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Planthunter Interview: Eating Habits with our Chief, Matt Skinner

Original interview: Sally Wilson, March 24, 2016 – The Planthunter

When Matt Skinner describes food as a way of bringing together the people he loves, he’s not understating it. A line-up of weeknight meals at the Skinner home in Melbourne might involve yiros with cauliflower and chickpea fritters, bean salad, tahini and hot sauce on a Monday, crispy squid tacos on a Tuesday, beef tataki on a Wednesday, spaghetti marinara on a Thursday… A mighty rotation which offers just a glimpse of the meals cooked by Matt for his family of four! Food and family are inseparable for Matt, but also food and wine – which is a fair way of summing up what he’s been doing professionally for over 20 years now. Matt is a sommelier, author, TV star and co-founder of Fifteen Restaurant in the UK with Jamie Oliver and Tobie Puttock. But more than that Matt is a husband, dad, and after-hours chef whose enthusiasm for making everyday meals downright special is nothing short of contagious.

Please tell us a bit about yourself and what you do.

I’ve worked in the wine industry for the past 20 years as a writer, sommelier, retailer, and consultant. I’m currently setting up an online retail wine business called ‘The Drinks List’. We sell curated packs of interesting and affordable wine to customers all over the country. All the wines are blind tasted and handpicked by me.

What’s your earliest food memory?

My earliest food memory was watching my Dad and his best mate fishing for calamari at Apollo Bay on Victoria’s west coast.

It was winter and we literally crossed the road from the beach, Dad cleaned the calamari and threw them straight onto the barbecue we were all huddled around.

I’d never tasted squid before – I remember it being so incredibly sweet – to this day I still haven’t tasted anything that compares. I must have been about four years old, as my dad passed away the following year. It’s one of my favorite memories.

What was on your dinner plate growing up?

Whatever Mum could manage in about 30 minutes after arriving home from work each night. There was lots of variation; pasta, grilled meat, fish, and always veggies. Take-away was a rare treat in our house and Mum always insisted that the two of us sit down at the table and eat together. I didn’t always love eating at the table – especially as a teenager – but as an adult I’m so grateful that she persisted.

Why is food important to you? (Other thean a means of survival!)

Food is a way of bringing together the people I love. I do most of the cooking at home and we sit down to dinner as a family every night – during which we talk, we argue, and we laugh – all pretty normal! We also entertain a lot at home, and nothing makes me happier than seeing the house full of people eating and drinking

Have you ever used food to impress someone? Tell us about that!

Twenty years ago I was working in a wine shop next door to this girl I really liked. We’d started talking, but I was desperate to impress her.

For some reason I thought making her a lemon tart might be a good idea, even though I’d never really baked anything before?!

We had a copy of Stephanie Alexander’s ‘Cooks Companion’ at home, and so one Sunday I spent all afternoon trying to make her one. After a couple of failed attempts, I fluked one that turned out pretty well. At work the next day I acted like it was no big deal and that I just whipped up stuff like this all the time. I don’t think she bought my story, but she loved the tart and 20 years later we’re still together.

Name three plant-based ingredients you love, and one you always leave on your plate.

Brussels sprouts. I used to hate them until I had them roasted with olive oil, garlic, lemon, and sea salt.

Avocados. They get used for everything at our home; in smoothies, on toast, for guacamole. They’re currently sending us broke!

Peas. I love them. We smash them up raw with basil, mint, lemon and pecorino. Amazing on toast with poached eggs and fresh chilli. But I’m not such a fan of okra. I’ve tried so many times, and I’m sure it’s really good for you, but it’s got a slimy texture that I really struggle with.

What dish do you most connect with your mum?

My Mum makes this killer tray baked chocolate slice with chocolate icing and toasted almonds. The edges are the best bit as they go really chewy. Working full time, she used to do whatever she could to save time and money during the week, so she’d make a batch most weekends for my school lunches. To mum’s horror I used to eat most of them before Sunday night.

Do you have any food or eating-related rituals? Please tell us about them.

Melbourne’s food markets seem to be my Achilles heel. I always have dim sims at South Melbourne Market, pho at Springvale Market, and donuts at both Footscray and Dandenong Markets!

Picture this: It’s 7pm, and you’re starving. The phone rings. It’s the Dalai Lama, inviting you to meet him for tea in half an hour. You NEED to eat beforehand, otherwise you’ll start chewing your sleeve and swearing in front of the venerable one. What do you cook? Can you share the recipe with us?

Spaghetti aglio e olio is my failsafe 15-minute meal. My best mate Tobie Puttock showed me how to make it when we’d just finished school. It’s dirt cheap, and I like that you can do everything in the time that it takes to cook the pasta. While the spaghetti’s boiling in salted water, to a large heavy based pan over medium heat I add a decent glug of extra virgin olive oil, three super-finely chopped cloves of garlic, 4 or 5 anchovies, and a finely chopped red chilli. The idea is to flavor the oil rather than cook the ingredients, so make sure the pan doesn’t get too hot. When the pasta is almost cooked, drain it well and add it to the pan. Gently move the spaghetti through the oil to coat.

Add a handful of finely chopped parsley, a squeeze of lemon, and continue to toss the spaghetti until everything is coated. Add a pinch of sea salt if you need to.

If you were asked to cook and host a vegetarian Sunday night dinner for 5 people, what would you cook and who would be invited?

I’d want to cook something that encouraged conviviality – lots of things that people could pass and share. I love Middle Eastern food, so I imagine I’d have a go at making my own falafels. Next to that I’d make chickpea salad, tabouleh, pickled vegetables, flatbread, and plenty of babaganoush, hummus, and harissa. And I’d invite my family; the two grandmas, my wife Carls, and our children, Indi and Ned.