Mat Follas: MasterChef
PUBLISHED: 11:01 26 May 2009 | UPDATED: 16:02 20 February 2013
Stephen Swann chats to a man whose life changed when he won MasterChef, the TV show that has turned the gentle craft of cooking into something only slightly less competitive than an England-Wales rugby match
Mat Follas lives with his wife Amanda and their three children, Meadow, Jack and Jasper, in a roses-round-the-door cottage in a village near Beaminster, and it was there that I caught up with him recently. Mat hails from New Zealand, although he was born in Portsmouth in 1966, when his father, an officer with the New Zealand navy, was in Pompey on a training course. Growing up in New Zealand, Mat led a very outdoor life. "I would pack a rucksack and just take off," he explains. "The Kiwi landscape can be very challenging and sometimes I would find myself in situations that demanded a high level of both physical and mental stamina. I guess I gained a level of emotional intelligence back then that has stood me in good stead in later life."
I ask him what it means to be a New Zealander. He smiles, something he does a lot, then answers: "Kiwis aren't Englishmen who happen to live in the Southern Hemisphere. We're not like you. Me? I'm blunt. I work differently." Well, he strikes me as being the sort of chap it would be good to have alongside you in a crisis. And he is also immensely likeable.
Mat did an apprenticeship in electrical mechanics then went off travelling, before he headed back home to gain a degree in Computer Science and Electronics. He set up a PC company, stuck with it for some five years, got itchy feet again and this time headed off to Thailand, where he worked as a dive master taking tourists out to scuba-dive the coral reefs. "It was in Thailand that I began to get interested in food," Mat tells me. "I cooked a bit - spag bol and lasagna - student grub. Mum's speciality was a kind of grey stew, so Thai food was a revelation."
Once again, Mat's urge to travel saw him back in the UK, where he worked for IBM in Basingstoke. He and his wife moved to Dorset six years ago. As I write, Mat still works for IBM, much of the time from home, but his work can take him to Europe and on such trips, he usually hits the road on his beloved Harley Davidson motorcycle, surely a mode of transport that tells you more about his take on life than anything.
Mat's move to Dorset can be said to have changed what was a growing interest in food and cooking into something approaching an obsession. It was the availability of fresh fish and shellfish which really got Mat going. "I dive most weeks with a bunch of regulars down at West Bay," enthuses Mat. "I usually bring home some scallops, a few flatfish - even the occasional turbot. I had to learn how to cook the stuff so I did a day at Rick Stein's school in Padstow. It was inspirational."
As for entering MasterChef, that began as a bit of fun. "I entered in the hope that the kids would get to see me on telly," laughs Mat. "I didn't expect to be on more than twice!"
To appear on the show he had to fill in an online form, then do a couple of telephone interviews with members of the production team and then go to the studios in Bristol to do a screen test. He won against some 8,000 applicants. A show like The Apprentice makes demands on those who take part but you could argue that they are nothing when compared to those the contestants on MasterChef experience. On MasterChef it is all done under the close scrutiny of two hard-to-please judges, in the shape of John Torode and Gregg Wallace, under the glare of studio lights or, when the contestants are working in a professional kitchen, under the eagle eye of a top chef. Not only that, the pressure is jacked up the nearer the contestants get to the finals, so that it becomes not just an examination of their cooking skills but of their ability to cope with ever-increasing mental pressures.
On the day of the final, Mat took Dorset to town, leaving for London at 5am on his Harley with a bag containing live spider crabs, herbs, flowers, nettles and wild garlic pure. "I don't really cook recipes," says Mat. "John Torode saw that. He saw that I had flair and could do my own thing. I put different combinations of ingredients together and because I seem to be blessed with a palate that is able to detect whether those combinations work, I am able to bring a certain originality to my cooking."
And the future? By the time you read this, if all has gone to plan, Mat will have his own restaurant in West Dorset. He already has a name for it - it's to be called 'The Wild Garlic'. Wild garlic grows in a copse only a few yards from Mat's cottage, and on the day I went to see him I snapped him there as he picked a few leaves for something he was doing for lunch. Visit his website at www.thewildgarlicblog.co.uk.
"I am looking at somewhere with 30-40 covers. I know I've got a bit to learn about the logistics of managing a busy kitchen," admits Mat, "but anything I send out will be good - it might be a bit late to start with, but it will be good."