Let’s make Vicki Matchett our Australian of the Year on our national day, January 26. Okay, litlle chance we admit, but when it comes to having a real go, achieving against adversity and doing her own ‘come on’ thing with her 30-plus range of goodies that she markets as “sexy foods passionately crafted”, surely she is a hero. Definitely across the Fleurieu Peninsula, anyway.
The bottom line is that Vicki (pictured) has long deserved more recognition for being a woman of vision having created the Flavour SA campaign almost 20 years ago offering every small producer across the state something to cling to, and a decade ago developing her own amazing venture Matchett Productions at her 30-acre property at the top of Middleton.
Born in Havelock North in New Zealand’s spectacular Hawke’s Bay region, and becoming a naturalised Australian in 1993, Vicki is a remarkable achiever, whom many describe as our own Maggie Beer, the Barossa Baroness of Fine Food.
“The comparisons are flattering,” Vicki says. However, reflect on her journey and there is overwhelming evidence she is very much her own person.
The success of Matchett Productions, with its sensational range including ‘must have’ sauces and chutneys, plus chilli jams that test the bravest consumers of devilishly hot foods, comes with amazing help from Fiona Watson. She brings to the business a high level in skills including social networking, making an online shop work, adding a retail portal, plus everything to do with IT, sales and management. Her unquestionable loyalty is perhaps her finest asset.
There are, however, times when Vicki’s persona is anything but akin to a culinary great like Maggie, especially when dressed in her ‘daggies’ and is covered in the spills from pouring by hand olive oil-based dressings into ridiculously small bottle openings. There is no high-priced machinery here, but nonetheless this packaging process leads to these brilliantly captured flavours finding their way into specialty shops around the nation.
Images of things being easy on this hill are readily dispersed. Her core value of being adventurous and not afraid of hard work began at just six years old when helping her dear Grandma Clara, an industrial caterer in Auckland, to make enough sandwiches to feed 300 workers in every day by meticulously buttering the bread slices right to the very edge.
At 12 Vicki was helping Aunt Jeanette in her pie shop, and by 13 she had virtually served an apprenticeship by working incredible hours at Auckland’s Eden Park, the home of cricket and rugby.
And after training at the Cordon Bleu Cookery School in Auckland, then one of only three schools like it in the world alongside Paris and London, she found her way to Australia working in the Great Sandy Desert in Western Australia’s top end, and outside of Moomba on onshore oil rigs cooking roasts and vegetables.
A significantly more favourable environment, and notoriety along our trail of foods with finesse, came when she created one of Adelaide’s best-known and most imaginative food places in the early 90s – The Queen of Tarts, in Hutt Street, Adelaide.
“The Queen of Tarts, oh, it was an experience,” Vicki said. “That was my baby that turned into a monster, yet it probably revolutionised the lunch trade in Adelaide.
“We were mad… we made everything from scratch; our own puff pastry for our pies and sausage rolls as well as the fillings. We made our own quiches, French patisserie tarts and croissants with ham and camembert cheese.
“The water crackers, chill jams and the Salad Splash dressing that we made for the lunches were going so well that we thought, well we’re not doing anything from 7pm til 5am so let’s make them for the national market.
“We also brought in a baker, who made the water crackers through the night and we sold them by the pallet load to the Sydney market. That was the beginning of my triangle-shaped water crackers, which are still available today.”
Yet, for all of Vicki’s experience as a chef, including a brief stint in the restaurant game, she deliberately set on a path to catering which 10 years ago led to her highly creative and successful Matchett’s Productions venture.
“I have never really liked the immediate pressure of a restaurant,” Vicki said. “I am essentially a production chef at the core.
“I am better at making sauces and the intense of more skilled work. I don’t need to be there turning a steak; I leave it to the others who can excel and enjoy the high-pressure stuff.
“A chef needs to have discipline if you are going to be at the top of your game, and it was something that I was raised on. My father was a Jujutsu instructor in the army and my step-father was a regimental-like air force man.
“Chefs are under a lot of pressure emotionally and physically. When it’s hot in the kitchen and you’re under the pump with 30 orders in front of you there is an urgent need to perform well. The conditions and the pay aren’t always the best. It’s a bit of a labour of love, really.
“Being a chef is a real craft. You do five years apprenticeship and then it’s another 5-10 years before you can call yourself a master. There is still a lot that I have to master, but there are also a lot of things that I have. It’s a great profession to have because you can go on to teaching, writing, catering for aged care homes and hospitals, and like I am doing now with the condiments. There is great dimension if you can cater; there will always be work.
“There is no money in restaurants. They pay such high wages, which you don’t mind on a weekend when people are working doubly hard, but it’s tough when a restaurant’s wage bill is 50 per cent of its turnover. It’s hideous; no industry can sustain itself on those wages.
“As much as I love the profession I feel that I have not really given anything back by helping the young ones coming through; that’s something I would like to do.
“I am looking at doing a graduate diploma this year run through Regency TAFE. Once I have completed four subjects then I can do my masters, which sets me up to instruct and ideally go into consultancy and training.
“Students come out of TAFE knowing the basics, but they do not necessarily know the other skills that go with being a chef. They just don’t learn them in restaurants these days; it’s about getting the food that’s already been done out quickly. There is good potential in a cookery school.”
The revelation Vicki hopes to use her immeasurable skill to meet a new challenge of teaching tomorrow’s chefs is indeed admirable, and it should not necessarily be mistaken as an end to what she describes as having been a tough journey in her own kitchen.
The hope that she will continue to deliver us “sexy foods passionately crafted” remains. There is already an amazing new mayonnaise in the development process, but it may take at least two years to go through the arduous trials.
Meanwhile, Vicki will continue to play her part championing the cause of every producer across the Fleurieu Peninsula for the good of all, including supporting and promoting the local markets. It merely adds to her commitment to the bigger picture.
Then there is the home garden… growing among many things her own garlic, lime leaves, quinces, olives and fruit trees including South American feijoas. Add a long-term plan to bulk produce her dressings for an overseas market to label, and the 50 Damara x Dorper sheep on the property that need TLC and it is clear that Vicki leads a busy life.
Not bad for someone who as a young girl left Havelock North in Hawke’s Bay, NZ to cook in the desert and on an oil rig. Of course, Vicki is not expecting a ‘gong’ in the Australia Day honours. But may we say that, for now, a nice ‘thank you’ would be sufficient.