'I’d love to get a Michelin star; I’d love to get Rosettes – they are definitely things I want to achieve but I know it will take a while and I’m in it for the long game'

The Staff Canteen

Inspired by Dan Barber’s zero waste ethos, Tom Heywood is on a mission. The York based chef talks to The Staff Canteen about his blind tasting menu which allows himself and his team to utilise ingredients from local producers which would otherwise end up as waste.

When he’s not working at The Rattle Owl, 29-year-old Tom Heywood, spends his free time foraging which he was introduced to by his former employer Peter Neville at The Pheasant Hotel in Harome. “I got really into it,” explained Tom. “The more you go out, the more you learn.

“It can be a bit of a novelty but if it’s done in the right way it can enhance any menu.

“It’s about getting back to nature – everyone picked blackberries when they were younger and that’s foraging. You just have to be careful not to pick the wrong thing!”

Based in the historical city of York, Tom is one of a growing number of chefs within independent restaurants as the food scene here continues to grow, now boasting a Michelin star, York is definitely ‘one to watch’. The Rattle Owl can be found on Micklegate, a street once known for its student bars and pubs but now featuring eateries such as Skosh and Fish and Forest.

Tom explained that when the owner took on the property five/ten years ago, people said ‘she was mental’ opening a restaurant on the street as ‘it was dead’. They couldn’t have been more wrong as it’s now thriving. Tom is clearly passionate and invested in both the restaurant and the industry – his dad was a chef, but he says he ‘didn’t have that much interest’ in the kitchen when he was little.

“I used to do a lot of baking with my grandma, so I suppose that’s where my interest in food came from. When I said I wanted to be a chef my dad said ‘don’t do it’ because he knew the hours and the sacrifice and the relentlessness of it. He said, ‘it’s such a hard job and you won’t enjoy it’ – he tried to put me off as much as he possibly could.”

Tom was 16 at the time, he didn’t enjoy anything else, and he hated school so despite his dad’s warning he carried on, taking his first ‘proper chefs job’ at Aldwark Manor which he says was a shock to the system.

“The food wasn’t the best I’ve ever seen but just being in that environment of relentless pace was a shock, but I enjoyed it.”

He continued to work around the area at J Baker's Bistro Moderne and Middlethorpe Hall before heading to Daniel Clifford’s Midsummer House.

“I wanted to work in a Michelin-starred restaurant,” said Tom. “I was only there for two or three months but it was horrible, I think I was just too young. I was very naïve; I moved down there and got a shared house and I went full on in – I just wasn’t ready for it.”

Fast forward a few years and Tom found his feet at Cottage in the Wood where he worked for 18 months.

“It was a small team, and I had the opportunity to work one on one with Chris (Archer). I really enjoyed it and the kitchen environment was more relaxed.”

Aged 26 he decided his next step was head chef, although he was aware he ‘was a bit young’ he wanted to give it a go. He worked as an agency chef before coming to The Rattle Owl to help out a friend in 2018. He was told time and time again he was too young or that he needed more experience while applying for permanent head chef roles but as fate would have it the head chef left The Rattle Owl and he was offered the position.

“I was pretty lucky, no one else would give me a chance.”

Tom introduced his own menu immediately, starting with al a carte which has now progressed to a tasting menu. He says the concept has changed massively since he started, citing a trip to Dan Barber’s Blue Hill as a moment which changed his life.

“I went to eat there and everything about the experience blew my mind. I didn’t think food could be that good – it was incredible.

“Ever since then my goal has been to follow that ethos of what he does. We are making progress, so working with local farmers and asking them what produce they need us to use rather tan telling them what we want to use.

“We’ve been using bolted leeks recently, obviously the farmers can’t sell them, but we’ve been taking them and taking the bolts out and pickling them. It means we can help them, and we want to continue working closely with them so they have no wastage.”

He added: “I knew it wouldn’t be an overnight thing, it’s taken three years to get where we are now – it’s going to take a long time, it’s a slow process but it’s really starting to work now. I can see it in the kitchen, I can see it in the food and everything we are doing is getting better and better.”

The tasting menu is blind to allow for the changing produce which may or may not be available or the limited quantities of an ingredient.

“A lot of customers enjoy the idea of just sitting down and the surprise element, it allows them to come to a restaurant they trust and often eat dishes they may not normally have chosen for themselves.

“It helps out the farmers as we can take random quantities and it helps with foraging as it can be difficult at times to forage a certain amount of a particular ingredient.”

His ethos and mission to achieve it aside, he is no different to any chef in his dream to achieve accolades. He said: “Every chef would like to achieve a Michelin star, wouldn’t they? Every chef would like to get the accolades and that is what I want but we can’t plan everything around what the guides are going to judge us on.

“I’m just really enjoying learning – learning new techniques, trying out new flavours and developing our style more and more.

“I’d love to get a Michelin star; I’d love to get Rosettes – they are definitely things I want to achieve but I know it will take a while and I’m in it for the long game.”

Tom took advantage of the pandemic lockdowns to reset his mind and look at the food differently and how they do things differently. It was the covid restrictions which prompted the introduction of a tasting menu, and he believes when they came back ‘it was the best menu they’ve ever done’.

“It set us in a new direction, after every lockdown we came back with new menus and new ideas. It’s allowed all of the chefs to sit down and have an input into the tasting menu and bounce ideas off each other.

“I know it has been terrible for many in the industry but in a way, it has been quite useful for us to have that break.”

He believes he’s found his style now and simplicity in presentation is the key to that. He’s keen to make it all about the flavours and the produce.

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The Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 13th December 2021

'I’d love to get a Michelin star; I’d love to get Rosettes – they are definitely things I want to achieve but I know it will take a while and I’m in it for the long game'