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FROM AUSTRALIA TO LES 2 ALPES, WHO IS MICHELIN-STARRED CHEF MATHEW HEGARTY?

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Mathew is the very talented Michelin-starred chef at Chalet Mounier in Les 2 Alpes, and also the Top Chef contestant who handed back his apron in the latest episode. In our humble opinion, that was a decision that the judges will soon regret… and for a long time to come. But, fine, selfishly, we’re prepared to say that it’s not all bad news because to our great delight, he’s now back home where his talent is truly appreciated!

We met Mathew once before so that he could tell us all about his adventures on Top Chef.
But what we’d like to find out today is who Mathew really is and how he became a Michelin-starred chef at the heart of our magnificent, majestic, snow-covered Alpine summits, when he originally came from the paradisiacal, hot, blazing island of Australia.
Here we go then, over to Mathew and me! :)

Mathew Hegarty ski Amandine LRX 7

 

- Amandine: Hello Mathew, where in Australia are you from? How old are you?
- Mathew: I grew up an hour outside of Sydney, in a small town about the size of Grenoble, at the foot of the Blue Mountains. I’m 30 years old.

- A: What inspired you to get into cooking? Was it a childhood dream?
- M: My brother! I really look up to him and admire him a lot. I didn’t originally plan to be a chef; I studied fine art. I even applied to Disney a few times to become an artist there but they didn’t want me (laughs). One day when I was 13, my brother who was working in a good restaurant asked me to come and work with him, just to help out at weekends doing the washing up. I did a few other bits and pieces in the kitchen and then started working as a commis chef.
- A: And is that when you said to yourself, “I love this, I want to do it for the rest of my life”?
- M: No, to begin with it was more just a way to spend time with my brother. I loved being able to hang out with him every weekend. Generally in Australia, we’re rubbish at cooking. We don’t spend long around the dinner table and we eat pretty badly. For example, my father (who I love more than anything - sorry Dad) doesn’t even know how to boil an egg… It’s a total disaster. So little by little I developed a taste for learning that side of things. It was a fantastic discovery for me. Eventually, I did a 4-year apprenticeship after my fine art studies, so I could take it up professionally.
- A: Does your brother still cook?
- M: No, not any more.
- A: Ah okay, is he an artist now then? ;)
- M: (laughs) No, he’s in the military. He wanted to serve his country, like our dad.

- A: Has your artistic side been an inspiration for your cooking?
- M: It’s helped me loads. Without wanting to sound pretentious, you can’t really learn art, it’s something that’s just inside you… or it isn’t. It’s helped me with presentation but not only that. Instead of expressing myself on a canvas, I express myself through my food - the medium is different but it’s still an artistic representation.

- A: How did you end up so far from home, living in France?
- M: I won a scholarship in the final year of my apprenticeship. I came to France because of a friend who was working here for Yannick Delpech, the 2 Michelin-starred chef in Toulouse. He offered me a position so I packed my suitcase and just went for it.
- A: Straight to a chef with 2 Michelin stars. You didn’t find that too hard?
- M: Yes! It was hard! Especially because in the last year of my apprenticeship I’d worked on pastry so I lacked kitchen experience. It was hell…
Shall I tell you about my 1st day? In Australia I used to work 8-hour days. On my 1st day at Yannick Delpech’s restaurant in Toulouse, I got there at 7am. I didn’t speak a word of French. At 4pm we stopped so I said goodbye. Everyone replied “à ce soir” so I asked my friend what “à ce soir” meant and he told me it meant “see you tonight.” I asked him if it was a joke and he said “no, we start again in an hour for the evening service.” I just fell apart! (laughs). It was so hard for me! I didn’t understand anything; I was completely lost. And then… after 2 months he offered me the chance to stay on as chef de partie. I stayed for a year and a half.

- A: It was hard but you came out of it allright in the end… What was your next step?
- M: I did seasonal work to travel around France. Corsica, Brittany, Evian, Haute Savoie, where I saw snow for the very 1st time, it was magical!
Then I came to Les 2 Alpes, just for 1 season to start with. When the former chef at the P’tit Polyte (the Chalet Mounier restaurant where Mathew currently works) told me he was leaving… My brain went into overdrive. I found life so magical here in Les 2 Alpes. And even more so at Chalet Mounier! Working in this establishment is a dream come true! The atmosphere, the world, being part of this team is incredible; they’re like a family to me. So… I was supposed to go back to Australia or go to Canada but I told myself: no, I can’t do it - I have to stay here.

Ptit Polyte Amandine LRX 2

 

Ptit Polyte Amandine LRX 1

 

- A: You made the right choice… Congratulations on your Michelin star! What does it mean to you?
M: Thank you! But it’s not just my star - it’s ours! It was a team effort.
The star is extremely important to me; it’s a childhood dream. I started cooking at the age of 13, I still have the old magazines where I read about Michelin-starred chefs of the time and I never would have thought it was possible that one day it would be my turn. That happened here and it means so much to me. The team doesn’t cook in order to get Michelin stars; we cook because of our passion for food. But it’s a wonderful recognition. So many chefs wrote me little messages when I was awarded my star; I really cherish my little book containing all their notes, including one from Paul Bocuse - that was sheer class.

