Philli Armitage-Mattin might be a chef by trade and a finalist on MasterChef: The Professionals in 2020, but she admits her palate isn’t as refined as you might think.
“I love sweets and comforting flavours,” she says, with a laugh. “So basic – I’m all about sweetness. I love everything that’s bad for you, which is probably not good. But I also love umami and I love spice as well.”
The 30-year-old might say her palate is on the basic side, but that doesn’t mean she doesn’t know her stuff in the kitchen. “I studied a master’s in chemistry, and my physics professor was actually the guy who works with Heston [Blumenthal],” she explains, which sparked her love of the science of food. After working for Gordon Ramsay Restaurants, Armitage-Mattin left to become a development chef – “learning about food and science on a molecular level”, she says.
If it all sounds a bit serious, Armitage-Mattin certainly isn’t – she can’t stop giggling as we discuss her debut cookbook, Taste Kitchen: Asia.
When writing the book, Armitage-Mattin delved deep into the psychology of food – and she now wants home cooks to start using all their senses. “For example, when you’re cooking and you’re listening to the bacon sizzling and you can hear the water evaporating, and then the water is gone and you can hear it change noise. You can hear it burning – you can also smell it and see it burning. You should be using all your sense to cook, not just your eyes.”
And when it comes to the psychology of food, for Armitage-Mattin, dishes are inextricably linked to memories. She remembers a ramen dish she ate in Japan, saying: “It was the most delicious ramen in the world, it almost made me cry. I’ve used that recipe, and it’s inspired the recipe for ramen in the book.”
Armitage-Mattin’s trip to Japan was a huge turning point for her. “I was working at Gordon Ramsay’s [in London at the time]- that was where I got introduced to Asian flavours,” she says. “So that was when I was first introduced to miso and different umami flavours, which really heightened my cooking and my flavour palate.
“Then I bought a one-way ticket to Japan, and worked in different restaurants all across Asia. That’s where I really grew my love of Asian ingredients and cooking” – and is why her first cookbook is dedicated to these cuisines.
Armitage-Mattin wants to help “home cooks incorporate Asian ingredients in their everyday cooking”, she says, and has simplified recipes so “you don’t have to use hard to find, hard to source ingredients. You can go to your supermarket and you can actually find the ingredients, which I think is a lot more sustainable and easy – like all of the specific Vietnamese or Thai herbs that are flown in, I don’t want to add to the carbon footprint.”
Recipes in the book are inspired by everywhere from Hong Kong to South Korea, but what is the one cuisine Armitage-Mattin couldn’t live without? “I love Northern Chinese food,” she says. “There’s a recipe in the book, it’s like Chinese spiced lamb, Sichuan lamb chops – they’re amazing. I ate these lamb kebabs in Xi’an, they were lamb kebabs with Sichuan pepper, cumin and chilli. It’s Uyghur food, so really intense Muslim-Chinese food, which is probably my favourite food in the world. I absolutely fell in love with the people, the buzz of the city, the food and the culture. So I’ve taken those flavours, added them to lamb chops.”
Her passion for food is deep-rooted, but it’s not exactly something she inherited from her mother. “My mum is Indian – there’s one dish dedicated to my mum in the book, it’s called my mum’s chapatis. Because my mum, she’ll fully admit she can’t cook,” says Armitage-Mattin, with a laugh. “Fortunately we had a really good takeaway, so we’d get takeaway, and then she made chapatis and rice and dahl at home. My love of cooking didn’t come until a lot later” – when her father took her to eat at different restaurants.
“Going to restaurants and seeing these chefs work like dancers, I was enthralled with it all,” she reminisces. “I was like, oh my gosh I need this – it’s so mesmerising looking at chefs. So that’s when my love of food really came into play, as well as watching TV programmes like MasterChef. Actually, MasterChef was my first cookbook – and I took it to the interview for MasterChef.”
Armitage-Mattin ended up being a finalist on the show, and describes the experience as a “learning curve”. She says: “You learn so much from yourself, because you’re challenged with the time frame to create each dish. I’m a very creative person and as a development chef I love creating, but sometimes like in [the challenge] Chef’s Table, we had such a short [time] – I think we had a day for the deadline for the dish. So actually developing all the dishes, you don’t have enough time. So you’ve got to push yourself and keep pushing, because you’re always putting out your best dish. You can’t risk going out, because all the other chefs are super good.”
Despite glowing praise from Michelin star chef and MasterChef judge Marcus Wareing, Armitage-Mattin admits she still gets imposter syndrome. “100%, I feel like I’m faking it all the time,” she admits. “I think we all are though. I always double-check myself. If I feel like I think something’s a really good idea, then I’m like no, is it a good idea? I’m not too sure. But then I get other people to taste it, and they’re like, oh my God it’s amazing. And I’m like, OK.”
Taste Kitchen: Asia: Six Flavours To Suit Every Taste by Philli Armitage-Mattin is published by Robinson, priced £26. Photography by Phoebe Pearson. Available September 1.
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