Hugo Matheson

Hugo Matheson

© Laurie Smith Photography

F&W Star Chef

Experience: River Café (London)

Restaurants: The Kitchen (Denver)

Education: Leiths School of Food & Wine

Recipe you are most famous for?
Sticky toffee is one of the things that has not changed since day one. Most of the dinner menu items change on a regular basis. Tagliatelle with Bolognese sauce never comes off the menu.

What ingredients, techniques or trends are your current food obsessions?
To be quite honest, we generally try to stick with tradition. In a way, we haven’t really changed. We’ve looked at things like sous vide but ended up coming back to the basics. We’re excited about firepower.

Secret-weapon ingredient?
Fresh ingredients. We use an awful lot of fresh herbs and fresh dressings. Everything is olive oil—all the oils for everything is olive oil. We use a lot of lemons. Tarragon is a big herb. For herbs, we pretty much go through equal amounts of everything. Mint is one that we do use an awful lot.

What ingredient will people be talking about in five years?
I think the turning point is going to be fish. I’m really realizing that, as a nation and a world, we’re going to have to accept that farmed fish is really the only way forward, as the population grows. I always try to explain to people, “Imagine if we all tried to eat only wild meat.” At some point, it’s not going to balance the scale. I think it’s already tipped, to be honest with you. I don't know enough about it, but I think fish agriculture, farmed fish is going to be the ingredient that becomes the one.

Best new store-bought ingredient/product and why?
I try things on my kids occasionally. There’s a local company here called Evol Burritos—they’re pretty good. It’s “love” spelled backwards. They’re these all-natural frozen burritos. Some of them are organic. I think they’re pretty good.

It’s funny, it’s like we haven’t really changed items since we opened. I’ve always been one to try; I haven’t really seen any big trends. I do see trends, but I try to let them—like the sun-dried tomatoes or balsamic vinegar. Yes, we use balsamic vinegar, but it’s not the trend anymore. In most of our day-to-day cooking, I’ve pretty much stocked what I’ve always used. My shopping list is probably very, very limited, apart from variations within vegetables or something, depending on the seasons. At home, I always have olive oil, red wine vinegar, salt, pepper, very basic spices or herbs. I’ve always sort of believed that’s a fairly good way to cook.

What will we always find in your fridge?
Kale, eggs, cheese, milk. Everybody looks in my fridge and goes, “This is a New York fridge.” I could probably throw some ketchup and mustard in there.

What do you eat straight out of the fridge, standing up? What is your favorite snack?
I usually reach for nuts if I’m hungry—almonds and cashews. We have a big jar of them. That’s my immediate go-to when I’m hungry.

Other than that, if I’m cooking, I’ll probably make a pasta. My kids love pasta broccoli. It’s just pasta with broccoli and some Parmesan and garlic. Everything gets thrown in the same pot, cooked up and strained, and you throw in the cheese and the garlic. I throw it all in together. The idea is that it cooks down, then you stir it in the pan and the broccoli breaks down to make a sauce. I usually use orecchiette or penne. Then you put it in the strainer and you keep a bit of water. You put the pan back on the oven, add some olive oil, then you throw in the pasta and the broccoli and you stir it around, take it off the heat, stir in some Parmesan, salt and pepper.

It’s been one of my kids’ favorites since they were old enough to eat food. They’re 10 now, twin boys. They can actually cook some things themselves. For that dish, sometimes we’ll only have kale, so we throw kale in, or we only have carrots, so we’ll throw carrots in. The Italians, I always remember, I’m a bit more up their street in terms of how vegetables were cooked. I hate squeaky beans. I do like a bite if it’s just the vegetable. [For this dish], you’re creating a sauce with the vegetables, so the carrots will break down a bit and you still have some chunks.

Favorite cookbook of all time?
I used to work at the River Café in London, so that book is one. I still love Elizabeth David and the old books that take down memories. I think there’s a part of us that we look for the old ways.

Who is your food mentor? What is the most important thing you learned from him/her?
Probably where I really turned my mind was at the River Café with Rose Gray and Ruth Rogers. Really, the focus on quality of ingredients. I like to think I’ve taken something from them and used it. I’m not saying we’re the River Café, because we’re a very different market, but some of the beliefs and the philosophy—whether it’s a family meal or just buying quality ingredients and treating them properly.

What's the most important skill you need to be a great cook?
To start off, cooking eggs. That’s one of our things, for people, is to cook eggs. It was one of the first things at cookery school, cooking eggs. I start scrambled eggs at home in a pan. I crack the eggs in a cold pan, and I put in a knob of butter and some salt, and I put them over low heat and start stirring. You just crack the eggs; you don’t have to break them or whisk them. Some salt and butter, and you start stirring them over low heat. I like my eggs soft, the consistency of a risotto. Then I stop them when I take them off the heat by adding a knob of butter and a little splash of cream to stop the cooking. I hate overcooked, dry scrambled eggs.

One of my things at the restaurant is that I’d rather have them sent back because they’re undercooked, not overcooked. We give [new cooks] the egg test. One of the things they have to do is cook eggs. And learning how to grill a piece of meat; one of the number one challenges is everyone wants to put in their creativity. When you stop having a steak sent back because it’s not cooked properly, great. Then let’s talk. Once you’ve learned how to season that piece of steak, then let’s cook. Once you’ve learned how to cook vegetables in salty water that’s not too salty, once you can cook a dish for three months and it’s still consistent, then let’s start talking. Consistency is probably the biggest thing anybody can learn. Some people spend 10, 15 years learning a skill, just one basic skill. Patience, I think, is the one. Nowadays we all want to be running the show the day after we walk through the door.

Do you have any pre- or post-shift rituals?
I watch some of these guys; they always have an espresso. I actually don’t work on any of the lines anymore. We always have a meal after shift. That’s one thing we always try to encourage, that everybody sits down together and talks. But as far as doing a yoga pose or something, no.

What is your hidden talent besides cooking?
I have a degree in interior design. I work on the spaces. I’ve done my houses.