Four Pillars’ Matthew Wilkinson shares his coffee awakening

matthew wilkinson four pillars

English-born chef Matthew Wilkinson shares a rather alarming admission about running one of Melbourne’s most iconic cafés, and why queuing isn’t always a bad thing.

For years I owned one of best coffee shops in Melbourne and did not drink coffee,” says chef Matthew Wilkinson.

“We used Allpress Espresso, I fell in love with the look of La Marzocco machines – the Ducati of the coffee machine world – but I hated coffee. I opened Pope Joan when I turned 30 and after while, I thought enough was enough. It was time to force myself into it and get on board with coffee.”

Matthew trained his palate over a series of months. He started with a cappuccino, but he hated the volume of hot milk to coffee. Then he tried a long black, but it wasn’t to his liking. He describes his first attempt at a short black like “torturing [his] tongue with the combination of acidity and alkaline together”. Then, he discovered the piccolo. “It got me. That was the one. I was hooked,” Matthew says.

Only years before his coffee epiphany, Matthew went to Italy for the 2010 SlowFood International Expo and would go around town asking for cups of tea to the dismay of locals. He returned in 2014 for five weeks and says it was a “game changing” experience.

“I stayed in a house in Portonovo on the eastern seaside of Italy, right on the beach for two weeks. I remember trying to explain a piccolo to the local coffee shop and the guy just stared at me. I went to the same shop every morning and finally a lady who spoke beautiful English asked ‘darling, you want a macchiato?’ That became my drink. I’d go get a macchiato every morning and walk the one kilometre back on the beach. It was the best time of my life,” Matthew says.

matthew wilkinson
Matthew Wilkinson is also the Creative Director of Four Pillars Gin.

These days Matthew drinks two to three macchiatos a day, and “definitely a lot more” when he was running Pope Joan. “My first coffee of the day has to be a macchiato, my second is a short black, which I also have at the end of a restaurant meal. But at night, I don’t mind it with a cheeky shot of Amaro, Grappa, Campari, or my favourite, an Italian liquor that’s the equivalent to Ouzo,” he says.

Matthew was born in South Yorkshire in the north of England, which he says explains why he was a “classic Yorkshire tea man” – drinking up to 12 cups a day, black or white, with around seven sugars in each. His parents, also classic English tea drinkers, were partial to Nescafé.

“As a child I remember hating the smell of it. I couldn’t stand it, but I’d make it for mum while she’d critique my bad instant coffee-making skills saying, ‘you’ve put too much in or not enough’,” Matthew says. “At age eight, my parents separated. Dad worked at Fosters UK and then went into work in the pub industry. He had around 14 classic English pubs. I remember at the end of every service, a big coffee percolator came around for the staff, but I still didn’t like it. Coffee just wasn’t part of my world.”

When Matthew came to Australia at age 20 in 2000, he recalls a similar experience when he did a stint at Melbourne restaurant Circa.

“Coffee time in restaurants is like being at Trafalgar Square and watching bread thrown up to pigeons and having them attack it,” Matthew says. “Having the front of house staff bring the chefs their coffee was almost a ritual at Circa.”

Matthew says you can imagine being the ‘token Englishman’ in a commercial kitchen when he didn’t partake in the coffee drinking ritual, which was further exacerbated when he worked at Vue de monde restaurant and was trained to make a de-constructed tiramisu using a coffee liqueur, which he despised. Oddly enough, Matthew says if there’s tiramisu is on a menu now, he’ll always order it.

In his first year working in Melbourne restaurants, Matthew recalls buying The Good Food Guide with Vittoria Coffee’s ad always placed on the back and observing just how massive the coffee was in the Melbourne restaurant scene.

“I remember when my dad flew out to visit me and we had an amazing meal at the Latin, a then iconic institution on Lonsdale Street. I had a cold Coopers beer for the first time with lamb tartare, squid pasta, beef, and a caramel dessert. The standard was just incredible, and still is. I still remember my dad saying how good the coffee was at the end of the meal,” Matthew says.

matthew wilkinson
Four Pillars’ Creative Director James Irvine created this Spiced Negroni Gin with coffee. Spent grounds are sent to Frank Body.

