Matthew Young
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Kingdom of Cooks: Matthew Young of Mayfields, London

Andy Lynes - May 9th, 2014

RECIPE: Red Mullet, Mackerel, Grape Juice & Radish

A converted kebab house in East London is the surprising address of one of the most exciting new restaurants in the capital. There, 38 year old Matthew Young runs the culinary gamut from delicate and elegant to gutsy and robust with winning finesse. The daily changing menu of about a dozen small plates might include anything from a meaty plate of duck hearts with salsa verde to a limpid Japanese-influenced smoked eel broth with asparagus and egg.

Opened in spring 2013 as a joint venture between Claire Robertson, famed for her supper club pop-up events in Hackney and Borough Wines, the Borough Market–based retail and wholesale wine merchant, which also owns L’Entropot restaurant in Hackney, has enjoyed rave reviews from the Metro and Observer newspapers that have helped to keep Mayfields's 30 seats permanently filled. The simple interior with its bentwood chairs and Formica-topped tables, is enlivened by a pine feature wall with architectural-salvage lighting and a partially open, tiny kitchen where Young works with the help of just one other chef.

“When it’s really busy, we have had three chefs, but it’s too many. It’s just a hard space to work. It’s quite tricky, but we can push the menu so it works for two people,” says Young. “We make the menus shorter, or some of the dishes will be slightly simpler to make. But I’ve been in a lot of kitchens that have their own limitations, their own issues.”

And Young, who went to art school and had aspirations to be a painter, has certainly packed a lot into a professional cooking career that began just seven years ago. “I had no interest in food whatsoever, but I got introduced to oysters when I was 22 and it completely flipped over my thought process. After that, I was a passionate home cook. Then I had a 'hobby' job at Neal's Yard Dairy in Borough Market for four years that set me in good stead, even though I wanted to get back into making artwork, which was my plan.”

Young landed his first chef position with one of Neal's Yard's customers, the acclaimed London gastropub The Anchor and Hope in Waterloo, where St John alumni Jonathan Jones is famous for robust British and European dishes like crab on toast, coarse country terrine and slow-cooked lamb neck with gratin dauphinois.

“I was cooking offaly things at home, but when I stepped into a professional kitchen, I realised I didn’t even know how to boil an egg. We were doing 150 to 180 covers a night. I just had to learn pretty quickly, so that was quite an interesting journey. It took me two and a half years to really click and understand how to work on their terms. After that, I was just filling in the dots.”

After four years, Young was keen to spread his wings and embarked on a number of stages, beginning with the famed River Café in Hammersmith. “I found it very much like a kitchen of the gods. Coming from the Anchor and Hope, which was blood and guts everywhere—it’s quite a messy kitchen to some extent—and then you walk into that place, which is spotless—beautiful ovens, beautiful chef's whites, everyone looks very healthy—it’s quite interesting!”

Although Young admits he felt nervous about walking into new kitchens, that didn’t stop him from crossing the Atlantic and spending time in several high profile New York City restaurants. “Michael Anthony at Gramercy Tavern is a very nice guy, and the whole place was very professional. They’ve got so many staff there it’s just insane. I was there, a week and a half, and the worst day that I spent was with the poor old guy doing the vacuum packing. Literally, that was his job from seven in the morning until eleven at night. It was horrible. I thought, ‘This is not cooking.’ That was a massive eye-opener. Those operations are run so efficiently, but they’re lacking a bit of soul.”

Young found more inspiration in the kitchens of Il Buco, at the time run by Ignacio Mattos, now of Estela. “He’s quite a passionate, crazy guy. The food at Il Buco was kind of homely Italian fare, but it was stuff that I really enjoyed. I was really interested, and really into making pasta at the time, and I just wanted to get a bit more insider knowledge into that. What he’s doing now at Estela is not dissimilar to what we do here.”

Back in London, Young passed through the kitchens of Rochelle Canteen (partly owned by Margot Henderson, wife of Fergus Henderson) and Magdalen in South London before spending a year at Dock Kitchen with former River Café chef Stevie Parle, known for his global approach to cooking.

“I went for a job just as chef de partie, but I ended up getting a sous chef job. His cooking was quite opposite to mine. Because he had come from that River Café thought process and I had come from more of a St John thought process, it took me a bit longer to get my head around it, so that was a massive responsibility to take on board. I didn’t really know what he was talking about half the time. The best thing about working there is that I got introduced to understanding spicing and ingredients, where previously I”d focused on meats and offal.”

Young landed his first head chef’s position in 2012 at the now-closed Wapping Food at the landmark Wapping Project, a converted hydraulic power station in East London. In her review for the Guardian, the restaurant critic described dishes such as palourde clams, octopus, and n’duja and duck “two ways” with crisp confit leg and roasted breast with carrot and hazelnut puree as “exhilarating”.

“I was there about a year. I felt I had done everything I could there. They were more than happy with what I was doing, but there was a slight wrestle in terms of what I wanted to achieve and what they wanted to achieve. There was a fair bit of events catering, and I didn’t really want to be involved with that.”

Young was appointed head chef of Mayfields in early 2013 after cooking for a Borough Wines launch party at the request of the company’s directors, Muriel Chatel and Corinna Pyke. “I had one day to prepare before we actually opened, which was quite scary. I just want to get to the point where I feel super comfortable and confident with the menu every day. We are definitely getting there. Every day is like a work in progress.”

The spatial limitations of the Mayfields kitchen means that things like homemade bread and pasta are off the menu, but working with such a small team does play to Young's spontaneous side. “I do actually end up deciding on the menu about half an hour before service sometimes. I keep the menu wording very simple and not even describe how anything has been cooked, which allows you to change the method of cooking during service if you’re not entirely happy with it.”

One mainstay since opening has been a steamed fillet of lemon sole with a citrus butter made with orange and grapefruit; daikon pickled in Japanese rice vinegar, sugar, and water; a quenelle of lumpfish roe; and a dusting of licorice powder. “It’s my simplest dish, but also the nicest, and it ticks a lot of boxes for me. I like fish. It bores me to use too much meat. I focus on the slightly lighter stuff. I try not to use too much cream and dairy.”

Although Young says he doesn’t necessarily consider himself part of a movement (Hackney is arguably home to London’s most dynamic and interesting restaurant scene), he does feel he’s helping to move things forward. “The St. John–style of cooking has gone everywhere in London, and I think a lot of people just wanted something else. I certainly did. Something a bit more challenging, or at least that’s not the same as a lot of establishments. There is a lot more freedom these days, and people are taking more risks, definitely.”

Despite his achievements, Young recognizes he’s not the finished product. “I try to push forward all the time in terms of what I am achieving. It’s about developing a language and when you get that language going properly it’s just so easy. I’m still on a journey of knowing exactly what I want. I think that’s what I am doing right now.”