Tom Sellers, Story, London

The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 8th February 2013

IN ASSOCIATION WITH

In Association with Major International

London is still waiting with baited breath for the opening of Tom Seller’s restaurant, Story. Tom has been hailed as the prodigy of culinary talent including Tom Aikens, Thomas Keller, René Redzepi and Adam Byatt. Louise Thomas meets Tom at the restaurant’s site in Tower Bridge to find out how he feels about the expectations of his opening. You were kicked out of school at 15: what impact did this have on you and how have you adapted to the discipline of the kitchen? I never knew what I wanted to do, maybe this is what I was destined to do and I would have found it another way. Being kicked out of school at that age pushed time forward for me and I was given a three-year head start. I found food and cooking at an age when you absorb things very quickly. Because I’d never really applied myself in a school environment, when I found something I really enjoyed doing it was quite the opposite – to the point where it became quite obsessive. Because I loved it, it was easy to adapt to the regime of the kitchen. I worked with Tom [Aikens] who is known for being very strict and running a hard kitchen. It was what I needed as an individual; I wanted to be disciplined, because I wanted to be there – I wanted to do it. Of course, there were times when I found it difficult and there were a few times when words were said; things happen in the kitchen and you walk out, you tell them what for, but you come back five minutes later. I went into a kitchen as a boy and very quickly became a man. Prior to Tom Aikens you started in a pub in Nottingham; what made you make the move to London and into fine dining? It was a gastropub; it wasn't just burgers and chips. The chef was from London and he was the person exposing me to people like Tom, showing me cookbooks and educating me about what food really could be. He had previously worked at The Fat Duck and Pied à Terre – amazing restaurants. At the time I had no idea what these places were: I was like, "what's The Fat Duck? Sounds shit..." My head chef felt I was naturally very talented with food and he was the one who really pushed me to consider moving to London. I don't think he ever thought I would go and work for Tom, but it happened. I went to Tom’s when I was 16, but I had no idea who this guy was. I had been told this was the best restaurant in London at the time, and it was – everyone wanted to work there and everyone wanted to eat there. I remember being so nervous when I went down for the day; I got there at about quarter to eight and I thought I was early, but I walked in and the kitchen was in full flow. I had never seen anything like it – sixteen chefs going at it and Tom in the centre of it all: shouting, inspiring, teaching and sweating. When I came out I knew I wanted to work there; his food was amazing, unbelievable. A week later I moved to London and I stayed with Tom for two and a half years – I was one of his longest servers. Our relationship is ongoing and we speak regularly; he's been a massive support with what's happening. Why do you feel you’re ready to take on your own restaurant and what have you done to prepare for this responsibility? I’m definitely ready to take on a restaurant. I know what my food is; that’s what makes me ready to cook. Towards the end of my time at noma, I realised I had found myself in food. I didn’t want my style to become over-influenced – I knew what I wanted to cook. That was the starting point. When I came back from Denmark I was approached by several people who were interested in investing in me – it just escalated from there. How did the opportunity come about to open a restaurant? When I got back from noma, I thought I’d do a pop up and see how it went. Originally it was meant to be one night, thirty people – mostly for friends and family – and I scraped the money together myself. Then it went viral; it just went crazy – everybody wanted to come. If I could score myself out of ten for the pop up, I’d give myself a five. It wasn’t an environment I was used to, I didn’t have a great amount of staff, I had to work with what I had and it was very difficult, but so many great people came on board and helped me. I felt lucky and humbled to be in that position. After that, the flame was lit and it was just a matter of time before I opened my own restaurant. Adam [Byatt] and I began actively looking for sites together; Adam always wanted to be involved – we didn’t know how or why it would work financially but I wanted him to be involved for everything that he brings to the table that isn’t food. Adam’s opened five restaurants: some have worked, some have failed, but he’s seen it all. He’s a very well rounded individual and he keeps my feet firmly on the ground. There’s a big buzz around your opening, over 5,000 people tried to book for your pop up, Foreword: how do you feel about this response? Massively humbled – I have to keep bringing myself back to reality. Words can’t really describe how I feel about the response so far. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again, it’s all smoke right now. The restaurant isn’t finished yet; the building needs to be completed, we need to open and then I need to deliver on what people are expecting, which is a huge amount of pressure. There’s no middle ground here for anyone, especially myself, but I believe we will get it right. Who’s been the biggest influence on your career? Everyone I’ve worked for has had the same amount of influence but in different ways. Tom believed in me from nothing. He saw something in me and he built me up and knocked me back down over and over for two and a half years. Tom influenced me just as a raw cook: his talent, his ability. Tom as a cook – take everything else out the picture, what people think of him, his history; just strip everything back down to cooking – if he just cooks, his palate, his speed, his chain of thought is hugely inspiring. At that age, I needed to be inspired through food. He gave that to me in bundles. So much influence of how Thomas [Keller] runs his restaurant goes into what I will be doing at Story. Not necessarily the stuff people see, but the systems, the structure, how to look after your staff, how to maintain your restaurant. The whole ethos behind the way he runs his business was so inspiring, his dedication to the cause. The details that make an experience – the finer things that people don’t really see. I’ve always naturally been very good as an individual in making people work for me. Adam spotted that and smoothed off the rough edges during my time at Trinity: in terms of educating me about business, running staff and running a room. I didn’t have to go there and learn how to cook, which was nice. I went there and I taught people and I showed them new things. It worked really well for me and Adam and it gave us this balance. Our relationship grew – of course we had our moments, and we still do, but I think that’s healthy and it shows a really strong relationship. To go to noma – there’s nothing more to say. If you can’t be inspired by noma you probably shouldn’t be cooking. Even now, there are things that René did that I don’t understand and I worked next to him for a good amount of time – noma was my finishing school. You’re a Nottingham boy that’s worked across the globe; why did you choose London to open? London chose me. I always thought about opening back home, but let’s be real about it on a business level. All great food comes from the capital; I like London as a city and I spend a lot of time here. I know all the suppliers here and they definitely know me. I can work with them well; they understand what I want, the quality I need. The clientele for Story are in London; I have to look at that. It’s a big risk to open in the country; of course, the costs are lower, but for me I wanted to go as big as possible – you can’t get much bigger than Tower Bridge. That’s why really, it all made sense, logically, business-wise. I fell in love with the site when it was just a toilet block; I could see what it could be with Tower Bridge looming over – what more do you want in life? What are the goals for the business and are you aiming for a Michelin star, to be listed in the world’s best restaurants? That’s such a loaded question. I don’t want to talk about stars or guides. I’ve surrounded my whole life with those kinds of things. I’ve worked in three three-stars, two two-stars and a one star; I’ve seen enough about stars. The goal is to have a busy restaurant – full stop. I want every guest to leave and for them to not only be satisfied, but slightly wowed, intrigued, maybe a little confused about what they’ve experienced, but very happy. That’s the goal. Nothing else right now.
The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 8th February 2013

Tom Sellers, Story, London

IN ASSOCIATION WITH