Interview with Mat FollasThursday, March 6th, 2014
Mat Follas was the winner of BBC’s Masterchef in 2009, and won rave reviews for his restaurant The Wild Garlic, based in Beaminster. His new restaurant venture at The Casterbridge Hotel opens on Friday night, and he kindly took time out from his preparations this week to talk to us about his plans and his reasons for coming to work here in Dorchester.
Can you tell us a little bit about your new venture here at The Casterbridge? What can people expect from dining here?
It’s a couple of nights a week, on Fridays and Saturdays. The Casterbridge approached me about doing it, and it just fits. I’ve been looking for something like this for ages. There are 2 rooms, each seating 10 to 12 people – so if there’s a big group they can have a room to themselves.
Monica and Melvin [The Casterbridge owners] have both been in the trade a long time and have been very helpful, so I think it will work quite nicely.
Your opening night is on Friday, and you’re fully booked, which is a great start. How are your preparations coming along?
You’ve caught me right at the start of my preparations. It will be 3 days work getting ready, which probably seems like a lot for 2 nights serving! But a lot of the preparation I do now will help towards the next few weeks – some of the things I’m making like pickles keep for several weeks. I’m just finding my feet here really, finding out where everything goes and all the rest of it.
What attracted you to working here in Dorchester?
I’ve been looking in Dorchester for ages, trying to find the right venue. The Casterbridge has a really good sized kitchen – twice the size of my previous kitchen for a 45 cover restaurant, so plenty of space for me to potter about in!
When I was looking for a new venue I narrowed my options down to Dorchester or Bridport – I decided Dorchester was the better option, because it has a larger population and is more central. A lot of my customers have always come from Poole and Bournemouth, and here in Dorchester I can be close enough to those areas whilst still being in West Dorset.
Dorchester seems to be becoming a bit of a foodie hotspot – what do you think of the restaurants already here?
Yeah there are some really good restaurants here. I know Russell at Sienna very well, I consider him a mentor and someone I talk to quite a lot about the practicalities of running a business. We spent a day together recently – he taught me chocolate making, and in exchange I’m going to pick wild garlic for him.
We also now have a few chain groups arriving here in Dorchester, which I think is great because it gets people coming to the town and eating here. I’m a regular at Carluccio’s and I eat at Wagamama – those are places I like to go with the kids, or before going to the movies, whereas I hope people will come to The Casterbridge because they want to make an evening of it, so that’s the big difference as I see it.
You’re well known for your foraging – do you think that Dorset in particularly good for finding wild ingredients?
Dorset is probably the best place to find wild ingredients – everything is here, particularly this end of Dorset. It’s something I really like doing, and one of the reasons I wanted a small venture is it means I can actually go and forage ingredients for the restaurant and serve them.
The nice thing about it is I’ll only be serving for about 40 people per week, and they’re not all going to be eating the same thing. So if I’m picking something for one dish, I might only need to pick 15 or 20 leaves, and that doesn’t have an impact on the environment. My previous restaurant would be serving 300 or 400 people, and with those kinds of quantities you could end up doing some real damage to the environment, which I wouldn’t want to do.
Will the things you find dictate what goes on your menu? What is your process for coming up with dishes?
The menus write themselves to be honest, that’s what I like about it. At this time of year, wild garlic has to be on the menu, and the difficulty for me is not to put it on everything, because I think it’s great! So it’s only on one dish at the moment, with a little in another.
There’s also some more interesting plants – there’s one called hairy bittercress, which doesn’t sound appetising, but actually it’s not hairy and it’s not bitter. It’s got really nice mustard, wasabi type flavour, so it’s really cool to put that on a dish, and somebody will eat it and suddenly get a mouthful of flavour they weren’t expecting at all. I’ve got a wild rabbit lasagne I’ll be serving that with.
The style of food I want to do here has to be approachable. I never want to do a restaurant that feels too posh – the thing I hate is going to a restaurant and not knowing which knife or which glass to use, and I’ve always tried to make sure my places aren’t ever like that.
The 3 course menu is £27.50, and that will come will some little nibbles as well – all the extras you expect from a full service restaurant. And we’re also doing a tasting option, which is 6 courses for £47.50, and that’s for somebody who wants to come in and spend the evening trying all the different dishes.
You’re quite big on Twitter (@matkiwi) – what is it you like about social media, and how useful do you think it is from a business perspective?
Twitter’s a very effective tool, although for the restaurant trade I think probably Facebook is better, and I’m not as strong on Facebook.
I do tweet a lot, but for me it’s also a hobby. I think the difference with Facebook and Twitter is that Twitter is more about you as a person – you need to be yourself. If I just went on there and just tweeted ‘please come to the restaurant’ and things like that all day people would get bored very quickly, so I find I tweet a lot about my everyday life, and that’s what people are interested in.
You also need to engage with people who reply to you, and when you get a reasonable sized following that requires a bit of commitment, you can’t just fire off a few tweets and then ignore it.
I have a Facebook page for the restaurant – Mat Follas at The Casterbridge. I’ve found previously that Facebook is better for talking to people who are engaged and want to know about the restaurant – they wouldn’t necessarily be interested in what I’ve had for breakfast like Twitter is, but it’s a more targeted audience. So if I was talking to a business person, I probably wouldn’t advise them to get onto Twitter straight away, I’d probably say Facebook first.
Finally, back to The Casterbridge, what are your plans for the restaurant for the coming months, and what kinds of things will be appearing on your menu in the near future?
To start with, some of the dishes will be the ones people know me for – we’ll have a really good steak, with smoked mashed potatoes and bernaise sauce – that’s always been one of my most popular dishes.
It’s going to be a very short menu. I’ve got a nice ham hock terrine as a starter, and I really want it to be the best terrine you’ve had. I think monthly at least the menu will be changing, if not more often than that. It depends on what I find when I go for a walk at the start of the week. If there’s something exciting, I can tweak the menu and change it to something different, which is great.
I’m also excited to be working in Dorchester, which is a really nice location to be in. I think it’s already very well served with the likes of Russell up the road and all the other restaurants, so I’m really pleased to become a part of the mix here.
Mat Follas at The Casterbridge will be open every Friday and Saturday evening from 7th March 2014. Click here to see the sample menu. You can book a table by calling +44 (0)1305 264043 or emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
Questions by Chris Redhead.