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Monday, January 04, 2010

Interview: Ten Questions with Matthew Evans - former SMH chief restaurant critic

A full-time food critic. Isn't that every food lover's dream job?

From 2000 to 2005, Matthew Evans ate at over 2,000 restaurants in his role as chief restaurant critic for the Sydney Morning Herald. Never afraid to speak his mind, his reviews were always entertaining, even if they did occasionally land him in the law courts. When he retired in 2005, Good Living ran his final column as its cover page story. The accompanying profile photo was the first time many readers caught a glimpse of the man behind the by-line.

The photo used in Good Living
that accompanied Matthew Evans' final column
Photo by Steve Baccon, first published 14 December 2005

In 2007, Matthew released his book "Never order chicken on a Monday", a memoir of sorts detailing his early training as a chef and his later life as a food critic. At his book launch at Gleebooks, I still remember him describing his days as a food critic. He told of going to bed one night, green at the gills from a particularly heavy restaurant meal, and filled with dread knowing the rich food would only continue relentlessly, without respite.

Today Matthew has swapped the city life for a farm in the sleepy town of Cygnet, Tasmania (population less than 1,000), one hour south of Hobart. It's the realisation of a food lover's dream: to get closer to food production, and to know first-hand where food has come from, and how each mouthful has come to be. Filmed as the new SBS production, Gourmet Farmer, it's fascinating to watch Matthew, who has no farm experience, contend with life in the country. I have to admit it's also personally a little odd to see the Matthew Evans--former anonymous restaurant critic--on the TV screen, talking to camera, and seeing his lanky frame in shorts.

In the first episode of the series, Matthew sets up home at his newly acquired but overgrown and long-neglected farm. He meets Nick Haddow of Bruny Island Cheese Co. and makes a gloriously creamy ice cream with goats' milk. The secret to creamier ice cream, he reveals, is liquid glucose, which helps maintain more air in the final frozen product. The second episode is all about pigs and prosciutto - and when Matthew meets a leg of prosciutto, air-dried in the traditional manner, his gutteral moans of bliss are as close as you'll ever get to an Australian male version of Nigella Lawson!

Restaurant critic one day, gourmer farmer the next? Grab Your Fork asked Matthew Evans ten questions to find out more...

Ten Questions with Matthew Evans

1. You would be known to most Grab Your Fork readers as the Sydney Morning Herald chief critic from 2000-2005. After years of living “the good life”, what made you decide to uproot everything and head to a dinky town in Tasmania?

If you think being a critic for the Herald is the good life, you should try my new life. It's incredible. Just about everything I eat I know the provenance of. It doesn't taste like it's been handled by 50 chefs over three days. It tastes of itself, like food with the volume turned up. I moved here to explore how some food tastes better, and I've learnt the secret.

2. What has been the biggest surprise you’ve found since your move? Was there anything you found much harder than you expected?

The biggest surprise is the speed of the seasons. Winter garden? If you're planting it in March, you're too late. Spring flowers? On the quince tree in mid winter. A growing season, where you can virtually watch the grass grow by the day? We have it here.

The move has been hard in many ways, most to do with the fact I have no clue what I'm doing. I can't find enough hours in the day to get all my jobs done, and can never catch up on all the reading. I fall asleep trying to devour books like Healthy House Cow, or Growing Vegetables South of Australia. I've been told that I have to build new boxes for my bees in the next three days, or I'll have been wasting my time all spring.

3. You’ve begun selling your own range of homemade artisan food products. What are you selling, and do you ever have to face detailed critiques about how you could’ve done it better?!

I set up a small business, Rare Food, with a mate, Ross O'Meara, with the idea, originally, of selling old and rare breed meats and hard to find produce from around the state. It's been quite a challenge (to put it mildly), but we have a great fan base for our rillettes, nitrate-free bacon, hand-cut pork pies and terrines.

Ross is a terrific cook and can make ready-to-fry felafel, stunning pork pies and terrines. I tend to do lamb pies (with a flaky yoghurt cream pastry), ten-hour baked beans with bacon and treacle, and cassoulet in mid-winter. When you sell direct, customers give you feedback without qualms. We get great feedback most of the time, but not in any detail. I think we are our own worst critics.

4. After several months on the farm, do you look at food in a different light? What did the term “good food” used to mean to you, and what does it mean to you now?

I used to think of good food, well by that I mean great food, as being complex, like a symphony. Now I think of great food as speaking of itself. Stunning pork, lamb, peas or spuds need only taste truly and deeply of themselves to be good. And you never, ever tire of good home cooking.

5. Being a high-profile food critic requires a certain type of character. What type of plant or animal do you think best typifies the qualities needed to be a successful food critic?

A turtle. You move thoughtfully, and slowly, and have to have a terrifically hard shell. Do turtles have good lawyers? That would help, too.

6. Is there anything you miss about the life of a food critic? Do old habits die hard? What aspects of being a food critic have you been glad to say goodbye to?

