Tom Kemble, head chef, Bonhams Restaurant

The Staff Canteen

After studying a degree in the History of Art it’s very fitting that Tom Kemble is now head chef at Bonhams Restaurant which is situated within Bonhams Auction House.

Tom was 21 when he went into his first professional kitchen, starting his career at Chapter Two now Chapter, he went on to work for Chris Staines, Mikael Jonsson, Magnus Nilsson and he worked for Richard Branson in a private chalet in Switzerland.   He came back to London and became head chef at Bonhams in January last year and achieved a Michelin star in just 10 months; although it came as no surprise off the back of a fantastic review from Jay Rayner and being picked as Andy Hayler’s one to watch.

We spoke to Tom about working with Mikael Jonsson at Hedone, how a dream job on a boat in the Caribbean was the hardest job he has ever had and why his dishes are all about simplicity.

Tom Kemble, Roast Venison
Tom Kemble, Roast Venison

Becoming a chef and career to date

Did you always want to be a chef?

No. I went to university and studied the history of art! I fell in love with restaurants and eating out; I ran a greasy spoon in Nottingham, it was a student bar/café and I ran it with a friend. I was in the kitchen and after I left Uni I stayed on to manage it for a while. Then I decided to chuck myself in the deep end, move to London and have a crack at being a chef!

Which kitchen in London did you start in?

Chapter Two in Blackheath which is now Chapters, back then it was a three rosette place and the head chef was Tevor Tobin. It was a really good learning ground. It was really intense, working crazy hours - it was my first experience of fine dining.

By throwing yourself in at the deep end did you realise pretty quickly it was the industry for you?

It was a good test. Being a commis chef, working long hours, not being used to the intensity and obviously not having the skills that other chefs had. Essentially I had to work twice as fast as everyone else to learn the basic skills and at the same time get through a hectic service. But it was a real buzz and I actually loved the atmosphere of the kitchen – it was harsh but it was fair. And I learned so many fundamentals of cooking.

Did it give you the confidence to move into Michelin kitchens?

Turbot, Tom Kemble - credit: Sophia Evans
Turbot, Tom Kemble - credit: Sophia Evans

I felt after a year that I wanted to progress to a Michelin-starred restaurant. It had given me the confidence to apply to an even better kitchen and I ended up at Foliage at The Mandarin Oriental, under Chris Staines, before it became Dinner. I was there for over two years and I look back at that as probably one of my happiest times.

I have a huge amount of respect for Chris he’s a great manager of people, a great chef – it was an exciting time to be involved in a team where a lot of people have gone on to their own great things. I feel like I was involved in a very special group of chefs but obviously I didn’t know that at the time.

How did being in a Michelin-starred kitchen compare to your previous experience?

It’s more about precision, consistency, control, and the menus are longer – there’s tasting menus, surprise menus - there’s a lot more mise en place. But the joys of being in a hotel are you have that structure behind you, it’s a bit more ordered. Foliage was very progressive cooking, there were lots of gels and things like that which was the cuisine at the time.

Rising stars

I really enjoyed Matthew Young’s cooking at Ellroy. Simple and well executed cooking

Guilty pleasures

Offal kebabs with plenty of beer at Black Axe Mangal never fails to disappoint
Ramen from kanada-ya
A dirty Burger with Frank’s yellow mustard

Top 5 restaurants

Sushi Harutaka

Favourite cookbooks

Ducasse’s Grand livre de cuisine Tartine bread and my first White Heat.

You spent some time cooking with Gerwin Brand at Richard Branson’s private lodge in Switzerland, his style is very classical – do you prefer that?

I do, I prefer the classical foundations of cooking. I did some great stuff at Foliage but what I’m doing now is rooted in simplicity – not having too many elements on the plate.

Your next role was on a boat as a private chef in the Caribbean - this sounds like the perfect job!

That was the hardest job I’ve ever had! One chef cooking for 14 crew and up to 16 guests, a daily changing menu and having to procure crazy produce in the middle of nowhere. I was working in a really tight space with no support – it was really challenging but I actually learned a lot. I was working for a very wealthy banker who wanted a different cuisine every day. I’d trained in some really good restaurants but nobody really talks about different cuisines when you are doing fine dining all the time. This was an opportunity to teach myself Mexican, Thai, learning from scratch and using books to cook for my boss. I may not be using what I learned here at Bonhams but I still see it as valuable.

Coming back to London to work at Hedone restaurant

Then you came back to London is that right?

