Chef and restaurateur Matt Sworder is the owner of Kent-based company The Corner House Restaurant Group. The son of restaurateur David Sworder (Morton’s Fork, The Chequers and Bayside Brasserie in Kent) Matt began a marketing career with an insurance firm before realising he missed the buzz of the restaurant kitchen. He worked for Gordon Ramsay Group, Anthony Demetre and Adam Byatt before opening his first restaurant – the Corner House in Minster, Kent, in 2013. A second restaurant opened in Canterbury last year.
How would you define what you do at The Corner House?
At The Corner House we try to do simple really well. Everything here is home made: We make all the breads, the pastas and ice creams from scratch. We also use fantastic, locally-sourced produce from Kent to deliver quite simple dishes but with a perfect execution. That’s the vision behind the restaurant and what I hope the brand will be recognised for.
Being a chef wasn’t initially in your career plan, what changed your mind?
My dad had restaurants while I was growing up so I had a taste of what the industry was like, but I wanted to go to university, so went and did a marketing degree at Oxford Brookes University. While I was studying for my degree I felt this urge to go back into cooking. I really missed the camaraderie you get in a kitchen team and the pressure of delivering a fantastic Saturday night service, so I persuaded my lecturers at university to let me have a year out and went off to get some experience in the industry. First of all I took a traineeship at Gordon Ramsay’s La Noisette in London and absolutely loved it – the pace, the sense of team and cooking some fantastic food.
I went back to university to complete my degree, but still felt that the kitchen was more exciting. When I graduated, I thought ‘I’ve got a degree in marketing so I should do something with it’ and went to work for Allianz Insurance. It was a good job, comfortable salary in a 9-5 environment but I soon realised it wasn’t what I wanted to do with my life, so I quit and went and worked with Anthony Demetre at Les Deux Salons. I love what he does, taking lesser known cuts and more humble ingredients and elevates them to Michelin star standard. After that I went to work with Adam Byatt at Bistro Union and loved that too, with the thought that some day I’d like to head up something myself. That’s what led me to the Corner House.
You opened your first restaurant at 27, arguably earlier than many of your peers, why did you decide to take such a big step and become a chef-owner so early on?
I recognised the fact that this was going to be one of the hardest things I’d ever go through and would have to commit everything to it and sacrifice my personal life, so I thought, ‘if I’m going to do it I’ll do it while I’m young’. I didn’t have a mortgage or kids to think about at that point, so threw everything in to it.
I tried to get sites in Clapham and St Albans and both fell through. Then, my dad, who is the landlord for the restaurant site in Minster, had the keys handed back to him at the time I was looking, so he offered me the site. I hadn’t been looking at Kent, but hoped that as my dad was the landlord he wouldn’t screw me on the rent, so I decided to open in Minster. That first year was so hard. I threw everything into it, lived on site and worked six days a week, but it was worth it.
What was the most important thing you learned between opening The Corner House Minster and the second restaurant – the Corner House in Canterbury?
The transition going from chef to restaurateur was quite a challenge, because instead of worrying about things from a cheffing perspective, I was really thinking about the other departments in the business – the critical functions like HR, finance and marketing. I had to bring them to the table to make the Corner House Minster work. That was my biggest learning. I knew I could cook, but I wasn’t sure how all the various business functions would work.
Are you planning to open any more restaurants?
The plan for the next year is to consolidate the business so I can ensure that I’m running two fantastic restaurants with a solid infrastructure to enable me to get to the growth phase. I want to get to Corner House three as soon as possible, but I need to learn how to walk before I can run and I recognise at the moment that two restaurants has it challenges and I want to get everything 100 per cent perfect before opening a third. If I can do that then maybe we’ll see a Corner House three open towards the end of next year or beginning of 2019. What’s really exciting is that having a Corner House in Minster and one in Canterbury proves that the offer works in a village and city location. People understand what we’re trying to do in both.
Your restaurants have earned quite few accolades and awards since opening, where do you stand on them? Are they a help or a hindrance?
Winning Restaurant of the Year 2015 and 2017 in the Taste of Kent Awards has been fantastic for the business. On balance it has really allowed us to get the word out there, especially with the Minster site being in such a quiet village location. It means people travel from all around south east Kent to dine with us and that’s been great. I am pro awards and listings, but we don’t chase them. It’s important that we are cooking for our guests every day and not for the Michelin Guide or the Waitrose Good Food Guide.
What concerns you most about the future of the industry?
Brexit is a real worry for all restaurateurs. I’d be lying if I said I’m not phased by it. I’m worried about prices going up and have already seen them increasing.
The biggest cause for concern for me though is attracting quality chefs and the only way we can do that is to recognise that the industry needs to change. Chefs can’t work 80/90 hour weeks for poor pay and poor working conditions and we need to get together with others and improve the lives of our chefs. At the moment the industry is a bit stuck. Everyone complains they don’t have enough chefs coming through and I think we have to ask ourselves why that is. We can’t go back to the old days and say ‘it’s hospitality, it’s just what comes with being a chef’ people need more than that. It’s such an exciting job. It’s creative and about teamwork, but people are put off by the hours and pay, so we need to have a cultural shift. That’s the only way we’ll change it.
Who, or what has inspired you most in your career?
I was lucky enough to work with Bjorn van der Horst at La Noisette who inspired me in areas such as team work and the fine dining world. I think the Tom Kerridge philosophy is very much the way forward and he is a big inspiration to me. That philosophy of putting less ingredients on a plate but making sure they are totally spot on really excites me.
Who do you most admire in the industry?
I think what Mark Sargeant is doing with his restaurants in Kent is really exciting. He’d definitely be a restaurateur that I have a lot of respect for. Moving from a chef to a restaurateur means you have to worry about other departments, not just the kitchen and I think he’s done that very successfully.
What are your plans for the near future?
To focus on delivering the most amazing guest experience in both restaurants. We need to do that to develop the Corner House offer. Once we’ve done that it will enable us to grow and get to Corner House three and four. I can see that there are many corners of Kent which would work for a Corner House restaurant. As well as developing the business I want to develop my team. We want to grow the business, but also grow the careers of those working here too.
Hospitality & Catering News, Interviews Editor