Next up in our series on how to become a chef is John Mathers of Newforge House.
In our latest in the series on How to Become a Chef we speak with John Mathers from Newforge House. Read his story and how he became the expert professional he is today.
WHO I AM
John Mathers, Head Chef of Newforge House, which I own with my wife Lou. We are the sixth generation of Mathers to live in the house since 1850. Lou and I took over the running of the house in 2005 when my parents moved out. They live on site in a cottage to the rear of the house and my Dad often helps out with the vegetable garden.
THE NITTY GRITTY
What type of training did you have?
I went to university in Newcastle to do a degree in Maths and Accounting but it wasn’t really for me. I changed to Biology and finished my degree but it was during this time I decided I would really love to open my own restaurant. So when I came home I worked in a hotel kitchen in Belfast, while doing a day release catering course in college. Then I went to work for a restaurant called The Yellow Door in Gilford which was fab. We made everything from scratch. There was always a stock pot on the go. I learned while working and still doing my day release course.
What were the challenges along the way?
We started off in 2005 just before recession hit, but Northern Ireland wasn’t really a tourist destination back then. The food philosophy simply wasn’t there, but all that is changing now. So that was a challenge in itself. Maherlin, where we are, isn’t exactly the centre of the universe! But actually it’s very well placed for all the tourist things, being 25 minutes away from Belfast, three quarters of an hour to the Mourne Mountains and even the Giant’s Causeway on the northern coast is only an hour and a half drive from here.
Our house is a place where people can come and switch off completely, but yet they are close to everything they need in terms of tourism if they want it. That’s been the challenge to get that message across but Lou has experience in marketing so she has done a great job with that side of things for us.
Were there any major positives or crucial turning points in your career?
My initial plan was to travel a bit and then open my own place. I had the site for a little bistro type place in Moira. But then I discovered I had Crohn’s disease which was a massive turning point in my life. I was very ill in hospital for quite some time. So I had to reassess completely, I couldn’t guarantee I was going to be healthy enough to work at the pace required for a restaurant, because there isn’t any cure for this really, you just have to manage it.
I started to think about running Newforge as a B&B first of all, something a bit more manageable for me. The house was viable for that with six bedrooms and it was big, there was no heating and stuff so we had to do something to maintain it and make it pay. I originally thought of having a fine dining restaurant, but that wouldn’t have worked here really as I’ve discovered.
My health has been absolutely fine, touch wood, since Lou and I got married and started running the house. It’s the love of a good woman which has helped I think! And we just re-thought everything and began to focus on providing a peaceful, tranquil country house experience with really great food. I like to cook the best ingredients as simply as possible and that’s what people get when they come to stay here.
Which people influence your cooking?
My mum was the person that started me off. She is a really good but simple cook. We had lots of home cooking and my parents exposed us to good food. And then after that Simon Dougan and Roisin Hendron at The Yellow Door really influenced me. They made absolutely everything every day from scratch and that was my education. We all did everything in the kitchen. That was how it worked because we were a small team, which was great, and we all worked very hard too.
Which food styles/trends interest you or influence your cooking as a professional chef?
I don’t follow food trends is the answer to that! They wouldn’t really work here! My philosophy is simple. I did think about the fine dining option when we first started off but we are a country house and we wanted to keep that feeling in the dining. I like to work with the best ingredients possible. We have our own vegetable gardens and polytunnels and our own hens for eggs. Plus we have great meat and fish locally so I am completely confident in everything that I cook.
I want to offer this great local food in lovely surroundings with the great atmosphere that we have in the house. Guests come down and sit by the fire with drinks before dinner, which is always served in the dining room at 8pm. My menu changes every day, so if we have guests that are booked in for more than one night they will get something different every night. I offer two choices of starter and two mains with a meat or fish option, plus our own desserts or a cheese board which is always Irish unpasteurised cheeses. We are very proud of all our local produce and we want to showcase it always.
