IT’S almost midnight in Greenbelt, Washington DC and Echuca chef Matthew Butcher is collapsing into a chair.
He’s just opened a restaurant.
Named Tugwells after the city’s founder, it’s the sixth restaurant he’s unveiled in the past three years.
And there are six more set to open their doors before Christmas Day.
It’s just the next step in a whirlwind 13-year career that has already seen Matthew work alongside chef royalty Gordon Ramsay, Shannon Bennett and Ryan Clift.
Only now it’s his name on the door that’s drawing the cre`me de la cre`me of diners into his rapidly expanding empire of restaurants across the globe.
Looking around at the now-empty tables, Matthew admits America’s capital is a far cry from the pub kitchens of his apprentice chef days in Echuca.
“Funnily enough though, one of my friends from Echuca Secondary College came to the restaurant opening tonight,” he said.
“She was the old school captain and lives here now with her partner.
“How funny is it I’m sitting here in this new restaurant talking about my growing up years. It’s a long time ago now.”
While he looks back on the twin towns as the major launching pad for his career, Matthew’s story began 350km away in the tiny south-west Victorian town of Penshurst.
Where his love affair with food began as a child behind the counter of his parents’ takeaway food shop.
“Watching my parents cook was pivotal to me becoming a chef,” he said.
“My dad was known for making the best pizzas in the district. And my mum, who I get my work ethic from, taught me how to make her famous roast and nanna’s chicken soup.
“Those were my first dishes. And they’re the three dishes I think about to this day.”
At 14, Matthew moved to Echuca with his family and soon scored his first job as a waiter at now-closed Mexican joint Taco Bill.
But it wasn’t long before he traded his waiter’s apron for chef’s trousers.
“Within three months I was working four or five nights a week practically running the kitchen,” Matthew said.
After a one-month study stint following graduation, Matthew returned to Echuca to kick off his cooking apprenticeship at the Border Inn.
In his third year he took a bold step that would officially launch his career.
“Mum and dad never understood why I worked so much,” he said.
“So I decided to take my mum down to Melbourne, to Vue de Monde, which was the number one restaurant in Australia at the time.”
While he and his mother ate, Matthew scribbled a letter to the restaurant’s head chef, world-famous Shannon Bennett.
“I said how much he inspires me and that one day I would work for him,” Matthew said.
“Within half an hour he was at my table talking to me and my mother. He then invited me to come back the next week for an interview.”
It’s the stuff chef’s dreams are made of and two weeks later, Matthew had his first shift.
A self-professed “arrogant little chef” at the time, he spent the night before burning the candle at both ends and didn’t get home until 4am.
“I rolled up to work four hours later and there were 21 chefs in the kitchen as opposed to the Border Inn’s four and I thought whoa, this is a bit different,” he said.
“Within an hour I was out in the alleyway, not very well, then went back inside and worked all day until 1am.”
While he admits it wasn’t the most auspicious start, Matthew soon proved his mettle and was given the job.
For the next three years the Vue de Monde kitchen would be his home – a high-pressure world of endless hours, sleepless nights and near crushing stress.
“That first year I spent every night calling my dad crying,” he said.
“It was all just too hard. But he inspired me to keep going and keep envisioning where I’d be in 10 years’ time.”
His hard work paid off.
Now he had worked with Shannon Bennett, Matthew had access to the exclusive world of high profile chefs.
After three years at Vue de Monde he moved to Singapore to work at Tippling Club under Ryan Clift.
Who would eventually guide Matthew to his next dream job – working with Gordon Ramsay.
“I flew to New York and Ryan (Clift) told me to go to Gordon’s restaurant and see what happened,” he recalled.
Talk about star struck – a star bad-boy chef and the ultimate three Michelin stars.
For a boy from Down Under.
And not from Melbourne or Sydney, just little old Echuca.
It would be the dream job but so far out of reach, probably beyond his wildest dreams.
Although he would be pretty wild with himself almost immediately; fronting for his opening night in the big leagues minus his chef’s shoes.
“I was wearing my pink Reeboks which I’d just bought at Macy’s,” he laughed.
“I had no other option so I just rolled into the kitchen and was told to jump on the pastry.”
Ten minutes later, he heard a voice over his shoulder he’ll never forget.
“Someone came up behind me and said, ‘What’s them f****n’ shoes you’re wearing?’” Matthew said.
