Tom Clarke, Head Chef, L'Ortolan

The  Staff Canteen

Tom Clarke is head chef at Michelin starred, L'Ortolan in Reading. Tom Clarke took over in January 2015, before that he had been acting head chef for over a year working closely with Alan Murchison.

Tom's passion for cooking began when he was young while he was growing up in Essex, his grandparents owned a bakery and it was where he was first introduced to game and butchery.

Tom spoke to The Staff Canteen about why he loves being in the kitchen, why it’s important to build a relationship with suppliers and his thoughts on Michelin stars.

Why did you want to be a chef?

I started at quite a young age, my grandparents own a bakery, it has been in our family for years, and it was part of a small community - some people would bring game in and other things, so I used to see that hung up. There would be partridges and what not in the garage and also rabbit and hare.

At school, I did work experience at a local restaurant called Northfield Brassiere, so I did a week there and I liked it so much I knew that’s what I wanted to do. I started off there as a kitchen porter and when it came to GCSEs, I made sure I didn’t do catering just because if it didn’t work, I’d have something to fall back on. The restaurant saw my interest and they said if I came in earlier I could do some prep.

salted chocolate
salted chocolate

I was lucky because it was my first full-time job, but I learnt how to break down whole pigs, venison, a whole lamb - all by the time I was 16.

Why do you still love being in the kitchen?

I like the atmosphere. Working within the kitchen, talking amongst the guys, prepping meat, prepping fish and showing guys how to do things they don’t know. I like spotting something when they don’t know and teaching tricks to make it easier. I also like creating new dishes but most of all I like working alongside the guys - I don’t like working in the office doing the paperwork but It’s something you have to do.

Info bar

5 top restaurants
Midsummer house
Le Manoir
Tim Raue
(Based on places I have eaten to date)

Favourite cookbook
Loving Daniel Clifford's midsummer house cookbook

Guilty pleasures
Hellmans mayonnaise
Dirty burger, onion rings and chips
Heinz baked beans for something quick

Rising stars
Through guys I have worked with over the years I would have to say: Sam Brennen, Josh Gledhill, Jack Bruce, Oliver James and James Greatorex.

Based on raw talent and a will to work hard and know what they want to achieve.

You’ve worked at some amazing Michelin star kitchens, what inspired your career path?

I was at Le Talbooth which is one of the best restaurants in the area but I decided I wanted to go to London, so I sent my CV out and ended up at Lombard Street. It didn’t work out, so I looked around and went to Le Manoir aux Quat Saisons and started on a trial bases and ended up staying. 

L'Ortolan   171
Tom Clarke

Going there I thought I knew how to cook and when I got there, I realised I didn’t. There was so much to learn, not just in the way of technique but also the philosophy behind it. I have taken all of that through to what I do today, and I try to implement that in my kitchen.

I went to work in France, the whole reason for going there is because my whole CV is French cuisine and I wanted to experience the whole culture - it was a good plan and a good idea. I spent a year there but I then I got an offer to return to the UK with Alan (Murchison) to be head chef at L’Ortolan and I thought it was a great opportunity. 

Are there any challenges you have faced at L’Ortolan? 

The toughest thing has been retaining staff because some people do six months here, six months there and it’s finding the right team to work together. We offer apprenticeships and some have become full-time staff members, so we are trying to build our own team. It’s important to try and reduce the hours down and make it easier so they’re not stressed and we can get the best out of them.

seabream and sweetcorn
seabream and sweetcorn

Is it important for a chef and/or restaurant to have a Michelin star?

I do think it’s very important but it’s very appealing to have that rating along with the AA rosettes. It’s appealing because people see it and but obviously there’s a lot more expectation when you get that label. There’s more criticism and judging the higher you go. The rating is good for us and the people in our business. The main thing is to have happy guests because if we didn’t, we wouldn’t have a full restaurant.

How important is it to build a relationship with suppliers?

Very, we get an understanding of what they are and they understand what we are looking for and having that good relationship means they make sure we are getting the best stuff - we have a set standard so they make sure that they can consistently deliver that. They know what I’m looking for and they won’t send it unless it’s perfect.

They want to do the best for you as the better the product, the more likely we are to use them again.

goose and pineapple
goose and pineapple

Is the menu created by you?

It’s mostly me, but I ask the sous chef and the chefs on each section to come up with ideas and dishes and try and help so they can learn. I want them to feel like they are working towards something which they have developed more than anything. I will explain what I am looking for and they will work on something and then come to me and I will give them the final say and give them feedback. I will help as much as possible to make their dish menu ready.

What is your food style?

A lot of it is using French techniques, modern French with a twist - it’s hard to pin it down! I like the Japanese combinations, I have been using them for quite a few years to put it into some of the dishes as much as possible using English produce.

What’s your plan for the next 5 years?

I would like my own restaurant, but I know I am not ready to run both the restaurant and the kitchen. I know I still have things to learn so I am in no rush. I am very happy here and I have a family and they are happy in the area. I’m looking to develop the team here and try to improve everything we do.


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The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 3rd January 2019

Tom Clarke, Head Chef, L'Ortolan