Tommy Heaney, chef owner, Heaney's

The  Staff Canteen

Tommy Heaney is the chef owner of Heaney's in Cardiff. 

The chef wound up working in a kitchen when his mum, a schoolteacher, sent him to the US to work with his uncle in an attempt to temper his unruly behaviour. 

We spoke to Tommy about his rapid ascent to the position of head chef and his decision to go back and stage in Michelin Star restaurants, before finally opening his own restaurant. He told us about the people that were influential in making him the chef he is today, what they taught him and what he tries to pass on to his own chefs. 

Did your parents approve of your choice of career?

They just wanted me doing something, as long as I was grafting they were fine. 

I didn’t do the whole college thing - I’m not for it or against it but at the end of the day, you choose your own path. For me, I just wanted to get to work.

I finished school when I was sixteen and I moved to Maryland, I spent two years out there working at the same restaurant. It was very classical fine dining as well, which is the complete opposite to what I do now.

Are you happy you have that grounding in fine dining?

I think it’s important that you dabble in everything. I suppose it took me to do fine dining to realise I didn’t want to do it. It wasn’t so much the food, I loved that style of food but I just didn’t like the whole tablecloths – where I was was all tuxedo kind of thing and when I go out to eat I like to chill out, I like to relax, I like to have a pint and just eat really good food.

Sometimes when you go to these fine dining restaurants, you feel like you can’t talk. That’s not really for me.

You travelled a lot while you trained didn’t you?

I spent two years in the States, then I came back and pottered around Belfast for two years.

I took over as head chef of a place – I was twenty – when I say I was competitive, for me, I wanted to be a head chef and that was it, once you get to the top you can start making your own food whereas thinking back I should’ve been working for some amazing chefs and picking their brains and learning rather than thinking that I was the bees knees because I was the head chef.

Then I left and I went to work for Tony Hughes. He was just amazing, very very old school, he was probably seventy when I worked for him and there wasn’t a question I asked him about food he didn’t know. Now, we have specs and recipes in the kitchen, I could ask Tony how to make something and he would just tell me off the top of his head.

It’s Tony that got me into the competitions and things like that. That’s what I knew that what I really wanted to do was to push forward.

People who have been influential in Tommy's career:

Mentors (1)

What was the next step for you?

After Le Mans I went travelling to Australia. 

This guy I was talking to said: ‘a friend of mine’s got a little restaurant on the beach, just a little steakhouse, nothing fancy but pop down and see him.’

Came in for a trial, no steaks, nothing involved, so I thought something isn’t right here so I said to my mate ‘ah I went into that place’ and he said ‘whereabouts’ I said ‘oh just right on the beach, straight ahead of you, glass windows,’ he said ‘no, no, no it’s upstairs’ so I’d basically walked into this place, and I ended up working there for about six months.

Then I went travelling a bit, I went to Thailand, spent a bit of time there, so again, ended up at square one, skint again, as you do.

Then when I came back from Australia I went to London and I got a job with Richard Corrigan but I was probably only there a week – I didn’t have enough money to put a deposit down on a place, I was crashing on somebody’s sofa, it just didn’t work.

I got  a phone call, offering me a position up in the Lake District, in Cumbria, so I went there and took on this position as an acting head chef in a massive conference hotel.

After a year I had to move to Cardiff, I was expecting my first child. I got a job in a bar and the whole idea was to work nine to five and not get into the pressure of working eighteen-hour days.

I started opening up different brands – I did that for four years and I didn’t enjoy it if I’m honest with you but I learnt a lot about opening restaurants, due diligence and stuff that I’d never really picked up before.

One day, a mate of mine used to work for me, he called me and said ‘I’ve got a job at Claridge’s, under Ramsay as sous-chef’ and I thought: ‘well hold on, you’re not outdoing me’

I then hit thirty and decided that I was going to start doing stages in Michelin star restaurants.

18 1007 Tommy Heaney Launch 0091 Processed

Can you remember anywhere that was particularly instructive?

Yeah. I phoned Richard Davies up at Manor House and at the time I was always conscious that my pastry was lacking confidence and Richard had just won GBM – he’d just won the dessert – so I texted him and he said do you want to come and work with my pastry chef for a few days. So I wasn’t even working with him I was working with his pastry chef and that was amazing, seeing the techniques they used that I wouldn’t have seen before.

After that I phoned David-Everitt Matthias at Le Champignon Sauvage which is two Michelin star so I went up and worked there for a week.

He was brilliant. He told me he’d show me any recipes I wanted and answered any questions. You felt like a part of the team, it wasn’t like one of those stressed out kitchens that I think people assume it might be – you go in, you prep and have the radio on and it was actually a really fun place to work as well.

After that I went to Dabbous. That was a real experience for me to realise what I wanted to do and what my restaurant was going to be like. He was doing tasting menus at the time, the kitchen was really small and to see the standard of food that he was able to produce from that kitchen was absolutely phenomenal.

I clicked with Ollie and when I started looking for a venue I messaged him and asked, ‘do you think I should do it, what do you think of investors’ and considering I’d only known him for a couple of weeks he basically sent me his business plans for Dabbous and said: ‘that’s how I started, use what you want from it.’

He didn’t have to do that. Without Ollie I wouldn’t have the restaurant now.

That’s the other thing I tell chefs, don’t be afraid to ask for help because you might think that these guys are intimidating or whatever but they’re not, everyone is willing to help you if you ask.

Equipment Tommy can't live without:

Equipment you can't live without

How do you approach mentoring your team so that they get the most out of the knowledge that you have?

There’s no right or wrong way – I manage every member of staff differently, you can see their strengths and their weaknesses and it’s about building their weaknesses but also pushing confidence.

Looking at the kitchen now – could you talk to me about cooking techniques and tools that you use?

I’d say my cooking style has changed over the years because I’ve always styled the food towards the venue that it’s in.

Technique-wise we don’t tend to use foams or things like that, yeah we do use espuma guns for certain things but I suppose a couple of years ago I was using them to show that I could, but now, if that element tastes better because it’s lighter, everything is done now for a reason rather than just because it looks good or whatever else.

Would you do anything differently given the chance?

This is going to sound really cheesy but no, I am one of those people that thinks that everything happens for a reason and that’s the path I went down, as back to front as it was, I’m still happy with where we are today.

We’ve got an amazing team, we’ve got an amazing restaurant and I couldn’t be happier with it. It’s been hard work and it’s still hard work every single day. I would definitely advise that people do it differently but we opened a restaurant – we don’t have any financial backing, it’s totally independent and that’s where I like it, so if I make a mistake or mess something up, at least it’s on my shoulders.

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The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 3rd October 2019

Tommy Heaney, chef owner, Heaney's