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What’s cooking? Ben Tunniciffe and Matt Smith, The Packet

In this new Muddy regular, our favourite chefs spill all about their work, lives and top tips. Dishing it this week: Ben Tunnicliffe and Matt Smith, The Packet near Prussia Cove and The Tolcarne Inn in Newlyn.

Here at Muddy we love a large dollop of gung-ho optimism – almost as much as we love a great tasting plate of food! At The Packet Inn near Prussia Cove you’ll find both positive mental attitudes and awesome food in abundant supply, as the pub relaunched earlier this month under the direction of chef duo Ben Tunnicliffe and Matt Smith. The Packet becomes little sister to The Tolcarne Inn in Newlyn Harbour, and early reports suggest it will be just as good! 

Undaunted by a global pandemic, Ben and Matt took time out of running two pubs to talk to Muddy. Ready for the quick-fire, tag-team interview? Let’s go!  

Your first job in a kitchen? 

Ben: I was studying Home Economics in Bournemouth and was sent to France for two weeks to experience life in a 2-star Michelin kitchen. I was put in charge of the fish section for two days – I was totally inexperienced and I couldn’t cope, I just fell apart. I’m sure every chef will remember that feeling of being way out of their depth. The Head Chef told me in no uncertain terms to pull it together, and eventually with hard work and determination I recovered my pride! 

What is your career highlight? 

Ben: It has to be winning a Michelin Star at The Abbey in Penzance back in the early 2000s. Even though I’ve moved away from fine dining and the need for those kinds of accolades, for any chef that recognition is an incredible feeling.

Sum up your food philosophy?

Ben & Matt: Helpfully our food philosophy is pretty much identical! It can be summed up as the best local ingredients, combined simply and instinctively, and served in a relaxed setting. We both firmly believe that great food doesn’t require an elaborate setting – the humble pub, where everyone feels comfortable, is our preferred vehicle for a great dining experience. 

Most memorable moment at work? 

Matt: During Lockdown we prepared and cooked almost 1,700 delicious and nutritious meals, free of charge, for a wide cross section of local people who were struggling at that extremely difficult time. As a team we volunteered our services for this community project and it’s an experience which will stay with us all for a long time. It gave us a positive focus in the midst of the Covid-19 crisis, bought us closer together as a team, and helped us keep our own troubles in perspective.

Ever cooked for anyone famous? 

Ben & Matt: We’ve both cooked for a few famous people, here in Cornwall and elsewhere. We have a few loyal regulars at The Tolcarne who fall into this category but we’d rather not say who they are – like everyone who visits they get treated in the same way and I think they appreciate that.   

You’re tired, starving and impatient: what do you cook for dinner? 

Matt: Like most chefs I’m unlikely to get home after a long shift and cook myself a meal, but I have been known to tuck into a cheese board! I absolutely love cheese, it’s my guilty pleasure. Mild, strong, rind washed, blue – as with food in general it’s all about variety. It’s funny because as a kid I couldn’t stand it. A cheese sandwich was my idea of a nightmare, but now I can’t get enough. It has become a bit of a running joke that the other chefs have to hide the cheese from me.

What would you cook to impress a date? 

Ben: For a special occasion I’d always fall back onto fresh seafood. A whole roast fish (brill, turbot, hake – whatever your fishmonger recommends at the time) always looks spectacular. During the autumn and winter I’d serve it in a rich and hearty style, so perhaps dressed with a little hollandaise and served with walnuts and smoked streaky bacon.    

Favourite chef? 

Ben: In my early career I worked with Colin White at Wooley Grange, Bradford on Avon. He presided over a close-knit team and two acres of walled gardens, which dictated the menu each day. His focus on seasonality had a pervasive impact on me, instilling the idea of menus dictated by the ingredients and only lightly shaped by the hand of the chef. At the end of lunch service at Wooley Grange we would sit down together around this enormous farmhouse table and write the menu for the evening. We used produce when it was at its freshest, and combined key flavours in a simple and straightforward way. 

Matt: I’ve always had great admiration for Phil Howard. His food is very refined but unfussy and there is something quietly comforting about the dishes he produces. I was lucky enough to spend a short time at Elystan Street at the tail end of last year. It was a true master class in technique and kitchen management. 

Favourite cookbook? 

Matt: At the Tolcarne we use a lot of small growers. At the tail end of summer there is always a glut of fruit and veg. Besides the regular array of pickles and chutneys we have been tinkering with some ferments. The Noma Guide to Fermentation has been a great asset to help with that process. Sweet by Yotam Ottolenghi and Helen Goh is also a favourite with my boys and I. It’s often the point of reference for day-off treats. 

Favourite type of cuisine? 

Ben:I think we’d both say that as long as the ingredients are local and seasonal, we like any type of cuisine! My training was in classic French cuisine so I’m always keen to learn more about totally different styles of cooking. I’d love to do a foodie tour of Asia at some point, I could happily eat my way around the whole continent… 

Favourite local hotspots? 

Ben: We love The Square in Porthleven – Anna and Stew Eddy have created a consistently excellent neighbourhood restaurant driven by seasonal ingredients.  

Matt: I always enjoy visits to The Mexico Inn in Penzance. Great food, relaxed atmosphere and family friendly. 

Favourite local markets and suppliers? 

Matt: We use so many fantastic local suppliers, it’s hard to single any one out… At The Packet the small plates menu features meat as well as fish and vegetarian/vegan options (whereas The Tolcarne is almost exclusively fish), so we’re using a lot more meat from local butchers and specialist suppliers like Primrose Herd. And there’s also my personal favourite of course, Thomas Hanson the cheese man! It’s the highlight of my week when he turns up every week with a van packed full of goodies… 

Favourite things to eat when you’re on holiday? 

Ben: Having specialised in seafood for so long, wherever I am on holiday I always gravitate towards trying the local fish speciality. The freshest seafood cooked in a regionally authentic way is always unbeatable.  

Favourite ingredient and why? 

Matt: Dan, our local organic veg supplier, grows these amazing cherry tomatoes that are out of this world. They’re a real treat and I wouldn’t like to comment about how many I’ve ‘taste tested’ throughout the summer months. 

Ben: The catch landed at Newlyn changes with the seasons, tides and weather, and every now and then you get something really unexpected like Weaver fish which I’ve only ever had on the menu twice, delicious!

Loads of us are really bored of our own cooking right now – any advice? 

Ben & Matt: Get out there and support your neighbourhood restaurants! With winter on the horizon the industry faces a tough few months. As long as you feel safe and comfortable with the measures your local businesses have put in place get out there and use them! 

The Packet is open for lunch (12-2.15pm) and dinner (6-9pm) Mon/Wed/Thurs/Fri/Sat with extended Sunday lunch 12-7pm.

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