In July last year, we declared Collingwood brewery Molly Rose home to one of the best set menus in town. This was largely thanks to chef Ittichai “Biggy” Ngamtrairai, who was leading the kitchen at the time, making dishes like cuttlefish noodles with squid-ink mayo and Thai-style pork crackling dusted with katsuobushi (smoked, fermented and dried tuna).

Ngamtrairai has now returned to Scott Pickett’s Matilda, where he did a brief stint in the kitchen before the Molly Rose gig. This time Ngamtrairai, who has worked in the industry for almost 10 years and has spent the majority of his career making Italian food (most notably under Paolo Masciopinto at Sarti), is leading the charge as head chef.

We took five minutes to get to know Ngamtrairai and hear about his plans for the South Yarra staple.

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How did you get into the industry?
I have loved food since I was young. Not just eating food, but the stories behind it – the producers, the cultures. But growing up as the eldest son in a conservative Asian family, I didn’t have much choice in career other than becoming a doctor, engineer or lawyer. I ended up becoming an engineer.

During the time I was working, I always felt that it wasn’t the place for me, and I couldn’t imagine myself being happy in this career in 10 years’ time. So after one year as an engineer I decided to give it all up and started working in a restaurant in Thailand.

What has it been like returning to Matilda?
Pressure, in a good way!

What are you doing differently?
I want people to feel the warmth and care of the restaurant in a slightly more casual setting, so that they feel comfortable visiting any time, for any occasion.

How did your time working at Molly Rose influence what you’re able to bring to this new role?
At Molly Rose we produced a new beer every week, which made us very busy in the kitchen keeping up with matched food! It was important for the food and beer to balance, so we worked at an extremely fast pace to produce specials and new dishes every week and I honed my skills in working hard and fast.

We also had the chance to service our guests directly, so there was a lot of dialogue, which helped keep me in check with what the guests wanted from me as the chef. I bring that same attitude to Matilda, where I believe interacting with guests as much as possible makes my food better.

What is the kitchen set-up like at Matilda?
Grill, wood fire, a smoky smell, the noise of crackling as the wood burns – there’s nothing better than this! You can feel the warmth and see us use the fire to make magic for you.

What effect does the kitchen have on your creativity?
Actually, it’s not coming from me, it’s coming from the heart. The heart itself gives us the ideas. We just hear the ideas and adjust them to something tangible and delicious.

What dishes have you added to the menu that you’re most excited about?
I’m most excited about my new dry-aged pork chop. We already have an in-house dry-age program and facilities where we dry-age our duck, rib eye, club steak etc.

This time, I’m doing pork that we’ll age for 10 to 12 days then slowly cook on the grill before it’s glazed with a fish sauce and honey reduction, and served with pickled kohlrabi and a sorrel salad.

What ingredients are you excited about using in the next few months?
It’s mushroom season coming up soon and I’m most excited for them to go straight on the grill!