take out of the oven and set aside.

For the brussels sprouts, peel off and reserve the outer layers of leaves (discarding any crappy-looking leaves), until you get to the inner part. Using a mandoline, finely shave the middle part of the brussels sprouts, then place in a mixing bowl.

Now bring a pot of water to the boil. Add the reserved outer leaves, bring back to the boil, then take off the heat. Strain the leaves under cold running water until cool. Shake the water off the blanched leaves, then add to the bowl of shaved leaves.

Whisk all the dressing ingredients together in a bowl, then dress the brussels sprouts and gently mix together. Add three-quarters of the apple, celery and toasted walnuts.

Place in a serving bowl. Garnish with the remaining apple, celery and walnuts, then crumble the guanciale over. Delish.

Mr Wilkinson's Simply Dressed Salads is out in March 2015.

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