“The Italians may have started Melbourne’s coffee culture, but we’ve made it a uniquely Australian thing. When you’re in New York, they talk about how good the café scene is in Australia. My mum comes out here every year and the one thing she misses aside from her grandkids, is the coffee.”

When Matthew took the leap to open Pope Joan in 2010 with business partner Guy Foster, he says it was a pathway to something “completely different”.

“Before Pope Joan, I was in New York and I remember going to a restaurant called Prune, which was open for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. I can remember thinking, ‘there’s no way I’m queuing for breakfast’. I swore I never would. But then we opened Pope Joan and there was always queues out the door. We were one of AllPress Coffee’s first big accounts in Melbourne. At the time, they were flying the coffee over from New Zealand until they started roasting in Sydney. The café culture of Melbourne was wild at that stage,” Matthew says.

“We opened at a time when the quality of breakfast food was starting a movement. My idea was really to impart something a little different not seen in the food scene in terms of food quality. I think we were a leader for change of how food in cafés is.”

When the doors closed to the Melbourne institution on 24 June 2018 after nine years, Matthew says it was the end of a chapter, and a relief in some ways.

“It was a unique place. I miss it for its coffee, food and the night-time events. It was a great community hub, but I’m actually enjoying life on the other side,” he says. “There’s now so many amazing cafés with high standards of food. I don’t think for Pope Joan would work if we opened again. It worked because it was unique at the time.”

The one thing Matthew misses about working in the Brunswick and Fitzroy suburbs of Melbourne is the aroma of roasting coffee, home to brands like Jasper and Padre Coffee, one of his favourite roasters.

“The smell of roasting coffee is a truly iconic Melbourne thing. It’s one for the senses. One of my first memories was smelling Jaspers Coffee on Brunswick Street when it was all grungy in 2000. I love cycling past that suburb and getting a whiff of that toasty, burning, chocolate smell,” he says.

While Matthew says people will still travel for quality coffee, and that there will always be a place for neighbourhood cafés,  like food, trends come and go.

“We’ve seen the development of collective roasting spaces and now, the way forward for Melbourne coffee shops will be to roast their own beans to make the right profits and for wholesale,” Matthew says.

“Middle ground restaurants will take that place where cafés were, and I think we’ll see small businesses adopt one thing they do well, like bread or croissants, and pair it with a coffee offering, like Falco Bakery does – their toasties are great but the coffee is banging as well.”

Delivery services like Deliveroo and UberEats have changed the way society accesses food, and more than ever with businesses adjusting in COVID-19 lockdowns. Matthew says the one risk to coffee culture, however, is how quality coffee will continue to be perceived.

“We used to associate delivery services with Pizza Hut, Domino’s Pizza, and dodgy Chinese restaurants, but it’s changing. Now, there’s $1-dollar coffee at 7-Eleven or Maccas. I’m worried the social formalities around how you get coffee are getting lost, and that coffee could become just a quick fix or an energy boost,” he says. “Time will tell.”

As for Matthew, time has slowed down after the closing of Pope Joan. He took six months off to enjoy with his two young kids and wife and do some ‘soul searching’ before opening a Pope Joan pop-up in the city (to which he has now sold his stake), The Pie Shop, and vegetable-forward diner Crofter. For the past two years, he’s also been the Creative Director of Healesville distillery’s Four Pillars Gin, winner of the 2019 International Gin Producer of the Year award.

“One of my passions is trying to better the world we live in, and working with spent gin botanicals, looking at something unutilised that’s still got lots of flavour, like spent coffee grounds,” he says.

Matthew is also working on developing a gin salt, a new cookbook to add to his collection of six, and figuring out what a new business venture could look like.

“It’s been an amazing journey,” he says. “And like everyone else right now, I’ll just keep going.”

This article appears in the June 2020 edition of BeanScene. Subscribe HERE.

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