“I turned around and it was Ramsay. I said, ‘I’m sorry, I’ve left my shoes’. And he just said, ‘Get the f**k out of my kitchen’.”
But his spirit wasn’t crushed yet and the next day he returned with a new pair of chef’s shoes.
And hasn’t looked back since.
It wasn’t long before Matthew was in Gordon’s good books and invited back to Melbourne to open a restaurant, Gordon Ramsay’s Maze, for the celebrity chef.
Two years later he returned to the US to work with Gordon in LA, New York and Las Vegas, opening three more restaurants.
Before heading to the small screen to help out with a season of Kitchen Nightmares.
“I rolled into the first place in Long Beach, California and I tell you what, it was an eye-opener,” he said.
“We’d go in and look at the kitchens and have a taste of the food. Three days later Gordon would roll in and we’d give him info on what the disaster was.’’
Which, according to Matthew, was basically everything.
“I’ve seen mouldy salt. I don’t even know how that happens,” he said.
“I’ve seen chicken stored in the pantry, not in the fridge.”
Throughout those years under Gordon’s tutelage, Matthew said the chef didn’t just teach him how to cook – but also how to run a flourishing restaurant empire.
“I’ve always had this big dream of running a hospitality group like I do now. I wouldn’t be in the position I am now without his guidance,” he said.
At 28, Matthew moved back to Melbourne to finally see this dream become a reality.
In the five years since, he’s recreated Melbourne restaurant and cocktail bar Morris Jones, opened Mr and Mrs P in Brighton and moved into the Salter Brothers group where he is now director of restaurants for their hotels across Australia and the US.
Meaning life is currently “very busy but very fun” for the young chef. Reflecting on his trajectory from Echuca waiter to restaurateur, Matthew said the dream never seemed too big.
“Dreams are what you make of them. I had a dream to work for Shannon Bennett and it came true. I had a dream to then work for Gordon Ramsay and I worked my ass off to get there,” he said.
“Some dreams don’t come true but that doesn’t mean you can’t keep dreaming.”
Matthew said his close-knit family, still largely based in Echuca, has played a vital role in getting him to where he is today.
Particularly when it came to his mental health.
“Kitchens are high pressure places – thankfully not as much as what they used to be. There’s a lot more heat on most big chefs with pay rates and not working people to the bone,” he said.
“Myself, I’ve learnt a lot about mental health over the past five years, especially after working for Gordon.
“Being a chef and being stuck in a high pressure environment every single day – a lot of chefs have committed suicide or are struggling with depression or alcoholism.
“And I’m one of them. I mean, I’m not a druggo and I don’t drink alcohol, I’m a bit of an odd one out – but I’ve definitely had mental health struggles over time and in the past two years I’ve learnt how to deal with it a lot better, which has actually made me a better leader.”
Now he endeavours to build a culture in his kitchens where everyone – from head chefs to servers – feels empowered and inspired.
At 34-years-old and with nine restaurants under his belt, it’s an attitude that has clearly paid off.
“Even today, opening a restaurant in Washington, we sat down for an hour afterwards and spoke about the good, the bad and how we can get better,” he said.
“Back in the day it would just be cook and do your thing and no one would sit down and talk. But one person’s not going to get you anywhere. It’s who you bring for the ride.’’
Matthew will return to his roots on Friday, September 13 as ‘‘guest chef’’ at Junction Moama’s latest Chef Takeover.
The gastronomical evening will feature three canapes and a six-course tasting menu.
Held in conjunction with Echuca’s Blue Ribbon Foundation, the event will raise funds for vital equipment to support ERH’s emergency department and short stay units.
While the menu is still in the works, Matthew said it would be largely inspired by his years living and working in Echuca-Moama.
“I’ll do a Froot Loops and corn pre-dessert which is based on when I used to eat Froot Loops at the Border Inn for breakfast every day,” he said.
“I’m also doing caramel-glazed short rib tacos with tortillas – basically a take on the beef tacos I used to make at Taco Bill.
“I’m pumped for it – I’ve got a few surprises for people on the night. A lot of my stuff is childish and kiddish, I like to keep people entertained.”
Chef Takeover will run from 6pm to 11pm.
For more information and to book tickets visit tickets.myguestlist.com.au/v25d4cb05ae4320/ chef-takeover-matthew-butcher-with-a-blueribbon-twist/evs5d4cb05ae9d9d/