'The first time I saw a plate again, I didn't know what to do with it'

Tanwen Dawn-Hiscox

Tanwen Dawn-Hiscox

Deputy Editor 5th October 2020

IN ASSOCIATION WITH

"You're not allowed fun at the moment, are you."

Asking Tom 'Westy' Westerland, Lucknam Park graduate, National Chef of Wales 2018 and Great British Menu 2019 contestant what he likes to do in his spare time does seem like a moot question - as many of our favourite activities are currently either hindered by rules and regulations or banned.

"I still enjoy going out and finding new restaurants though," he said.

"I'm quite new to the area, so it's quite nice to try new places," he added, describing Berkshire, where he recently helped launch Crockers Henley, of which he is the head chef.

Tom took on the position of head chef at the restaurant three days before the lockdown hit in March. Needless to say he was forced to revise his plans.

"We all missed out on the furlough by about 18 days," he explained.

"We had a month to get the restaurant ready to open, and we had to change tactics to running a takeaway to try and push on and get some wages in."

Lockdown Brigade

Busy getting things in order before launching the restaurant, Tom and his crew were left unable to rent privately when local estate agents closed, and were forced to move into the hotel above the restaurant.

Living together was a strong bonding experience, as most of the crew had never met before.

"It was quite interesting," he smiled. "But it's done some good, because we've got an absolutely solid team now, everybody knows each other very well."

"Any arguments or gripes that we would have had were over and done with in lockdown."

"It was nice not to be alone through lockdown. You'd have the company, you could enjoy yourself, we'd all cook dinner every night and have a sit down in the restaurant."

And incongruous as it may have been, the chef said the experience put an extra bit of fire under his team to deliver on the restaurant's product.

"It really launched us into having to find what the locals wanted to do a takeaway and to develop a cuisine for that, whereas now we've properly opened, we've had to change and try and get away from that."

"Going from having food put in boxes - burgers, hot dogs, things like that - trying to get across to the local community what we're trying to do and what we are doing is very difficult, but we're getting there now."

"It was a real culture shock. I got a real knack for closing the box and writing on the lid," he jested.

Doing between 150-200 covers on some nights, he said: "It was a completely different set up, we'd have all of our checks that'd be pre-order before service, so you'd have 200 covers on the board ready to go, and we'd be serving 15-20 covers every 15 minutes."

"It was quite amazing to see a different side of how services work."

"I'll tell you what - I don't envy takeaways. They've got a very difficult job."

"The first time I saw a plate again, I didn't know what to do with it," he joked.

When preparing takeaway food, he said: "You'd have to think about so many things - how well it would travel, how long it would stay hot, the texture of how things would change, how it would look in a box."

"We used to get some quite interesting pictures," he laughed. "People would try and plate it up at home and show us. You'd put it in the box and it would be pristine and it'd come back and it would look like someone had shaken it around."

Crockers

Crockers has three restaurants within the same building: two chef's tables, one pan-Asian headed by head chef Iain Dixon, another, with modern British food cooked by chef and fellow Lucknam alumnus Dean Westcar, and The Grill, which he oversees.

Pushing forward with the original vision they had for the venue pre-pandemic, the chef explained: "We didn't want to compromise on anything. We wanted to stick to our guns, so we opened up, kept the interior design, finished everything off, all the building work was finished a week before we opened and we cracked on with what we wanted to do."

And despite having spent as long as he did at Lucknam Park, the chef feels like he has a cooking style of his own.

"Hywel [Jones] was very good at giving me a lot of my own creative space and helping me develop my own dishes," he said.

"I was quite lucky in that when I came I'd already developed my cuisine quite a lot - and since I've been at Crockers, I've been given even more opportunity to be able to do that - so I'd say that I've really just started refining what I do and just upping the ante a little bit."

His charcoal grill is his favourite - and the place he starts whenever he is designing a dish.

"My style is quite fun and quirky," describing some of his new dishes, which include a duck toastie with orange and smoked ham, and his signature dish of kentucky-fried octopus.

Slow-cooked meat and root vegetables are among his favourite ingredients, he said, "because the longer you can cook something, you can develop a lot more flavour."

"I like working with humble, cheap ingredients," like underrated fish such as Guernard, "to really try and support sustainability."

"I love putting things on the menu that people may not have seen or heard of before. When they get it, it's something that they recognise and they go: 'Oi, you've served it in a way I understand' and then they get the ingredient."

Thoughts for the future

"I can see myself with Crockers for quite a long time now," the chef said.

"It's a fantastic company and they've got an amazing vision. The way they treat and take care of their staff is fantastic - we've got an amazing package where everybody gets a 45-hour week, dental care, health plan, gym membership. They're really trying to be trend setters in what we're doing for our staff, and it's something I really believe in."

As for the future of the industry, he said: "I think for the rest of this year people are really going to try and push and they're going to struggle through."

"The bit that's going to hit is going to be winter next year. January next year is going to be a real tough one."

"But the industry is going to have to pull together and hopefully there'll be a bit more support from government if we go back into lockdown," he added.

"We're all just going to have to adapt as an industry and look at what we do - maybe change what we do - to adapt to new ways of working and living."

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Tanwen Dawn-Hiscox

Tanwen Dawn-Hiscox

Deputy Editor 5th October 2020

'The first time I saw a plate again, I didn't know what to do with it'

IN ASSOCIATION WITH