I miss the fresh seafood that top end Sydney restaurants (and most around the country) serve. I miss having a person on hand who knows way more about wine than me, and has chosen some for a list, that I can call on. I still can't help watching what happens in a restaurant when I dine out, always keeping an eye what other people are doing, eating, the time they are having. And I've been told I'm a poor guest at people's houses because after ten years as a reviewer I tend to keep my own counsel, and don't exclaim and flatter like I ought.

If there's anything I don't miss about reviewing, it's the fact that people hate you for just doing your job. I tried not to have favourites, and wasn't afraid of high profile chefs. I didn't take on the reviewing job to make friends, and I've certainly succeeded in that.

7. As part of the show, you’re maintaining a blog that details your experiences on the farm. Are you familiar with Australian food blogs and what role do you think they have to play in terms of how people are getting information online - both now, and in the future?

I'm in my 40s and only vaguely familiar with food blogs though most I've read are terrific. I love the way there are more voices and opinions out there, especially in the world of restaurant reviews. I think a blog, like any other form of media, should try to entertain, and with that comes the responsibility to be accurate, fair, and have the ability to justify your opinions. I've read some snarly comments that don't seem to have any basis but most seem to be trying really hard to be both informative and opinionated. Good blogs are sure to thrive as they become as trusted as some of the print media.

8. Can you remember the first dish you learned how to cook?

Hmm, probably cake. I grew up learning to cook at my mother's elbow, and I seem to recall being allowed to help beat the cake batter. I'm sure mum did most of the cooking and I just licked the spoon.

9. What dish do you crave when you’re sick?

A good, simple bowl of something starchy. Like pasta with oil and lemon. Or rice with a fried egg and chilli jam. Or good dutch cream potato mash with superb pure pork sausages.

10. What’s the ideal breakfast you’d want to wake up to?

Pancake Sunday. A lazy day where I'd use the strawberry jam I tried to make for the show - which ended up being a perfect pouring sauce - on yoghurt pancakes made using milk from my jersey cow Maggie. It's the best excuse to invite people over for a special occasion breakfast.

Thank you so much for your time Matthew!

Thanks Helen, the blog looks terrific.

Gourmet Farmer starts 7.30pm Thursday 7 January on SBS One.

Unless indicated otherwise, all photos courtesy of the SBS Gourmet Farmer website

Related Grab Your Fork posts:
Ten Questions with Curtis Stone
Ten Questions with Luke Nguyen
Ten Questions with Poh Ling Yeow
Ten Questions with Chubby Hubby
22 comments - Add some comment love

posted by Helen (Grab Your Fork) on 1/04/2010 12:16:00 am


  • At 1/04/2010 1:45 am, Blogger Peter G | Souvlaki For The Soul said…

    Great interview Helen...I remember him quite well and read a lot of his reviews. Can't wait to see his new show...should be good.

  • At 1/04/2010 5:41 am, Anonymous Dave -nibbleanibble said…

    Respect for the common chef, a lot of celeb chefs are just empty shells with a big name.

  • At 1/04/2010 7:18 am, Anonymous Trissa said…

    I know now what I want to be doing 5 years from now - uproot my husband and dogs from Sydney and live on a farm like Matthew Evans! But shhh... don't tell my husband yet! hehe... great interview!

  • At 1/04/2010 9:31 am, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    Helen, this is such a great interview. After all the fine dining places, the man only craved for simple pancake for breakfast. I admire the love of simplicity in him.

  • At 1/04/2010 12:01 pm, Anonymous Jacq said…

    Love the interview Helen! I just finished reading his book and I love his honesty, even if it did land him a few court cases!

  • At 1/04/2010 1:22 pm, Anonymous Hannah said…

    Great questions, Helen! Also, he looks nothing like I'd have expected to - he looks far more approachable and friendly!

  • At 1/04/2010 3:38 pm, Blogger Karen | Citrus and Candy said…

    What a great interview Helen! Restaurant critics always seem much less scary when they're talking more candidly in interviews and when you can see photos of them!

    I saw the previews for Gourmet Farmer recently and I can't wait to watch it! He's living my dream :D

  • At 1/04/2010 3:45 pm, Blogger YaYa said…

    Great interview! I fully symphathise with the man, after a week of too much rich food this festive season, let alone 5 years, I too want a simpler life with food tasting just like itself!

  • At 1/04/2010 3:49 pm, Anonymous Wine Esky said…

    Great interview. Tassie is such an amazing place, can't wait to see the show. How can Matt has 2 of everyone's dream jobs?!?

  • At 1/04/2010 4:09 pm, Blogger AY said…

    Awesome interview Helen! Really provided an insight into the mindset of a great food critic. And you're right, I think all foodies would loved to have been in his position at one point!

  • At 1/04/2010 6:48 pm, Anonymous Rose said…

    Great interview! Funny dude too - love that bit about a turtle needing to have a good lawyer.

  • At 1/04/2010 7:30 pm, Blogger shaz said…

    What a great read Helen! As a Sydneysider, I used to spend each Saturday morning with him (reading his columns of course! What?) :) Nice to see the man behind the pen.

