10 Minutes with: Tommy Heaney

The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 17th February 2017

Having trained under Michelin-starred chefs Richard Davies, David Everitt-Matthias and Ollie Dabbous, Tommy Heaney is now the head chef of Leicester’s restaurant at The Great House, a hotel based in Bridgend, South Wales. 

Irish chef Tommy Heaney’s first experience of the kitchen was at 14 years old washing dishes one summer at his uncle, Damien Heaney’s Legends restaurant in America. But Tommy soon found himself helping on the larder and pastry section, and fell in love with the artistic side of plating a dish and the competitive nature of the kitchen.

Welsh lamb, burnt onion, morels, black olive, pistachio

Welsh lamb, burnt onion,

morels, black olive, pistachio

It was from his uncle that Tommy learnt the basics of cooking, the importance of flavour and how to run a kitchen. Though the latter took on a literal meaning, an unfortunate incident meant that the sous chef was missing from lunch service leaving a young Tommy on the pass, stoves, larder and pastry with a harassed restaurant manager behind him.

“I didn’t have a clue,” said Tommy. “I didn’t know the difference between a piece of swordfish, snapper or rockfish. The only thing I knew was that the salmon was the pink one!”

Luckily, Tommy survived lunch service that day (and sold a lot of salmon!) and still remembers the panic and excitement of it all, and the incredibly proud feeling of getting his first customer compliment. “From that day on, I knew there was only one thing I was interested in doing,” said Tommy.

Since then, Tommy has built quite an impressive culinary CV, including working with the late Tony Hughes in Belfast.

“Tony was amazing, he was nearly 70 when I started working with him,” said Tommy. “But there wasn’t a question about food he didn’t know the answer to. He taught me methods that I haven’t seen to this day.”

The Great House
The Great House

However, Tommy said he regrets the career path he took in his early twenties. “I was too focused on trying to become the boss and the best young head chef,” said Tommy. “I should’ve been focusing on being a good cook first.”

He added, “I wanted to start cooking what I wanted to cook but I was behind everyone else now as I lost nearly 5 years in the kitchen.”

Tommy decided to hone his culinary skills by getting experience with Michelin-starred chefs, including Richard Davies at Manor House, David Everitt-Matthias at Le Champignon Sauvage and Ollie Dabbous at Dabbous. Tommy said it was a strange feeling working as a commis chef again at nearly 30 years old but he couldn’t thank the chefs enough for the opportunity they gave him.

“All three have had a massive influence on my career,” he commented. “I’m still pestering them with questions every now and again.”

Tommy has also worked in many restaurants abroad, including at the Whitewater restaurant in Manly, Australia. While other backpackers spent their time surfing on the coast, Tommy spent 6 months learning a whole new style of cooking from the Asian influences on Whitewater’s menu.

Olive oil poached cod, ratte potato, greens, smoked mussels, garlic buttermilk

Olive oil poached cod, ratte potato,

greens, smoked mussels, garlic buttermilk

More memorably though, Tommy worked a stint at the two Michelin-starred Casa Marcial with chef Nacho Manzano, after travelling through France and Spain with his dad and uncle.

“We booked a cabin to stay in Asturias close to the Picos Mountains,” explained Tommy. “I made reservations at Casa Marcial. After dinner, Nacho Manzano came out to introduce himself with his sister translating. I asked if he minded showing me the kitchen. I was only there for 10 days, so asked if he minded me coming in to work for a couple of days. He looked at me a bit strangely.. ‘are you serious?’ she said.

“It was a great experience, a total eye opener to see how differently kitchens in Spain operate,” said Tommy, “Nacho Manzano is a total gentleman and really made me feel welcome.”

In recent years, Tommy has been living in South Wales with his family. He worked as head chef of Bar 44, a popular Spanish tapas restaurant in Cowbridge, before moving to Leicester’s Restaurant at the Great House Hotel in Laleston, Bridgend in 2014.

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In 2016, Leicester’s Restaurant was named Best Hotel Restaurant in Wales at the Food and Drink Awards, something which Tommy and the team are very proud of.

The Great House Restaurant
Leicester’s at The Great House 

“It’s a little bit of an extra boost and motivation to make you keep on pushing that bit further,” explained Tommy. “For me, it’s the feedback from customers and my own goals that make me continue to want to evolve and push for bigger and better things.”

Tommy describes his food as honest, delicate and pure but packed with flavour where each element on the plate has an important role to play.

“Our menus change pretty much daily so there's always something new to try. We're always pushing to be the best we can and develop new ideas,” said Tommy. “Recently, I’ve found a love for barbequing, smoking food and cooking on natural embers.”

Supporting local, seasonal produce, Tommy has a local forager who sources ingredients for Leicester’s (he was introduced to the idea of foraging after working with David Everitt-Matthias). Yet, he isn’t afraid of reaching further afield and using flavours and ingredients he discovered on his culinary adventures in Australia, Asia and Spain.

Now at 34 years old, Tommy tries to run a kitchen that is fun and friendly but can be focused and professional once service starts.

“Some days we spend 16 hours a day in the kitchen so it must be educational and enjoyable at the same time,” he explained.

Treacle and soy cured salmon, langoustine,  wasabi, seaweed, bloody orange

Treacle and soy cured salmon,

langoustine,  wasabi, seaweed, bloody orange

“In my opinion, the days of screaming at your team, throwing utensils and verbally abusing members of your team are very much gone,” said Tommy. “I’m not afraid to ask fellow chefs questions and try to encourage my chefs to ask as many questions as possible.

“It’s not just the head chefs or sous chefs, I have had commis and chef de parties make mistakes in our kitchen and take inspiration from their mistakes. Every chef is different and the approach they take to cooking or running a kitchen can also be very different. I learnt that to be respected you first have to gain respect!” he added.

So as Tommy continues his success at Leicester’s, are there plans for the restaurant in 2017?

“Going forward we are really focused on making Leicester’s a more relaxed environment,” said Tommy. “I wouldn’t say my food is fine dining and feel it’s extremely important that the restaurant and service compliment the food.

“Personally, I think further down the line I will open my own restaurant,” added Tommy. “I wouldn’t say I’ve been actively looking but it is something I intend on doing sooner or later, whether it be a pub or restaurant remains to be seen.”

By Lauren Phillips

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The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 17th February 2017

10 Minutes with: Tommy Heaney