Your restaurant recently celebrated its first birthday. What's the first year been like? Pretty tough – this is my first time owning a restaurant. It’s been really fun but an eye-opener. You think you know it all until you get thrown in the deep end. How did it get so popular so quickly? Social media. Plus, everyone knows 121BC, Vini and Berta [whose owner, Andrew Cibe, is a silent partner of Ester] and where I’ve worked [Billy Kwong and Rockpool]. Word of mouth spread.
As Ester's is a seasonal menu, do you visit your own supplier farms? I’d really love to do that more than I do. We’ve got Phil Lavers [a biodynamic farmer from Moonacre Farms, NSW]; we’ve been out to his farm and looked around, dug up a few things. He’s the only farmer right now with whom we have a direct relationship. We’ve got customers who bring us herbs from their garden – it’s really nice. What's your food philosophy? Simplicity, for sure. Find good ingredients and let them do the work. It's also about our wood-fired oven. Basically, I wanted everything to come out of that somehow. Is it true you’d never do a pizza in it? Yeah, pretty much. When we opened, everyone was saying, “So what pizzas are you doing?” We even had someone walk in the door, read the menu, see something like "duck, pistachio and pear" and ask, “On a pizza?” So I've been rebelling against that. Basically, anything else goes? Watermelon didn’t taste very good.
The roasted cauliflower is your big seller. Is it true you tried to take it off the menu? Over summer, I didn’t want to serve it. I made the excuse that cauliflower wasn’t in season, which is hard to say in Australia because from north to south, some things are in season all year. But I took it off the menu. How long before people complained? Two weeks. I had to put it back because everyone was asking for it. One table came in for lunch, looked at the menu, saw it wasn’t there and then left. Sometimes you gotta give the people what they want.
Do you develop recipes on site? Yeah, usually on the fly as well. We have a small team, which is good and bad, so I don’t get a lot of time to hang out and play around. Usually, it’s during service that something changes all of a sudden, and we just keep serving it for the rest of the night. What's your go-to after work snack? That’s the biggest frustration in our house [Mat's partner is also a chef] because there’s never anything at home. We’ve got a fridge full of condiments and nothing else.
Tell us about your World Series dinners. Each month, on Wednesday nights, we’re taking traditional dishes from one country and doing it our way. It’s a set menu of four courses for $55 per head, which is pretty good value. We’ll pull the next country out of the hat for the following month. It's something a bit more fun, which gives us the opportunity to learn new things.
What's the best food compliment you've received? A couple from San Francisco said ours was the best bread they’ve ever had.
Head to Ester in Sydney's Chippedale for a taste of Mat's menu.
Ester is now open on Sundays, midday-6pm.