Apart from the fact that he’s a lovely, friendly bloke who’s rather easy-on-the-eye and a fantastic chef to boot, you have to admire Matt Tebbutt’s ability to remain so calm under pressure. Not only does he present a live TV cookery show every Saturday morning, he does his thing at the hob while at the same time managing to interview some often very high-profile guests. But even now, the chef admits he still gets nervous about being on live TV.
“Sometimes I worry about messing up my lines but mostly I’m quite relaxed,” he says. “The studio kitchen feels like my own kitchen; the wine’s flowing and there’s great food being cooked... there are times when I forget I’m on TV and that’s when you’ve got to be especially careful about what you say!
“I always make sure I get an early night on a Friday. I don’t have a drink and it’s lights-out after Goggle Box. I wouldn’t be able to do the show on Saturday if I went out on a Friday night. Getting a decent night’s sleep means I’m raring to go.”
We’re guessing he must need his wits about him, what with Saturday Kitchen going out live every week. “The atmosphere is heightened 100 per cent compared with Fridays when we rehearse,” Matt confirms. “It’s a massive leap from rehearsing to doing a live show. This is probably what I love most about it, though. I like the terrifying edge it brings and the way the adrenaline kicks in.”
On the show, of course, Matt gets to cook his celeb guest’s idea of food heaven or hell. What is his? “Hell for me is tripe and also anything that’s been messed about with too much,” he replies. “My heaven would have to be a massive Chinese. I love making Asian food.”
He also loves, it seems, the occasional KFC Zinger! “I’m not talking every day,” he laughs. “We all know that kind of thing is not very good for us – but I think it’s fine every now and then. In fact, I’d say it’s good for the soul.”
Matt trained at Prue Leith’s School of Food and Wine but it was taking a traineeship with renowned chef Marco Pierre White where he faced his greatest challenge.
“It was rather a baptism of fire,” he admits. “But I’d always wanted to work for Marco. Reading a copy of his book White Heat changed my life. It had recipes that you couldn’t get anywhere near attempting because they were so grand and difficult, but it also had these really cool pictures and it just looked very rock ’n’ roll. You saw behind the scenes in the kitchen and it was all really highly charged.”
Having run Marco’s restaurant The Oak Room and offering to work for free because he wanted to see the kitchen in action, Matt was offered a job by the volatile Anglo/Italian culinary virtuoso... but it wasn’t long before he was fired.
I decided that signing up for a career in the RAF wasn’t the right thing for me and picked up a frying pan instead
“One day I body-swerved Marco in service, he dropped a beautiful plate of food on the floor, and he sacked me,” Matt goes on. “He took me back the next day, but moved me to his other restaurant, The Criterion. It was kind of nerve-wracking. We did 400 covers a day and a 90-plus hour week in a hard week. An easy week was probably between 60 and 80 hours. I did 18 months until I burned out.”
Matt went on to work with other high-profile chefs – including his food hero Alastair Little. So how did he get on TV?
“It was predominantly an accident,” he reveals. “I’d had a few appearances on local TV and then a food critic who’d reviewed my place in Wales recommended me for the BBC’s Great British Menu show, which is where everything took off.
“I’d always preferred the cooking element over anything else but I particularly like the live TV I do now. The adrenalin rush gives you quite a buzz.
“We rehearse most of Friday, then I’m up at the crack of dawn on Saturday for an early run-through before the live show. Once completed, we go straight into filming the Best Bites. Now you see why we need to start on the wine early!”
Matt was originally focusing on a career as an RAF pilot when he decided to change direction and become a chef.
“I was part of the RAF Air Cadets while I was studying anthropology at Oxford Brookes University and I got into the habit of cooking for my fellow cadets in the squadron,” he says. “I found out that I wasn’t too bad. It changed the course of my life. I decided that signing up for a career in the RAF wasn’t the right thing for me and picked up a frying pan instead!”
He’s a fantastic chef but it is somehow reassuring to learn that occasionally Matt’s culinary creations go pear-shaped.
“My worst-ever cooking disaster was at home when our wood oven was first installed in the garden,” he laughs. “I tried cooking whole joints of meat, which my kids still refer to as the ‘Roast Lamb Incident’. Everything went wrong.”
So when he’s at home does he do all the cooking? “Yes I always do it. It’s great for relaxing and I’m a lot better than the wife!” he laughs.
Matt (47) and ‘the wife’, Lisa, have been happily married for more than 20 years. What does he think is the secret to a long and happy marriage? “Maybe it’s something to do with the fact we ran a restaurant together for 15 years!” he replies. “Working alongside each other was tough but we’re still together. We worked well as a team – Lisa is great with people whereas I’m the bolshie chef in the kitchen.”
Matt owned and ran the Foxhunter restaurant in Nant-y-derry near Usk in South Wales and won a number of awards, including the AA Restaurant of the Year for Wales. It is now leased as a pub.
The couple have two teenage children Jessie (17), and Henry (16). “So far, only Jessie has taken an interest in cooking but both kids have always been into eating good food!” says Matt.
Like father, like son and daughter. Indeed, one of Matt’s earliest memories is of all things foodie. His passion for food certainly started early. “One of my earliest and fondest memories is a holiday in Normandy with my family. I remember eating fish soup, frogs’ legs and snails – stuff you’d never see where I grew up in Cwmbran, Wales. My parents were always of the opinion ‘Well, we’re eating it, so can you’!” he laughs.
Did you know?
Matt's first appearance on Saturday Kitchen came in October 2009 and he often presented the show when former host James Martin was away.
Saturday Kitchen is on Saturdays, BBC2, at 10am