When Broadsheet reaches celebrated Melbourne chef Scott Pickett by phone on Tuesday, he’s just arrived back from a trip to Tegenungan Waterfall, about 30 minutes out of Ubud in Bali. Pickett is currently holidaying with his family – a rare break for one of the city’s busiest chefs. And he’s going to need it. In a little over a month his new Projects of Imagination-designed, woodfire-focused restaurant Matilda opens in South Yarra.
“There is no gas in the kitchen at all, so that makes us focus even more on the fire and what it can deliver,” says Pickett. “We’ll be cooking over different types of wood. Apple wood, cherry wood, we’re looking into different types of gums at the moment.”
Located opposite the Royal Botanic Gardens inside the soon-to-open boutique hotel United Places, Matilda is something of a break for Pickett, the man behind Collingwood’s Saint Crispin and Northcote’s ESP, a degustation-only restaurant next door to casual bistro Estelle. At Matilda, Pickett is abandoning the precision of his fine diner for the wild abandon of woodfired cooking.
“It’s been extremely exciting and has given us a new sense of freedom, in a sense. The menu development has been underway now for quite some time, and having a blank canvas to work with has been very inspiring,” he says. “There are no rules at Matilda aside from the fact I want everything to be fuckn’ tasty, simple, and somehow have a connection with the fire.”
Fire-focused cooking has been one of the dominant Australian food trends of the last couple of years, with Igni, Embla and Longsong just some of those doing it best in Victoria. But Pickett isn’t merely trend-jumping. The idea came to him in Argentina about six years ago at a close friend’s wedding.
“They had the grills and the fire pit, an asado with a whole suckling pig. There was just something special about cooking on charcoal and wood and flames,” he says. Matilda won’t have “much of the South American influence in terms of flavour profiles”, he adds, but has been inspired by “the taste that you can get by cooking over charcoal, open flame, a hint of smoke.” And it’s a flavour that’s impossible to replicate, he says, without the right set up.
For Pickett, that means a custom-built unit that includes a smoking box, woodfire oven, a Josper-style broiler, two fire pits and an eight-spit rotisserie.
“It’s a way to scale things back and focus on the core flavour of the ingredient.”
For now, it’s holiday time for Pickett, who despite interrupting the family vacation to speak to Broadsheet is clearly an adoring father. He has, after all, named Matilda after his daughter.
Matilda is due to open in late May on Domain Road, South Yarra.