'You might be at your lowest at some point but you can get through this and you can make a success of whatever you want to do'

The Staff Canteen

It takes a lot of skill and determination to be a chef - and  even then, life might still throw some nasty curveballs in your direction. 

But this month's chef to watch, Sean Wrest, believes in facing life's difficulties head on, turning the insurmountable into a challenge and bestowing as much positivity on everything and everyone around you as you can.

Originally from Leyburn in Yorkshire, Sean was set to become a policeman when he fell in love with cooking. 

Leyburn, Oslo, Bray, York

His first mentor, Jonathan Harrison, 1993 Roux Scholar and a man as enamoured with culinary talent as he is passionate about nurturing it, taught him the fundamentals of how to run a kitchen, and showed him what was possible if you set your mind to being a great chef.

Jonathan took his team to the scholarship ceremonies every year, where Sean got to mingle with the industry's greats.

"I'd turn up and there would be Andrew Fairlie, Sat Bains, Michel Roux Jr., Albert, Alain, and all these people that I recognised because I was so engrossed with the whole industry. That really inspired me to want to be like them." 

Jonathan also took them out for meals in top restaurants when they travelled to London, so Sean got to see what it was like to be on the customer's side of the table.

"We went to [Galvin at] Windows, Maze, we went to all of these amazing restaurants. Just seeing it was like, 'ah, I definitely made the right choice.'" 

Thanks to people like Jonathan, Sean sought work in the world's best kitchens, and doing so made him the quintessentially modern chef he is today. He doesn't come from the era of shouty kitchens, nor does he think such atmospheres are condusive to sucess. 

At The Fat Duck, and at Maaemo, he learned that discipline can exist independently from a reign of fear. 

Though very different in most ways, he said, both were "regimented, in a positive way." 

"It's not full of aggression, it's not full of shouting, but there's respect between every single member." 

"Nobody gets singled out - you can easily lose confidence and then leave the industry because you feel like it's just such a struggle because of the atmosphere. Those two places didn't, and also got three Michelin stars." 

"It just goes to show that there is an alternative way." 

The chef found his place at The Black Swan, and a place was made for him at Roots for him to spread his wings.

And Tommy Banks, who has not only achieved a high level of success but has overcome much adversity while he has done so, remains a mentor and a great source of inspiration for Sean. 

"Even with everything he's done he hasn't stood still. He could have been the chef that won a star at 24, did Great British Menu and TV shows. He could easily sit back and go, 'yeah, I've have a great career, I can go and do something else' but he keeps striving to the next thing, and every time you speak to him he's always looking to be better.

"That's exactly how I want to be." 

As as Tommy has told Sean to seize his position as head chef at Roots with both hands, he has every intention of doing so. 

"He's been great to me because he's not like an overbearing boss, he let's me develop naturally and gives me the freedom to create and run the kitchen. You couldn't ask for a better boss really." 

Cod Cheeks, fermented honey, smoked butter, pickled mussels 

​​Recipe here

Made in Oldstead

Sean credits Tommy's entire family for being as hardworking as they are.

"What they've achieved is unbelievable; they have that success because they have that drive and don't lose it, whether it's growing the perfect vegetable or a part of the building they're doing up, they literally do everything themselves."

A lesson they taught him, he said, is that "you might be at your lowest at some point, but you can get through this, and you can make a success of whatever you want to do." 

The chef pre-empts many of his statements with thoughts for everyone who has suffered, materially or otherwise, as a result of the pandemic, and explains that there was a time when the outlook looked very bleak for them, too.

"The past year has been so rough - so many people have lost their jobs, so many restaurants have closed. It really hurts to think about it." 

"For us, going into lockdown was such a weird situation." he explained.

"We knew were going to have to shut, but when it was being talked about, there was no such word as furlough and we had some really horrible conversations about, 'if this situation arises, do we need to lose this amount of people, maybe this person is with their parents so they're okay...'" 

"It's never fair to make that decision, on anybody. Luckily furlough came into play and nobody got made redundant, nobody lost their job."

From there, having taken on new staff who couldn't get furlough because of timings, Tommy and the team that owns and operates The Black Swan and Roots came up with Made in Oldstead. 

Starting locally, on a small scale, Sean said, "there was just a massive demand," and has now the operation has been ramped up to employ 60 people. 

"We've gone from having conversations like 'we're not sure what we're going to do about people's careers and who we can keep on' to actually, we've now employed more people than would have ever been able to. 

"That's been a huge positive."

Not only that, but Roots has gone from strength to strength, and the pandemic has seen them take it in a direction that has borne fruits: A Michelin star, only overshadowed by TSC's One to Watch award. 

"Winning a 'One to Watch' award was an amazing thing," he said. "The amount of support you realise you have - you know you have it but when people are voting for you so religiously, sharing it, saying 'please vote for Sean, he really does deserve to win', that's amazing." 

Tactfully talking about his TSC award before mentioning Roots' newly-awarded Michelin star, York's first, he nonetheless conceded how incredible this felt. 

"It's an amazing achievement, it's just so good. And it makes it so exciting that we can hopefully reopen in May. It's a small positive out of the huge negatives that have happened to the hospitality industry in the last year." 

The brain is the body's most active muscle

While he sings the hymns of positivity, Sean's experience of the world, like many, isn't always rosy.

The chef has suffered from mental health issues for some years now, and he is open in admitting that anxiety and depression are still part of his life.

"When I had the conversation." he said, "I was literally at my lowest." 

"I sat down with Tommy and told him how I was feeling, and he was just like, 'I'm so glad that you've finally said something. There was obviously something wrong and I've tried to get out of you but you've not said anything.'"

"I just didn't think people would understand, and he was like, 'look, everybody understands. By talking about it now, you're going to realise that so many people suffer with the same thing.' And he was right." 

The chef is hopeful that the direction of the conversation will help others in his position to speak up, and that it will become as normal as treating physical injuries and afflictions one day. 

"Your brain is the biggest muscle in your body and has got so much to compute," he said. "Sometimes it's just strange. It's no different to having a pulled hamstring or something. It's a muscle and there's going to be problems, so just go get the help." 

"If you broke your leg, you would go to hospital. If you had a heart attack, you would go to hospital. So it's no different with your brain."

An openness to conversation and a natural instinct to look after one another is something that both Sean and Tommy believe in instilling into their teams.

"I know that I can ring Tommy up at any time of the day, to have a conversation and he would stay on the phone or see me in person no matter what. And the same goes for my team." 

Looking ahead

We have no doubts that we can expect great things of Sean and his career, but the chef stresses to no end that he is content with how much potential there is in his current position - and his only projects for the future are to marry his partner, Sam Haigh, and to go back to enjoying the things of normal life.

"It'd just be nice to see bars, clubs, pubs, restaurants, the whole industry really buzzing," he said. "To see people enjoy themselves again would be massive." 

"I can't ignore that so many people are still struggling, but you have to be positive. That's one thing that I've learned: you do have to take positives out of everything. Having those dates almost does look like there's a way out, and we haven't had that for twelve months." 

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The Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 12th March 2021

'You might be at your lowest at some point but you can get through this and you can make a success of whatever you want to do'