Matt Campbell, Masterchef Professional, on his devotion to kombucha and fermentation

If you tuned into Masterchef: The Professionals late last year, you may have been surprised to find that – on occasion – it appeared to have turned into Fermentation 101. Matt Campbell, a young chef with a prestigious background at the twice Michelin-starred restaurant, L’Enclume, threw the culinary world something of a curveball when he started prepping his dishes with kombucha. 

Those that follow his blog will perhaps have seen it coming. Campbell is a man devoted to fermentation – a fellow who weighs his scoby and lovingly notches off the days since it came into his life. As he tells us later in this interview, “kombucha is the first thing I ever got really passionate about. I guess it’s because I don’t have a dog or a child. I’ve got a scoby!” Who better, then, to discuss why this fermented tea drink – much maligned as a passing hipster fad as little as a year ago – is maturing into something that serious chefs simply can’t do without?

Just before Christmas, Matt came down to visit our brewhouse in Wendover, Buckinghamshire, and after a morning spent getting pretty darned excited by pellicles, we got down to the business in hand: an hour-long geek-out over the joys of fermentation.

Tell me a bit about your background, Matt. I know that you came second on BBC Young Chef of the Year when you were only 20, and I know that you’ve recently done Masterchef Professionals. I know also that you’ve travelled a lot. Can you tie all that together for me? 

Yeah, well I started cooking when I was 16. I moved quite quickly. I went to college, and then when I was 18 I went straight to L’Enclume, which is Simon Rogan’s place in Cartmel. I think the BBC contacted every Michelin-starred restaurant around the UK, asking for chefs between 18 and 25 to be entered into BBC Young Chef of the Year. Simon was like, “OK, I’m entering you.” It was a big process involving paper applications and then being whittled down and down, until finally I got on. I came second in the end. Douglas McMaster of Silo (Brighton) came first. We’re good friends.

From there… well, I’d always been into travelling and I’d always been into snowboarding. I got wanderlust and ended up landing a pretty good job in the French Alps, working for a 5-star chalet company. I did that for the winter season. We had quite high-end clients, and I was cooking for some of them. They’d say, “Hey! We’ve got a house in the South of France”, or, “We’ve got a house in Corsica… Do you fancy coming and cooking for us in the summer?” I didn’t even know that this area of hospitality was a thing. They said, “We’ll give you a house, this amount of money, a car…” For a 20-year-old kid who’d just been on TV and had a cool job in the Alps, but who’d also just come from working 17-hour days at L’Enclume, I was like, “Yes! I’ll take it!”

So I went and did a summer of that, and then got an increased wage for the winter. It kind of took off for me like that. I’d do my winters, then I’d have a couple of months off so I’d go travelling. I travelled to South East Asia, South America, Iceland… all over.

All with your cooking? 

Not necessarily paid cooking. Sometimes I’d just go and wander around the markets or maybe do cookery courses. The guy I work for at the moment is Indian, and I visited his house in Delhi and had a cookery lesson with his Indian chefs. I’ve probably learnt as much having a week-long cookery course with Raju in India as I did working at Champignon Sauvage, four years ago.

I’ve tried to not limit myself or restrict myself. I found working in a Michelin-starred kitchen quite restrictive. Obviously it’s about consistency. You’re constantly doing the same thing day in, day out. That’s great, and I really appreciate the level of consistency you need to achieve, but for a young chef who’s trying to learn as much as possible, I found this was the best way for me – working in jobs that enabled me to earn perhaps more than I might in restaurants, as well as travelling and spending that money on cookery courses.

One of the thing you talk a lot about on your blog is combining nutrition and gastronomy. That’s obviously a big part of what you do. This might sound like a really weird question, but do you think that has something to do with your age? Your generation seems to be far more nutrition-conscious than any of those before it. 

Erm, it probably has something to do with it, yeah. It’s probably a representation of the time we’re in now. I’ve only really started trying to combine nutrition and gastronomy over the last three or four years. It basically started when I had a job in the South of France. My clients would say (and I’ve been told this before by other people), “Matt, your food is really, really good – you’re one of the best chefs we’ve ever had – but I’m putting on weight!” So I was thinking, “I know I’m cooking good food, but how can I make them love it?” I was basically cooking restaurant food in a home, preparing it to be eaten seven days a week!

This one woman I worked for was really switched on. She said, “People don’t eat like this anymore, Matt. People don’t want big, heavy sauces. I need to look good when I go to dinner parties!” So I had to go away and rework my cuisine. And that’s all that a chef is – someone who provides a service. So, I just adapted to them.

At the same time, I’ve always been very sporty, and I went through a stage where I found I was getting quite big – working in restaurants and constantly eating out of the pans. So I adapt my cuisine now. I make it tasty, but I make it nutritious. As soon as I fell into that world, I really started to look at the nutrition side – studying all of the health gurus. I realised that there wasn’t a lot out there that was considered “nutritionally gastronomic”. So I set myself that challenge – to base all my recipes on good ingredients and superfoods. And that’s when I got into fermentation.

Tell me about your fascination with kombucha. You were cooking with it on Masterchef: The Professionals, am I right? 

Yeah.

On your blog you even call kombucha your, “first real culinary love”! 