  • At 1/04/2010 8:59 pm, Anonymous KFC So Good said…

    Great interview Helen! What a coupé. I already have a special spot in my heart for Maggie! What lovely eyes.

    Such a similar ring to hugh fearnley @ river cottage, esp after reading Matthew's "blog". But why be a Gourmet farmer? isn't a normal one who is able to survive off its land good enough? I digress.

    I was obsessed with the show when Hugh first moved to his small hold farm in Dorset a couple of years ago on F**tel.

    Matthew and Hugh both make their own prosciutto, grow their own pig & lamb, sadness of slaughter, joy of meat, shoot their own animal, cook for neighbors.... and sell their produce online.

    May be Matthew would lead a trend to collect "wild greens" and mushrooms from the fields & creeks and forests just like Hugh!

    So cool we have an Australian Hugh.

    Hugh has developed his own Dorset restaurant already in River Cottage, may be Matthews' own Rare Food HQ is not far away :P He have already cornered a backyard supply of truffles already!

    One could only hope.

  • At 1/04/2010 9:17 pm, Blogger gaby @ lateraleating said…

    Great post, thanks!

  • At 1/04/2010 10:04 pm, Blogger Rita (mademoiselle délicieuse) said…

    A lovely interview to gain an insight into the mind of a high profile restaurant critic, especially one who has been in the news recently for more 'unusual' reasons.

  • At 1/05/2010 12:55 am, Anonymous chocolatesuze said…

    nice interview dude! and man he just had to mention pancakes mmm pancakes

  • At 1/05/2010 4:07 am, Blogger Helen (Grab Your Fork) said…

    Hi Peter G - Matthew had some great reviews didn't he? Will be interesting to see how his new life pans out.

    Hi Dave - lol. I guess if you want to make it big in any industry you have to had a lot of self-belief. Therein lies the rub.

    Hi Trissa - Sounds like a great idea! And thanks :)

    Hi Ellie - I think that most reviewers and chefs end up craving simple food after so much flavour-overload in their jobs. But I totally agree with his food cravings when sick. Was excited to see a fried egg on rice! My favourite!

    Hi Jacq - I read his book when it first came out and it was quite interesting to read about his background. I guess it helps to have a legal team to read each review but even so, it still wasn't foolproof!

    Hi Hannah - lol. I had no idea what he looked like until the photo in Good Living and then I spotted him at the Good Food Month Spring Picnic. I think most people are most approachable than you'd think!

    Hi Karen - I think the ice will definitely be broken when you see him in shorts! lol.

    His farm life will be inspiring to many people, I'm sure.

    Hi YaYa - I think that's why I love Japanese food so much - it's all about the simple appreciation of each ingredient at its core :)

    Hi Wine Esky - Ha, that's very true, although realistically there's nothing stopping people moving and setting up their own farm :) Haven't been to Tasmania yet - would love to get there sometime.

    Hi AY - There were so many questions I wanted to ask, it was a task just trying to narrow it down to 10 :)

    Hi Rose - Ha, I was curious to see what his response would be to that question but I never expected him to say turtle. lol. He always had a cheeky sense of humour in his reviews and columns.

    Hi Shaz - lol. Nice one! And yes, it's always interesting to find out more about notable people and what makes them tick.

    Hi KFC So Good - I'm guessing the Gourmet Farmer title was driven by the production company and not necessarily Matthew but I agree, it doesn't quite ring true with the back-to-simplicity sentiments.

    And yes, that would be interesting to see if he ever opens up his own restaurant!

    Hi Dairokkan - Glad you enjoyed the post :)

    Hi mademoiselle delicieuse - I've always wanted to know more about Matthew so it was too good an opportunity to pass up. The court case has been very interesting, to say the least!

    Hi chocolatesuze - He didn't mention bacon though. lol. But wait until you see him hyperventilating over the prosciutto!

  • At 1/05/2010 12:48 pm, Blogger Unknown said…

    Really enjoyed reading this interview. I am now dreaming of a Tasmanian farm to call my own...just a dream for now!

  • At 1/06/2010 7:19 am, Anonymous Veruca Salt said…

    Excellent interview. I use to love reading his restaurant reviews.

    Will definitely check out his show tomorrow.

  • At 1/06/2010 11:37 am, Blogger Helen (Grab Your Fork) said…

    Hi Andrea - I haven't yet visited Tasmania although I would love to - mainly for the food, of course!

    Hi Veruca Salt - Yes his reviews were always a good read, weren't they? Enjoy the show - it's so strange to hear his voice, rather than read his writing :)

  • At 3/20/2010 5:07 pm, Anonymous Shane said…

    Love Matthew just bought his book. We opted out of the Good Food Guide when he left.. only inhibits business and creates cookie cutter compliance to it's criteria. Shane, Blue Orange Bondi

  • At 3/24/2010 2:00 pm, Blogger Helen (Grab Your Fork) said…

    Hi Shane - Interesting feedback. Editors will always have their own style - I presume that there'll be another changeover of Editor for the new Guide, presumably with Terry Durack at the helm.


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