Ptit Polyte Amandine LRX 3

 

- A: What produce do you really enjoy working with?
- M: I really love working with fish. And the more I do it, the more I love working with plants. Not for vegans, sorry I’m not really into that kind of diet. But I love the pure taste of herbs, leaves, vegetables… For example this winter we tried out a new entrée: beetroot roasted over charcoal for 12 hours, the taste is just magical! We found an exceptional, unique flavour with a simple beetroot. I’m not really a fan of fine, expensive ingredients, I find all that a bit pretentious. I prefer the simple things. For example at the beginning of spring you can eat young pine needles raw, they’re so good. You can even eat baby fir cones, when they’re the size of a fingernail, before they become bark. They’re so good!
Yes, yes, you really can! (I think he could see from my expression that I was a bit sceptical).
Trust me! I’ll make you try them; I’ll invite you for a meal one day when I go foraging for them in spring.
- A: Okay, I trust you, if you say you like it…
- M: Ah but I have a real thing about pine trees! At the moment in the restaurant we serve a pine tree bouillon with foie gras fried with buckwheat. It’s absolutely exceptional. I swear.
- A: Where does your love of elevating “simple” produce come from?
- M: I think that’s really down to the TV show Top Chef. They taught me to seek out flavours and tastes from simple beginnings.

- A: Here’s a more personal question: your style is very individual for a Michelin-starred Chef who’s worked with some of the best, and…
- M: Hmmm I’ll stop you there, is that a compliment or are you about to say that I don’t look anything like them?
- A: No, not at all, I wouldn’t dare say that! But it’s just that you don’t quite have the typical image of a Michelin-starred Chef. That conjures up someone more serious with a style that matches. I suppose I’m saying that you don’t come across as serious… (yes, I’m struggling and digging myself deeper in, but he looks at me without saying anything… I’m not going to say how awkward it was).
- M: No, I understand, I just wanted to make you feel uncomfortable…
- A: (laughs) And you managed that allright…
- M: It’s not actually a criticism. In France when you say ‘Michelin-starred Chef’ you still have a picture in your head of a traditional chef, dressed completely in white, clean-shaven, with a huge chef’s hat on their head.
- A: A bit like Bocuse, sort of.
- M: Exactly. But today the mentality is changing. There are a lot of Michelin-starred Chefs under the age of 30. We have our own style and want to keep being ourselves. I’m not the only one. It’s important for me to stay who I am because I express myself through my food, it’s an expression of my personality, that’s what makes it unique.
Of course, on the set of Top Chef there was a bit of talk, about tattoos for instance. It wasn’t a problem for Michel Sarran, who has some tattoos of his own, but Philippe Etchebest told me that he thought it was “disgusting”… He’s still a bit old school, right! (laughs).
Obviously, there are limits, if someone turns up to my kitchen wearing torn clothes or with questionable hygiene, I send them straight home!

- A: When I told my colleagues about this interview, they tried to predict the sort of thing you enjoy doing, just by the vibe you give off. I should say that at that time, we had seen you in this series of Top Chef but we didn’t know you personally. And we know that the version of you we saw on TV wasn’t necessarily representative of who you really are. Therefore, we might be completely off the mark. Here’s what we came up with: you like rock, Harley Davidsons and classical music.
- M: Yes that’s true; I love Harleys. My dad is a biker, but a nice biker. He has a big heart - he’s part of an association that’s very well-known around the world that protects children against violence. I’d love one day to own a Harley, like him. Music-wise, yes I love rock! If you open the door to my kitchen right now, that’s what you’ll hear. And err, classical music (I can see from his expression that he’s baffled)… Why?? (laughs).
- A: You cook to music? What gave you the idea to do that?
- M: Yes, for the 3 years that I’ve been Head Chef there’s been music in my kitchen. One day I put some rock on to put my team at ease… And it worked a charm! It creates a good atmosphere, everyone relaxes and it also gives a bit of rhythm to your work! It should be said that I’m the one who chooses what we listen to; nobody touches the music apart from me! (laughs). And I obviously turn it off during service because we’re talking to each other so much.

 cuisine Amandine LRX

 

- A: My other colleague thought that you’d love Japanese culture and manga.
- M: Exactly right! In Australia we have a huge amount of Asiatic influence, especially in Sydney. I’ve travelled around a lot and the country I really dug was Japan. I love their culture and personality. They’re really respectful towards nature, produce and people… It changed my life! Most of my tattoos are Japanese-inspired too. But then, on the other hand, I wasn’t allowed to go into the Onsens and the Sentô (Japanese steam baths) because tattoos are really frowned upon in Japan, people are scared of them because they’re often linked with the mafia and the criminal world. It was also tricky in the Ryokans (traditional Japanese accommodation) because I had to hide my tattoos. But my trip was incredible! I’ve not been the same since.
And yes, I also love cartoons -not so much manga, but cartoons and superhero comics were my whole world as a child, they’re magical!
- A: What’s your favourite cartoon?
- M: Toy Story, I’m a massive fan! (He says with a huge smile and shining eyes, a true big kid) I wanted to be a cartoonist so I feel really fondly towards that whole world.
- A: Do you still draw today?
- M: Yes, I’m always drawing. Not that long ago I started doing graffiti. For example, I did graffiti on the walls of the kitchen stairwell. Monsieur Mounier (Chalet Mounier owner and manager) bought me the spray cans.

graff Amandine LRX 1

 

- A: Last question: do you plan to stay in Les 2 Alpes? Or are you thinking of moving to a different town or country?
- M: I’m not going anywhere, I’m too happy here! If I left now, I’d always have the sense of something being unfinished. It’s as if I’d be ending an adventure without having experienced the end of the story. I’m not ready to close this chapter.

- A: Cool, we’ll have to come and try your food then!
- M: You must! My pleasure.

Mathew Hegarty ski Amandine LRX 1

As luck would have it… A few days later we met up again to make a video about his life in Les 2 Alpes… which you will be able to see very soon!

For the video we accompanied Mathew around his kitchen, out skiing… and we were lucky enough to try some of his team’s dishes. They were… how should I put it… exquisite sensations, filled with pleasure that made you go “Mmmm, Ooooh, Aaaahhh, yummm, olalala” :)
You’ll soon be able to see it all on video!

 

 Interview, text and photos: Amandine Le Roux

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