Mr Wilkinson’s simple style
Matt Wilkinson’s popular Pope Joan eatery and bar in Brunswick East is named after a medieval legend and out the back he’s gone prehistoric, setting a fire in a pit to sear wild harvested venison.
The unpredictable and uncontrollable column of smoke wafts past the only patrons lingering in the courtyard. “Shout them a drink,” Matt says to the barman before he turns back to the task at hand, making the fire really, really hot.
The fact the kitchen has a fire pit (next to the herb garden) gives a hint of Matt’s approach to cooking. You don’t need fancy equipment to make good food, you need good produce, good seasoning and a simple approach.
Fire is a favourite tool and the best thing is it’s portable. To illustrate the point he regales us with his tale of cooking a banquet, including dessert, in the bucket of a backhoe.
The wild venison Matt is about to place on the hotplate over the fire has already been part-cured using a well-seasoned but easy mixture. Matt has already been handing out slices to taste. “You can eat it as it is, it’s beautiful.” The searing isn’t really for cooking; it’s more for appearance and a little extra flavour. “The searing of it adds that smoky, charred flavour,” he said.
A few quick turns and the meat is ready for carving. The thin slices have brilliant colour and texture through the centre and a ring of charred goodness around the outside.
It is served on a slice of baguette with mustard mayonnaise, mustard leaf and a garnish of flower, a “posh steak sandwich” is how Matt describes it.
The delicate flavours and appealing presentation of the dish are the opposite of Matt’s roots in a tough town in Yorkshire, England. “I come from the industrial country jungle of a small town in South Yorkshire called Barnsley, famous for having the best cricketer in the world, Geoffrey Boycott,” he explains.
Matt left school early and having grown up in pubs he wanted to give it a go. “I quickly learned at 16 that not only couldn’t I drink, I couldn’t be a landlord either so I had to go to college, I took a hospitality and catering course.”
The first opportunity to work in a kitchen came when his tutor, whose son ran an old country manor, suggested he work there during holidays. “I had to do the first week in the kitchen and I hated it at college but the first day I got the bug and the next day I was offered a job,” Matt said. “From there I spent two-and-a-half years in London and two years in Scotland.”
As a chef, Matt did a lot of fishing and particularly in Scotland, a bit of hunting but eventually he was burnt out and needed a break from the 15-hour days. A fellow chef suggested Australia. “I came out for a quick holiday and 16 years later I’m still here.”
As a boy in England Matt would hunt partridge and quail, but mostly he’d go ratting. “You got a pound a tail for water rats,” he recalled.
In Australia he discovered a wealth of opportunity in the wild, from introduced species like camel, goat and deer to native species found nowhere else on earth. “Here the native meat is sensational; I think hands down wallaby is one of the nicest meats. Every wild wallaby I’ve eaten has come from Tasmania or King Island or Flinders Island, so there’s a flavour element there, I think young venison is stunning and hare is one of the best meats there is.”
Matt even springs to the defence of the much maligned, and in his view poorly handled, Wood duck. “One of the things that fascinates me is so many hunters say Wood duck is terrible, really? They are actually delicious,” he said. “Mallard is the king of ducks but if you >>
cook Wood duck like a quail, quickly with a bit of marination and then rest it, it can be really spectacular.”
Matt is firmly of the view that Australia is spoiled for choice with its abundant and diverse fisheries, wild game and foraging foods like mushrooms. What it lacks is the supply chain, market acceptance and consumer education required to elevate that wild food to supermarket staples.
“I really do believe that Australia is about to burst and I hope it is in my era as a chef,” he said. “The amount of wild foraging mushrooms, the amount of species of fish available, fresh and salt water, and the amount of native animals that are not really being explored as such, I think it is time.”
While Matt, like many chefs, is well acquainted with wild food it is accessibility that is the problem. When wild meat is more broadly available, the knowledge about how to treat it and cook it well will become ingrained. “It needs to be supermarkets, supply chains and education, everybody knows how to cook a lamb roast, they know the cuts, and they know the process, that’s where we need to get to.”
Matt said his recipe for Field & Game magazine is deliberately simple.
“This for me is about that little bit of preservation, using venison in this way is not taking a prime cut, you do this with the Denver leg element, the topside fillet or the bowler blade.”
Removing the sinew is important but essentially it is a take-anywhere meal. “This is something I would do out shooting, you have your salt mix prepared with your mustard mayonnaise in your little backpack. I could be a tosser and say you can forage wild greens but you can just take a nice salad, mustard leaf is the one I would do. “You pack a French baguette, you pop something and take the fillet off straight away and cure it for that night. “Wash the salt/sugar off, sear it and put the meal together, it’s like a posh steak sandwich, that’s all it is. While you’re cooking it you can cut some off and eat it tartare.”
If you happen to be hunting on a farm and there is a backhoe handy a whole new set of recipes become options, but that’s another story.
Pope Joan at 75–79 Brunswick St, East Brunswick is open daily for breakfast and lunch and houses his own produce store, Hams & Bacon. Matt also published the Mr Wilkinson’s cookbooks.