Why do you love your job as a professional chef?
This house is a great place to live and work! I love looking after people here. Making sure they have a great stay here with us and get to completely wind down and relax. It’s brilliant when we have guests that just really get what we do. That makes it so worthwhile. I really love it!
What’s the worst thing about your role as a professional chef?
The hours! I suppose all chefs say that! Here at Newforge we work six days a week and for me that can be from six am to midnight. I like to have one day a week off to spend time with Lou and our children, so to do that we have to close one day. Trying to get the work/life balance right is hard. I do try, and the longer I do this job the more I realise how amazing and precious it is to have time with my family also.
Describe a typical day in the kitchen?
Busy! I could be serving my first breakfasts at 7.30am if we have business guests staying. So that means I am up at six for a shower and straight to the kitchen. When you have other guests as well, breakfast could stretch on. So it could be 10.30am by the time I get cleaned up afterwards. Then I plan menus for the evening and pop out to see suppliers or pick up ingredients I need for dinner. I like to be back here for check-ins from 1pm onwards. I always like to be here to greet guests when they arrive.
I have really good staff to look after the bedrooms but I do like to do a quick check every day to make sure all the rooms are as we want them and everything is there that the guests need. It’s sometimes hard to do prep for dinner during the afternoon. You have to fit that in between welcoming guests and check-ins.
Some days are easier than others! I am very lucky that we can live and work here and I can get to come out of the kitchen when the kids get home from school, to have a kick around with the football for five minutes in the garden, or pop in and give them a goodnight kiss before bed during the dinner service. Depending on how busy we are, because it’s just me here in the kitchen! I try to get out to see them though before bed because they are always fast asleep by the time I get dinner finished and cleaned up for the night.
What are your strong points?
I like to cook good ingredients really simply, so I think my strongest point is that I can cook meat and fish really well. It’s all about seasonings and timings and making sure you get it right. I do a pretty good steak! I use beef from Peter Hannon, a local supplier. His meat is dry aged on the bone in a salt chamber for around 35-40 days, so it’s succulent and tender. You want to be able to do justice to that quality in the pan and get it absolutely perfect.
Would you change anything about your journey so far?
I’m sure looking back if I was to start again I would probably change some things. Six bedrooms is just enough to be a viable business, and we have thought of adding on, but once you do that then the dynamic also changes because you need more staff to manage the house and so on. We have to work hard here but I am lucky to be able to get one day off a week to spend with my family, which would probably change if we got bigger as well. Overall, I am pretty happy. I feel blessed that things have gone the way they have and we have created our lives here around this beautiful house.
Who does the cooking at home?
Generally, Lou does it on a daily basis as she is a full time mum to our children and a really good cook. She makes all our desserts, cookies, breads and biscuits for the house menu as well, plus she is also our marketing manager, so she’s pretty busy! During the week she will ring me to pop in for lunch, or to have tea with the her and the kids so we can all sit down together. When I am off we might just have simple food like a good cheeseboard or something. When we have friends round I do the cooking.
Any advice for anyone who wants to become a professional chef?
The most important thing when it comes to being a professional chef is that you have to love it and want it. If not it simply won’t work because your heart isn’t in the long hours and the hard work you have to put in, and very often this job is not about the money! But if you do want it then you have to follow that passion and try it for yourself. You won’t know till you try!
What’s your favourite dish or recipe?
I love cooking our dry aged beef. Ribeye steak is my favourite cut. I don’t like cooking it well done, but I have to if a guest wants that. So I try to cook it till it is only just well done. So it doesn’t have any traces of pink but it will still be perfectly juicy. That can be tricky because of timings and you want to give customers what they want. It’s up to me to make sure I cook it so they really enjoy it.
If you’ve enjoyed reading about how John became a professional chef then why not read more advice, tips and insights from other top class chefs right here – How to Become a Chef.
Don’t forget to check out our fun infographic on The Journey To Becoming A Chef