Chef Interview: Luke Thomas (May 2012)

Posted on: May 9th, 2012 by Simon Carter & Daniel Darwood
Luke Thomas

Chef Luke Thomas

Luke Thomas of Sanctum on the Green is a young man on a mission.  He has completed stages in a cross section of the world’s best kitchens covering numerous countries.  Luke is also an alumni of FutureChef, having won the prestigious competition at the age of fifteen.  Luke found time to speak to Simon Carter of fine dining guide, interview took place in the restaurant of Sanctum on the Green in April 2012.

Tell us some background about yourself?

I was born in a small town in North Wales in 1993.  I started Connah’s Quay High School in 2005 and by that time food was my real interest.  My grandparents were a huge inspiration, we grew our own vegetables at home, and from an early age cooking was all I could think about as a career to do for the rest of my life.

One day a week when doing my GCSEs I went to catering college and also worked at Soughton Hall in North Wales for work experience.  I also spent time working at The Arkle Restaurant at The Chester Grosvenor, which changed to Simon Radley at The Chester Grosvenor.  I attended Yale College Wrexham for NVQ Level 1 & 2 in Professional Catering.

In 2009, at the age of 15, I entered Springboard’s (the catering and hospitality charity) FutureChef (along with 7,500 others). Springboard’s FutureChef helps young people aged 12-16 to learn to cook. It inspires them to explore food and cooking as a life skill by developing their culinary talent and informing them about entry routes into the hospitality industry.  The further you go in the competition the more exposure you get to great chefs.  I won the competition and was mentored by various chefs including Brian Turner.  The process of the competition afforded me the luxury of gaining experience through a number of Stages at world renowned Michelin restaurants.

Upon leaving school I felt that should I one day wish to run a restaurant then I would need to understand more about front of house, back office, finance, sourcing and buying and so on. The Individual Restaurant Company (IRC) is privately owned and owns and operates 34 restaurants in major UK cities, towns and suburbs. I shadowed Iain Donald, who was the commercial director of the business – he had previously worked at The Dorchester and Gleneagles before setting up IRC in 1999.

This was a huge learning experience and I am forever grateful to Iain.  While I was there I learned from further stages at Alinea in Chicago, Gary Rhodes in Dubai and The French Laundry in California amongst others.  So I had some great experiences, not just learning in my career but also broadening my horizons with travel, too.  This was with the help of some generous sponsors and backers, for whom I have also done a lot of private catering, some of which was working on the estate at Sandy Lane in Barbados!

Through various connections – I was doing some work experience at Global Infusion Group, who do large scale catering events, I met up with Mark Fuller and he was very enthusiastic about a hotel/restaurant that he had an interest in, called Sanctum on the Green.  I was ready for the challenge and decided to go for it!

Luke’s Dining Room at Sanctum on the Green opened in March 2012 and touch wood we’ve been very busy!  For the longer term, the great thing about working for Andy Taylor (who is the chairman of the holding company for Concept Venues) and Mark (Fuller) is that you are part of a large international organization of thirteen business.’  This helps with a sense of stability and security for the future and means that I can focus on being the best chef I can be at Sanctum on the Green with fewer external worries.

What was involved in getting the restaurant started?

Not too much.  We’ve done some limited refurbishment, having taken the venue as a canvas and overhauled the kitchen a little, we were pretty much ready to go.  We have a water bath but other than that little in the way of the modern equipment yet (like thermomixers, pacojets and so on.)  We did a soft opening for two weeks after a launch dinner back in March 2012.

What is the menu structure at Luke’s Dining Room?

We have an a la Carte menu which we call a seasonal menu.  We have six starters, six mains and five desserts, which is fairly typical level of choice in restaurants today.  We change the menu around each month.  It very much depends on what the suppliers suggest is strong.  We open for a traditional Sunday lunch, a family style offering that is very popular.

The small team in the kitchen will often come to the table and help with the front of house.  This style helps develop relationships with the customers and gives a homely feel to the restaurant.

What is the size of the brigade front and back and how many covers in the restaurant?

In the restaurant 35 covers and a further ten available in private dining.  Midweek, we’re around 20 covers at the moment and weekends full (forty plus covers).

Front of house, we have a restaurant manager, a bar tender and two waitresses, so four in total.  So at weekends it can get very busy but we’re always calm because we’re comfortable in the way we manage the restaurant – front and back – so services run smoothly. There’s great value add from the chef presenting a dish or two – we cook it and we believe in it, its not like a member of staff memorizing something that’s written on a piece of paper and presenting it to the customer.  As a result we may get member of our chef team being called up and asked for a table by a customer because they appreciated the extra positive, value-added and relationship building experiences they have had at Sanctum on the Green.

What proportion of your guests are hotel guests, and what are locals and destination diners?

Four-fifths of the battle is that we’re becoming accepted by the locals and returning local customers are starting to be the norm.  We also have around 70% of the people who stay in the hotel eat in the hotel and some are destination diners who have read about us in the media.

We had a wedding here the other day and one of guests said “it’s almost like a traditional pub” and that’s great.  From the front it looks like the traditional pub, indeed the site was originally the old Hare & Hounds pub at Cookham Dean. From the back the site looks like a hotel with a restaurant, with formal gates, a swimming pool and a terrace and so on.  Getting the balance right is something we’re achieving which is helping us develop in the right direction as a venue.

How would you describe your customer philosophy?

The customer is king!  I had had something of a different mentality drilled into me, especially when working stages in Michelin starred restaurants – If a customer wanted, say, chips with their veal there would be resistance from the kitchen – the menu was the menu.  Now instead I try to think differently and accommodate the customer:  If someone, for example, wants a burger they should have it, we would make one from an excellent cut of beef.  We would want to give them what they want but try to make it the best it can be!

Which chefs have inspired you the most?

I grew up with Jamie Oliver and the Naked Chef.  He would almost ignore a recipe – throw in a hand full of this and add a little of that – he encouraged people to cook from the heart instead of a piece of paper.  It must have inspired a generation of young chefs as it said “this isn’t difficult, so long as it tastes good and you enjoy yourself cooking!”

Heston Blumenthal is a chef’s chef – his uniqueness, individuality, creativity and search for perfection are all inspiring in equal measure.

Where would you like to eat out if you had the chance?

In the UK, I hear great things about The Square and would love to try Phil Howard’s cooking.  I loved The Ledbury and that was probably my favourite meal in the UK.

What are your plans for the future?

Sanctum on the Green for the foreseeable future.  The product we’re delivering is now consistent and my job will be to break that down and continually look at how it can be taken to the next level!