Until moving to Texas in May, Matthew Gray had spent pretty much his whole life in Scotland. Born in the town of Elderslie, just west of Glasgow, he has spent his professional life working in that country’s fine-dining hotels, including his recent position as executive chef of Inverlochy Castle in Torlundy, where he was awarded a Michelin star.
While working at that hotel, which Travel + Leisure magazine declared the best hotel in Europe in 2006, he did several dinners with renowned French chef Albert Roux, who opened Le Gavroche with his brother Michel in London in 1967.
Roux approached Gray about heading up the kitchen at Chez Roux, his new venture at the recently opened La Torretta Del Lago Resort & Spa in Montgomery, Texas, about an hour’s drive north of downtown Houston.
Why did you study hospitality management before becoming a chef?
Igot two years into the course and felt I didn’t really want to be a manager, but it was a case of: “You started it; let’s finish it.” In college I spent time working in kitchens and decided that’s where I wanted to be. When you’re working in the kitchen, it’s the camaraderie with the guys that I like. It’s a hard environment to be in, but it’s a good environment to be in as well.
How did you get into fine dining?
People find the niche where they want to be, whether it’s at the top end or not. Some people really enjoy doing 200 or 300 covers a night and turning out food really quickly. And some people like more responsibility. For my first fine-dining job I was in a country house hotel east of Edinburgh called Greywalls. I’d done a six-month stage there when I was in college, and the chef asked me to come back.
How did you meet Albert Roux?
When I first started cooking I had been a stagiare at Gavroche, and at Inverlochy I did a number of gala dinners with chef Roux. So when he approached me and asked me to head up Chez Roux at the resort, it was a great compliment, and it’s a new challenge for me as well. I’m happy to take it on.
What are your impressions of your new home?
Ijust got here. I’m still finding my feet. We’re part of a larger resort, so even though we’re the fine-dining restaurant we still have to be part of the whole team. It’s fantastic to come to a kitchen that’s brand new and fully built. I’ve inherited the team that’s in place at the moment and they’re all great guys, so the initial impression is very good. I need to take a driving test. That’s something I need to take care of fairly quickly.
Did you drive in Scotland?
Yes, but on the other side of the road and such.
How would you describe the food you made in Scotland?
All [Western fine-dining] food has got the building blocks of French cuisine, but it was British food in my own style. We’d try to embrace the new trends, but only if they were appropriate to what we were trying to do. I’m not into a lot of the scientific stuff.
One of the popular dishes was Scottish blue lobster with a nice cauliflower salad and a yogurt beignet — just a wee yogurt fritter with a French vinaigrette emulsified with crème fraîche.
We would hang the yogurt to dry it out, coat it in a little bit of breadcrumbs, season it with salt, pepper and a wee bit of Tabasco. It works very well with the cauliflower and lobster.
It’s something that came to me in the middle of the night, really. I think I read about someone deep-frying yogurt.
Ithought about it a bit and that was the dish we came up with. It was a nice summer dish. The beignet adds a certain brightness to it, and it’s a different element.
When you were growing up did you have an idea of what you wanted to be?
My father was in charge of the kitchen at the Glasgow airport, and I’d always been involved in the kitchen with him, getting a feel for it in a way.
But my father died of cancer at a young age, and my mother blamed the industry for it. As I grew up and went to high school, I thought [foodservice] was the direction I wanted to go, but my mother didn’t. I procrastinated for a while after graduation [from high school] and the management side seemed like a way to go.
But when push came to shove, I had to do what I had to do. I don’t think my mother was particularly happy about it, but you’ve got to go with your heart.
Idid feel it was great to have a qualification, and once you start something you may as well finish it. But I must say after three years I was ready to get away from it, as you can imagine.
Has your degree served any purpose?
It gives you an idea of running a kitchen and keeping an eye on the revenue and the costs. In that respect I think it was invaluable.
I’m a great believer in communication and teamwork and having the guys contribute to what we do. When you have good guys working for you, why not take advantage of their ideas as well as your own? I think a lot of chefs don’t communicate with their staff. They have an idea in their heads, but they don’t really explain it.
Do you have an idea how long you’re going to stay in Houston?
My work visa is two-and-a-half years. At the end of that time we’ll see what happens.
You’ve lived your whole life in Scotland. Have you traveled much?
Iwent to a friend’s wedding in Australia, but when you enter in the hospitality industry it’s all-encompassing. It does clip your wings a bit. I don’t work quite as hard at looking after myself, and it’s possible that my personal life suffers from that.
Iused to take a couple of days off, and my number one man would be in charge, but I’d always be thinking about what might be happening in the kitchen. It’s hard to turn that off sometimes.