Haha! Yeah, kombucha is the first thing I ever got really passionate about. I guess it’s because I don’t have a dog or a child. I’ve got a scoby! [Laughs] I was in Whole Foods in Cheltenham about three years ago, and I saw kombucha. I loved the taste, although I can’t recall the brand now. I loved pickling and making jams and stuff, so that had been my first foray into conserving foods, and when I started reading about kombucha I found it fascinating. I wondered whether I could make it at home for myself. My dad was into home-brewing, but I was always coming and going so I didn’t have enough time to look after or nurture a home-brew. Kombucha seemed like an easier thing to start with. I went on Amazon, bought a scoby, read up on it…

It’s weird. I don’t know why I got so fanatical about it or attached to it. It’s probably the same with you guys at Real Kombucha. There’s just something about it. When I was tasting it and experimenting with it, it became a labour of love. It’s just moved on from there, really. I was drinking my kombucha, and I was a bit annoyed because I wasn’t producing it quick enough – I was drinking it before my next batch had finished!

Yeah, I know that feeling… 

Haha! That’s just the start stage, isn’t it? I just got bigger vessels and started to do bigger batches. I always go away, so if I go and do a summer job I’ll leave it ticking over. I always bottle it and leave it in the fridge to drink, but I always enjoy over-fermenting it as well; leaving it to turn into vinegar, almost. That’s where I saw culinary potential in it. Once I’d had the vinegar, whenever I got back I’d pick wild garlic buds and infuse them, so I’d have a wild garlic kombucha vinegar. I’d add pine tips… I used that on the Critics Round on Masterchef: The Professionals, actually.

It’s just those layers of flavours that fascinate me. You don’t get that from a normal vinegar. Normal vinegars are pasteurised and monotonous. But kombucha… such interesting flavours! I started making gels and using them as ketchups and seasonings, and I still don’t think I’m even one percent into discovering the potential of kombucha.

You obviously know that our brew, Real Kombucha, is now being served in Heston Blumenthal’s Fat Duck, in Hai Cenato, in the Hix Restaurants, in the Pig Hotel… It seems to me that chefs at this kind of high-end gastronomic level are really starting to pick up on kombucha. Why do you think that’s suddenly happening? 

I think, first of all, it’s flavour. I think it’s partly that DIY philosophy. You look at the sourdough movement and everyone’s growing their own starters, and I think in restaurants and kitchens people are loving that idea. As I said before, it’s that labour of love aspect. I know of a lot of chefs that are now obtaining scobys and brewing their own kombucha.

From a service point of view in a restaurant, I think it’s true: people are looking for a more sophisticated non-alcoholic drink.

By the way, I tried Real Kombucha’s Royal Flush yesterday with my mum, and it’s the best kombucha I’ve ever had.

Ha! Thanks. 

Yeah! I was blown away. I love how it’s single-ferment as well – how it’s not fermented with some kind of fake flavour. You really do taste the ferments. Now, I do drink alcohol, but I want something that’s going to be mentally stimulating for when I don’t want to drink, and the options are very limited. That’s partly why I started brewing kombucha myself – so that I had something interesting to drink other than water. It has so much potential. It’s amazing.

There are incredible stats beginning to surface about the amount of young people not drinking these days. I often wonder if the decline in the pub trade has to do with that lack of choice. 

I think perhaps my generation is the last of that big drinking culture. Going out and trying to get served – that was massive, and I don’t know if that was because it felt daring or because we were simply bored, or perhaps because there wasn’t a choice that we actually wanted to drink. Even these days, whenever I go to a pub the only thing I’d buy that isn’t alcoholic is a pint of orange juice and lemonade, and that’s only because my dad used to have it. It’s down to tradition. There is no other decent option, and I think that’s where kombucha comes in.

So, how much are you brewing yourself these days? 

I only have a 20 litre fermentation bucket, but the scoby in there is massive! I calculated the age and weight of it. When I started off on day one, it was only about 100 grams. Now it’s at 600 days and it’s at five or six kilos!

Ah, the joys of admiring one’s own scoby! So, what’s the plan now then, post-Masterchef

It’s quite an exciting time for me. I have a few avenues I’m pursuing. With the Masterchef guys, we’ll be doing pop-ups together and ride the wave. I’ve received quite a lot of attention and interest. I’ve never had a busier month in my life!

I really believe in healthy food, and I think that people really are sitting up and paying attention. I was a little bit worried when Masterchef came out. I saw a couple of my dishes on the later episodes and I thought, “People aren’t going to get what I’m doing here. It’s going to go over their heads.” It has been completely the opposite. It seems to have resonated. People agree that this is the way we should be going. You still see chefs throwing lumps of butter into the pan and basting everything – that’s good, and it has its place, but I think people are looking for a healthier option now that tastes good.

So that’s the way I’m going at the moment. Rather than have a restaurant, I want to help the way that the UK eats. I’ve got quite big dreams! I don’t think you can change very much in a 30-seater country house hotel. I don’t really care about having a Michelin star. I’d rather have an effect on a wider audience.

Follow the ways in which Matt Campbell will change the way people eat by heading to www.chefmattcampbell.com. For more fermentation information, as well as other articles about kombucha and the way we think it’ll change the way people drink, take a look at our Real Kombucha blog

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