Tom Sellers has worked in the kitchens of Tom Aikens, Thomas Keller, Adam Byatt and René Redzepi. At each stage he learned rapidly about cooking, managing and most importantly about himself. Now with a restaurant company responsible for 87 staff, a figure which may double over the next 24 months, Tom tells about his natural drive while sharing his vision on how he plans to progressively move forwards with Restaurant Story. Simon Carter conducted the interview at Restaurant Story in February 2016.
1) Tell us some personal background associated with becoming a chef?
School was never for me and I initially fell into cooking via washing pots in a pub. I very quickly found my focus, indeed discovered that my passion and imagination lay with food. In hindsight I learned something about myself very early as it just seemed like a natural next step to try and work for the very best in the industry to learn as much as possible as quickly as possible.
2) Tell us some professional background which led to Restaurant Story.
The chef at the pub where I had been working had once worked at Pied a Terre and he told me to go and work for Tom Aikens: Eleven years ago at 43 Elystan Street, Tom (Aikens) was probably the most progressive chef in Britain. I did a day at his restaurant and subsequently started working in what was a very tough kitchen with a fair turnover of chefs. I had nothing to compare it with in terms of how severe the culture may have been but I absolutely loved it!
I became known as ‘Little Tom’ as Tom Aikens kind of took me under his wing. For sixteen hours a day in the kitchen, I spent two and a half years there learning my craft: Tom Aikens was a really intense creative force and drilled into me discipline, focus, consistency and dedication. On top of his classical skills his imagination with food had little to no boundaries and this proved inspiring.
Tom Aikens helped me secure my next position, which was at Thomas Keller’s Per Se. The culture quickly taught chefs how to carry themselves, how to be the utmost professional at all times and to see the bigger picture – perhaps I went from being a boy to a cook with Tom Aikens and then from a cook to a man with Thomas Keller. As part of this journey I learned that even the small things, the details, were crucially important. Moreover the people working on those details were made to feel important. Yes there always has to be a hierarchy in a kitchen, a sous chef will tell a commis what to do but under Chef Keller, the way in which the chain of command was executed made the commis feel like the most important commis in the world! That feeling was empowering. The way you were told to do things was part of the almost beautiful culture working under Chef Keller.
I would say I had enjoyed perfect timing in working in these two kitchens at a time when these two chefs were present and sharing their knowledge. With Tom Aikens there were probably twice as many ingredients on a plate than at Per Se but those dishes were produced with half as many chefs. Both chefs’ food was highly labour intensive but the division of labour was different, in fact they contrasted in so many ways but were inspiring in equal measures.
At 21 years of age, after five years working under Tom and Thomas, I came back to the UK ready for a three month break while I considered my next move. I went on a few trials, spoke to a few people and so on. It turned out that I met Adam Byatt at Trinity Restaurant in Clapham. I felt we had similar values, motivations and focus so it proved a pleasure and a further learning experience to work in Adam’s kitchen for two and a half years. I got first hand experience of how a slightly smaller scale, privately owned restaurant worked. I learned about the practical operational management, finance and business aspects of running your own restaurant. I had always dreamed of being a chef patron one day but there was one more step to take on the journey before opening my own place. I worked at Noma.
I was actually approached by Matt Orlando who I had previously worked under at Per Se. It transpired he had moved on to work as Rene Redzepi’s head chef. I flew over and had a meal at Noma with Tom Aikens and on the way back to the hotel just said “I must work there!”
This was the period just before Noma reached number 1 in World’s 50 Best Restaurants – very much a powerhouse on the rise, driven by a man (René Redzepi) who was head to toe about identity for his restaurant business. I was blown away by his drive and approach and towards the tail end of my time (two years) I knew I would never work for someone else again. It was an inspirational time.
3) Tell us about Restaurant Story.
I came back to London and felt confident in my ability and mixed with pure, young, ballsy naivety I met my future business partner. He had this former toilet block building east of the city, south of the river – he said to me if I build a restaurant from this building block what will you do with it? I said “Make it one of the best restaurants in the country!” £2m later – he had a half share, I had a half share – Restaurant Story was born!