Yes, I came back to London and I was quite disillusioned by restaurants in London – I don’t mean that to be disrespectful but there was nothing really exciting me and making me want to go and work there. A friend of mine told me about Hedone – this time around I really wanted to go to a produce led kitchen like River Café for example, I just wanted to cook uncomplicated food. I went to Hedone and Mikael invited me for lunch, he cooked a dish of turbot collar and roasted English ceps. That was it – two elements on the plate with a little bit of beurre noisette, it was sensational! I was sold on that meal alone.

What was it like working with Mikael?

He was cooking food that no one else in London was cooking, using a quality of produce I don’t think many restaurants could match. We were a very small team and I was there when he got the Michelin star. I started as chef de partie and became sous chef quite quickly, I stayed in that position until I left. I got a real level of understanding about produce. Learning how to handle produce properly, respect it and cook it. Also understanding unusual produce, provenance, really exploring where the best products come from. It gave me confidence in doing something simple – there may be lots of complex ideas behind his dishes but his plating was very natural and there were only ever a few elements on the plate. The balance between fat and acidity in cooking was really important with Mikael, he uses a lot of vinegars and that’s something I work with a lot at Bonhams.

He’s definitely had an influence on your style then?

Definitely, I’d say more so than any other chef. It was extremely demanding and quite unique in the fact he had never set up a restaurant before, he had never done a service before – I really felt I contributed to that first year.

Working with Magnus Nilsson at Faviken

Mikael put you in touch with Magnus Nilsson – how was that experience at Faviken?

Tom Kemble's Challans duck with beetroot, griotte cherry, endive and shiso

Tom Kemble's Challans duck with

beetroot, griotte cherry,

endive and shiso

It was minus 25 when I arrived! I initially only wanted to do a stage there but I stayed on. It was an amazing experience but it was a bit of a shock for me working there. The level of precision, focus and rigour that the chefs had was incredible. I was put in at the deep end and I was responsible for running the butchery and cooking meat and fish. It was a predominantly protein led menu and out of 50 courses I was doing a lot of them. I think it was the most demanding experience in terms of the level of cooking and we were cooking it all in pans, not in the oven and all over charcoal. It was a real exciting restaurant to be a part of and Magnus was an inspiring guy to work for.

First head chef position at Bonhams

You have worked with some amazing chefs but Bonhams is your first head chef position, tell us about the restaurant and your role?

I’d felt when I worked for Mikael at Hedone as sous chef I was doing a head chef role, but when it’s actually your name above the door and you are making all the decisions and they all stop with you – it’s a huge learning curve and a big jump. It was a completely new build and it was a lunch menu restaurant – to be competitive in Mayfair, I had to do something that was al a carte and individually priced. It’s the hardest service to fill so that was the biggest challenge, bringing people in. We were a little bit hidden as we are within an art auction house so it was slow, in hindsight it was an amazing benefit for me – I wasn’t bombarded with all of London’s critics coming in the first week. It really gave me time to settle in, become comfortable with the team I had and put food out I was happy with. Things really changed when Jay Rayner came to eat.

And you got a Michelin star within 10 months of opening – how did that feel?

I always wanted to cook food at that level but it wasn’t my sole aim to be a starred chef. We didn’t think that a star would be possible with the limited amount of services we were doing. When I found out it was all a bit surreal! Essentially we are three chefs and Theo Clench has been my sous chef since the beginning – he’s been a vital part of the team.

Gazpacho with mustard icecream, Tom Kemble

Gazpacho with mustard

icecream, Tom Kemble

The menu

Talks us through the menu at Bonhams and your style?

Produce led cooking is the description I always end up going with but I don’t think it does it justice. I look at cooking the best products sensitively and bringing out the best flavour. I work with quite classic flavour combinations, there’s nothing outlandish on my menu and I have a simple and natural approach to plating. An example of a dish I’m really happy with is the celeriac carbonara black truffle; I love celeriac and I wanted to bring out it’s natural flavour while doing something interesting with it. I treated the celeriac like pasta so it’s sliced and turned into tagliatelle, we juice some celeriac and we infuse it with Alsace bacon. On the plate you have a warmed egg yolk and it’s finished with parmesan  and black truffle – it looks simple but  a lot of thought has gone in to it.

What’s your plan for the future and are you glad you chose this industry after your degree?

Looking back to when I was at Chapter Two I never thought this was where I would be – but I don’t regret the way I got here it was an experience and opportunity. I think if you are patient you will get where you want to be.    

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The Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 4th February 2016

Tom Kemble, head chef, Bonhams Restaurant