Cheal, the newly-promoted head chef at Simpsons in Edgbaston, recalls a salutary mistake in his early days with the restaurant. Simpsons was then based in Kenilworth, Warwickshire, and had already gained a Michelin star. Cheal, a young commis, was tasked with preparing the cheese course for a private function for 40 diners. It was a Saturday night, the main dining room was full and the kitchen was rammed.
Cheal was tasked by boss Andreas Antona with removing the roots from the lambs lettuce, which was being served as a garnish with the cheese.
“I completely forgot about the roots. It wasn’t deliberate. I wasn’t trying to interfere with the presentation of anything,” says Cheal.
“It came to serving the cheese and Chef saw the roots. He went ballistic. He made me stay after everyone had gone home, picking the roots off all the lambs lettuce in the kitchen. I was there until two o’clock in the morning. Lambs lettuce has never gone out into the restaurant with roots again.”
Cheal, now 32, recounts the story after I ask him about the worst “bollocking” of his 14-year career. If he’s smiling now, sipping a cappuccino in the restaurant, it was a very different story when he started out.
“It was so nerve-wracking,” says Cheal. “It was an honour to work at Simpsons, but I was worried about maintaining the standards all the time and working to the other chefs’ level. I could have written a book every day on what I was learning.”
What was so special about the place and the team?
“The atmosphere. The passion. It was something I hadn’t experienced before and it just grew on me. The passion was infectious. It was a great feeling being part of an elite team.”
When Cheal says elite, he isn’t exaggerating. Antona’s right-hand man was Luke Tipping, now Simpsons’ executive chef director. The brigade included a promising young cook called Glynn Purnell (now a Michelin-star holder in his own right), Andy Waters (who picked up a star at Edmunds in Henley-in-Arden) and Marcus Eaves, a star man at Pied à Terre in London. A decent bunch then.
Cheal’s own food education started at an early age, pot-washing at The Arden Hotel on the A45 near the National Exhibition Centre. The hotel is owned by his parents, Tony and Julie, and Cheal knew from an early age that he wanted to be a chef.
School wasn’t always easy. Cheal was diagnosed with dyslexia when he was 10 and concedes he was never the most academically inclined pupil. He says he could have worked a little harder at his studies at Heart of England School in Balsall Common, but he had his heart set on a career in professional kitchens.
“I just fell in love with the kitchen banter and the food was a big thing. My parents never really wanted me to go into catering because of the hours and the stress factor. But if you fall in love with something, like food, it is difficult to say no.”
Like his dad, Cheal trained at University College Birmingham, taking NVQ levels 1, 2 and 3 in catering and hospitality. He worked at Simpsons while at UCB and went on a placement at Lettonie in Bath, which was firing on all cylinders – and picking up two Michelin stars – under Martin Blunos. “I just fell in love with that style and standard of food,” says Cheal.
He went on to earn his stripes, progressing from commis chef to chef de partie at Simpsons and picked up the British Culinary Federation Junior Chef of the Year title in 2002. He was crowned Chef of the Year in 2010.
Today, he is married to Emma and has two young daughters – Jessica, who is six, and three-year-old Phoebe. As well as being Simpsons’ head chef, Matt runs the Saturday, and sometimes Sunday, cookery school.
I have no idea where he finds the energy. We dine at Simpsons on a busy Friday night and when I chat to Cheal towards the end of service he is already planning the sauces for the next day.
He has just turned out some great plates on the eight-course tasting menu, running the show in the absence of Tipping, who is on a night off. Former head chef Adam Bennett has departed the Edgbaston stronghold and is now running The Cross at Kenilworth, which is part of Simpsons’ growing empire. The fact Cheal is deemed good enough to run the Simpsons’ flagship tells you a lot about the faith Antona and Tipping place in him.
Among the stand-out courses is a take on scallops and pork belly. It’s a familiar pairing but this starter is given new vibrancy – and colour – with leeks and watercress. The cooking of the shellfish is spot on, a common theme throughout the meal, whether it is fish or meat. The timing is perfect.
Glistening cod is given a winter warm up with lentil dhal, cauliflower and that staple of 70s British curries – sultanas. It’s a nice retro touch and works well.
An elegant tranche of chicken and duck liver parfait is as fine as I’ve had, sweetened with a punchy beetroot jelly and brioche. The dish is matched with one of the evening’s great wine pairings – a lightly acidic 2011 Trait d’union, Domaine Jousset, from Montlouis in the Loire, made from 100% chenin blanc. I know the area because my sister lived there for a while. Happily, the wine pairing worked far better than her marriage to a French chef.
One of the joys of having the sommelier pick the wines is that you try bottles off your default radar. So it was with the 2009 Numanthia, Tinto de Toro, Castilla y Leon.
This medium-bodied, tannic Spaniard has plummy and tobacco notes that work really well with Cheal’s venison, the meat finished with smokey aromas. The venison is accompanied with a haggis “bolgonese” which is basically a very good sauce, and delicious salsify.
If Cheal can cook like this, it is reasonable to ask what may lie in the future. He says he would love to have his own restaurant one day, ideally in the Solihull area, but for now everything is focused on maintaining the standards established at Simpsons. For Cheal, that means using outstanding produce to produce clear flavours that the restaurant’s customers love.
“I hate over-complication. I like simplicity – just well-cooked food. You don’t need to confuse a dish with too many flavours,” he says.
“I love starting with the raw ingredient and ending up with a lovely dish. You get such a sense of satisfaction, having a whole fish come into the kitchen, prepping it and serving it to a customer.”
20 Highfield Road, Edgbaston, Birmingham, B15 3DU
Tel: 0121 454 3434