There was a real buzz at the beginning. The print media came and consistently gave great marks; in addition over 18 months there were the guides awarding three and then four AA Rosettes plus a Michelin star in the September after opening in the April. We were full full full with a long booking sheet. I look back on it now with some maturity and hindsight but it all honesty it was mainly a blur – working 16 to 18 hours a day for 18 months and never leaving the kitchen. Now the restaurant has evolved, developed and matured in tune with my growth as a chef patron – all things are being done better and better with the sole aim of giving our customers an ever improving top level experience at Restaurant Story.
I am also a firm believer in value for money: Should you charge £10 or £100 then so long as it represents value then customers are happy. I can only judge this from my own standards and they are from experiences I trust. At my own company I try to take, learn and develop from both the good and bad experiences from the past, from which I evolve my own ethos, signature and way of doing things in my kitchen, restaurant and business. This is not a stationary concept, the goal posts keep moving as more information comes on board and improvements can be made. This openness to adapting is vital in every aspect of the business.
Also with ‘identity’ comes consistency, by identity I mean key signature dishes that remain on the menu but are gradually evolved, while at the same time encouraging motivation and satisfaction in the team by creating sets of dishes in the food offering that represent Restaurant Story (with particular focus on seasonality.)
5) What can you tell us about The Lickfold Inn?
Originally the site was owned by my business partner who was considering turning it into a house. It had been a pub owned by Chris Evans that had become derelict for three years. After some discussion we decided to keep it as a food led pub where I would consult on the menu and be responsible for placing the right chefs in the kitchen, work with the suppliers and so on. The pub building is beautiful and characterful, the surroundings are stunning and Graham Squire is the perfect chef for the venue. Graham spent seven years at Claridge’s and the menu we devise there really works for the customers.
We like to think we do things properly at The Lickfold, it’s a £300,000 kitchen, a top classically trained chef, strong team and I believe if you work hard and do things properly you’ll get the right rewards.
6) Tell us about the exciting new venture Restaurant Ours?
This is launching on the old site of The Collection at 264 Brompton Road – an amazing site, with what was an amazing premium and a short lease. I was fortunate to negotiate with the Reuben Brothers directly on the site and a deal was done.
My role in summary is ‘Culinary Director’ – I came up with the name (we’ll go to ‘Ours’ – as in ‘Our place’ – so why not Restaurant Ours?), the kitchen design, consultations on chefs and menus and so on. Hopefully I can sprinkle a little magic on top of the product, which will be served in one of the most exciting venues in London.
7) Tell us about your new book?
Three years in the making! I originally said I don’t do recipes and I’m too early down the path of my journey to write about it! My agent was quite persevering and she said write a one page summary of anything you would write a book about so I did, the idea went to auction and various publishers bid which gave me real confidence. It’s called ‘A Kind of Love Story’ and is about snapshot moments in time that reveal details about my influences, aspirations, high, lows, achievements and so on. It is partly foodie, partly about business, partly about life experiences – a reflection of the journey I have been making for the last number of years. It will be published on September 8th 2016, which will be a proud and humbling moment.
8) What are your ambitions for the future?
To be considered one of the most progressive chefs in the world! To be always evolving and adapting while nurturing and communicating the company vision. I employ 87 people at present and we share the drive and creativity that comes with the vision. Those staff levels may double over the next 24 months.
I am aware that chefs are packaged, labelled and perceived by the public’s idea of their restaurants. My ambition is for my frame of reference to have a wider scope, a contribution to the industry that will impact people’s lives positively in a broader sense – whether that’s training and development, talent discovery, food innovation and so on.
However I must stress that this long term philosophy is tempered by the fact that every business decision I take has the caveat ’how does this preserve and enhance Restaurant Story?’ When you run a flagship restaurant with twelve tables and large staff numbers you need to bring in financial balance to run at the level you want to run at, it is as simple as that! Were I to do a pop-up in Hong Kong, a pub or a restaurant project in west London would all those projects protect and enhance Restaurant Story? It begins and ends there for me. To give you examples, moving to a two team chef system (like Per Se) is a massive financial decision, to go from 13 tables to 12 tables both of which are to improve the experience and ensure consistency of product at Restaurant Story is another massive financial decision. I think it can be hard in the media world to understand that when a Michelin chef is doing “other things” he is not diluting his core product, most likely the opposite! He is protecting, enhancing and investing in it for the future!!