January 9, 2020
Where Cameron Matthews’ love affair with food began
Ask a chef what sparked their love affair with cooking, and most will mention a family member who kindled interest by showing them the basics. Or who fed them delicious, life-changing dishes. Or both. But what if your parents work full-time and just fuel up on convenience food?
If you’re fortunate, that’s when fate plays its part.
Cameron Matthews is Spicers Retreats’ executive chef in the Hunter Valley, overseeing Restaurant Botanica at Spicers Vineyards Estate and serving as head chef at Spicers Guesthouse’s Éremo Restaurant, a contemporary Italian destination at Pokolbin. He’s known “since forever” he’d become a chef. But growing up, culinary role models were thin on the ground.
Happily, Matthews lived within spaghetti tossing distance of regional restaurant icon, Simone’s of Bright, in northeastern Victoria. Simple and authentic, the now shuttered Simone’s was run by acclaimed Umbrian-Australian chef Patrizia Simone. A classic old-school Italian, Melbourne diners would regularly take a four-hour drive just to eat there.
Matthews scored a part-time job at Simone’s while at school. He ended up staying for seven and a half years soaking up the kind of in-depth produce and technical knowledge money can’t buy.
“It was super-seasonal, super-local, backyard kind of stuff,” says Matthews, who now serves as a state judge at the annual Delicious Produce Awards and is a Churchill Fellow. “That’s where the passion came from.”
Over three decades, Matthews has enjoyed an impressive career, steering restaurants like The Long Apron at Spicers Clovelly Estate in Queensland. But all today’s hottest restaurant trends – from eating ethically, sustainably and nose-to-tail; to buying locally and seasonally – were engrained at Simone’s back in the 80s and 90s.
Working there was a massive eye-opener. Matthews had never eaten at a restaurant before starting work in one. “Their apprentice left after six months so I ended up working side-by-side with Patrizia. George, her husband ran the floor and Maria, George’s mum made all the pasta – she literally made the gnocchi in her lounge room,” recalls Matthews. The hours were gruelling, but Matthews, who’s become a passionate advocate for better life-balance for chefs through study with The Churchill Trust, says time was always set aside for lunch.
“We’d cook all day and then head out and have lunch under the Wisteria. We’d all sit together,” says Matthews. “Afterwards we’d have a quick 15-minute nap – then, nonna would come and wake you gently. You’d have an espresso and get straight back into it.”
It was a stark contrast to family dinners at home of “Deb instant mashed potato, burnt lamb chops and frozen vegies”. Measuring more than 200cm tall in socks, Matthews has always loved eating. As a teen, a box of Weet-Bix would disappear after school. Breakfast might be six pieces of toast and two tins of spaghetti. “My parents were good parents, hardcore Aussies who worked full-time and weren’t around a whole heap, so there are no food stories from my childhood.”
At Simone’s, his culinary imagination was instantly unleashed. The freshest of produce was everywhere. Outside a shed was rammed full of pickles and preserves. People would turn up on weekends with boot loads of backyard goodies like quince and figs, which would then need to be prepped and cooked when dinner service finished after 10pm. “At the time, it kind of sucked, actually,” laughs Matthews. “But what a fast way to learn!”
When his apprenticeship ended (with Matthews winning Victorian Apprentice of the Year in his second year), Melbourne beckoned. Instead Simone asked him to stay and helm a new business she was opening, Cafe Barco. “It was just pasta, pizza – simple stuff. There were only two of us, but we’d end up doing 150 people for lunch,” says Matthews. “It was so much fun – and we ended up getting a Hat there as well.”
More plum cheffing roles followed, first at two-hatted Donovan’s, St Kilda and then in Queensland at Sirromet’s Winery, Mt Cotton, with Matthews eventually taking a well-earned 12 week break to tour Italy with Leanne his wife, whom he’d met working at Sirromet.
“Ask Leanne about Italy, and she’ll say we spent our time following old men into unmarked doors at lunchtime – because that was the way we found the best restaurants,” says Matthews.
And the best thing he ate whilst there? A simple piece of fruit in Rome. “It was a pear…. with the juices running down my elbow, with the perfect amount of sweetness. Better than a three-star Michelin experience.”
Then, the Simone family found new heritage digs in Bright, and Matthews inevitably found himself back home helping, with Leanne assisting on the floor. When Leanne became pregnant the couple returned to Queensland where her parents live.
The move north resulted in an executive chef role at highly regarded Siggi’s at the Stamford Plaza, Brisbane, before Matthews’ joined Spicers just as the group was opening Clovelly Estate, Maleny, eventually becoming executive chef of the group.
Now, once again Matthews is elbow deep in Tipo OO flour making pasta and pizza, presiding over Spicers’ first modern Italian eatery. It’s a fitting move for someone who credits ‘the boot’ as their culinary inspiration – whether they’re wowing diners with fine dining extravagance or keeping it deliciously pared-back.
“It feels like I’ve come home,” laughs Matthews. “There are even a few of Simone’s dishes on the menu here!”
Words by Fiona Donnelly
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