Tom Cenci, head chef, Duck and Waffle, London

The Staff Canteen

Tom Cenci entered the industry because no one in his family could cook! Now he is head chef at Duck & Waffle, working alongside executive chef Dan Doherty, 40 floors up and in a 24 hour restaurant. Having learned his trade in several Michelin-starred kitchens including 1 Lombard Street, Tom is happy to leave that very serious, disciplined environment behind for the fun kitchen he and Dan have created – they don’t take anything too seriously!

The Staff Canteen spoke to Tom about creating the menu for Duck & Waffle from scratch, managing a brigade of nearly 50 chefs and how he and Dan are so similar, they are like the same person!

How long have you known Dan for, did you know him before starting at Duck & Waffle? We’ve known each other for about 13 years. We both went to the same college, worked at the same restaurant and lived in the same house but all at different times. So we’ve worked on and off with each other for many years now and finally came together at Duck and Waffle.

>>>Head over to our Instagram where Tom is currently taking over our account for the day - showing you behind the scenes at Duck & Waffle

Technically he is now your boss, what’s that like? I used to be his boss, back in the day, I’m not sure what happened there! Dan’s very creative, very driven and he’s pushed things forward quite a lot. He can be quite full on at times but I’m calmer than he is, so the calm to his storm. We just balance each other out – good cop, bad cop kind of thing. We work very well together and we have very similar styles and personalities; it’s almost like the same person – it’s very strange!

Dream restaurant: I’d like a few actually. Sometimes I come up with ideas but they would only fit a certain concept or style, Hopefully one day I’ll have a few places of my own that could show this off. Dream Brigade:
  • Francis Mallmann
  • Rene Redzepi
  • Paul Bocuse
  • Julia Child
  • Rick Stein
Plus the current brigade from Duck & Waffle of course.

As you’ve worked together before, have you learnt anything from Dan since being at Duck & Waffle?  I’ve learnt a lot. We’ve both developed, when we first started at Duck and Waffle it was a clean slate – we didn’t have anything to go on, it was an empty restaurant at the top of a building with no name to it. We started cooking dishes for the owner and probably went through 100 different dishes but we honed our own style for ourselves at Duck and Waffle. Our food is fun and playful, Dan has taught me not to take it too seriously. I’ve always tried to stay very professional and sometimes I can be a bit strict; Dan has shown me the fun side, it’s just a job at the end of the day and you should enjoy doing it while you can.

Is it possible to enjoy working in a 24 hour restaurant, it must be quite intense? It is quite stressful and myself and Dan had never worked in a 24 hour restaurant before. The hardest thing for us to begin with was the logistics of being 40 floors up, you have to be organised because if you forget something in the fridge it’s 40 floors away! All the produce has to arrive every day, it has to get sorted and we have a small production kitchen in the basement and then it has to come up to the 40th floor – so that was big challenge. Then on top of that doing over a 1000 covers a day and of course we were open 24 hours - so all three of those things made it a challenge! When we first opened we both put in a lot of hours but we have a good team now, when we first started everyone was doing all sorts of shifts but now  we have a day team, a breakfast team, a night team - so it’s a lot better.

Is it difficult being head chef at a restaurant like Duck & Waffle, in charge of such a big brigade all the time? We have close to 50 chefs now and we’re open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year – being able to cover that amount of hours you need a big team. We always try to look after our chefs and there seems to be quite a big shortage of chefs in the industry at the moment, good chefs as well, but we don’t struggle here and I think that’s because we treat them well, with respect and give them good hours. We create a good environment within the kitchen, it’s so tough being a chef and it can be very aggressive – we try to take that out of the kitchen and leave it at the door. It seems to be paying off.

>>>Find out more about Dan Doherty in our feature with him here

So who is behind the menu? There’s a bit of everything. We try to get as many people involved as possible but at the end of the day it comes down to me and Dan. If both of us are happy it goes on, if one of us just isn’t happy it doesn’t go on the menu. We are both creative and we are always coming up with ideas; sometimes we’ll make something and it’s perfect straight away other times you make ten different versions of it and it just isn’t right. Other sous chefs get involved and make specials, we try to develop dishes from there and it’s about a team effort – not just one person dictating what goes on the menu.

The style of dishes now, has that changed completely from when you first started? Yes it’s changed completely. In the beginning, we cooked not from our hearts but stuff that made us happy. Now it’s from our heads as well – we’ve thought a lot more about what the dishes should be and the style of Duck and Waffle. It’s really grown and I think we have refined it, we tried a bit too hard at the beginning and now we’ve simplified things.

Which dishes on the menu at the moment do you really like or are particularly proud of? The Ox Cheek Doughnut – Dan came up with that dish and I had it the other day and it still makes me smile. It’s been on since day one and some of the dishes we put on are amazing and you eat them and they are great but the donut is such a nice dish to eat and it really says Duck and Waffle. It’s simple but fun and tasty. It’s a big donut and it’s got a very powerful flavour – we all say it’s like getting punched in the face! It’s a bit like marmite – you either love it or hate it.

How did you come up with the doughnut? We had a brick oven and it was the first time both of us had worked with one so we were playing around with that and trying different styles of breads. We played with the Indian style of keema naan where it has the meat inside. We cooked ox cheek and spiced it up a little bit in the bread and it just developed into the donut.

What about your dishes you’ve created – do you have a favourite? We’ve got a dish coming out soon which I’m very proud of, it’s a goat faggot. I’d been thinking about trying to do a fish faggot, I know that sounds strange but sometimes you get an idea and it just sticks with you. I’d been playing around with it for ages then a goat supplier got in touch and a lightbulb went off. Who inspires you? I’d say the chefs that inspire me are the ones I’m working with, you can take things from them rather than just copying it out of a book. When I worked at 1 Lombard Street with Herbert Berger, that was one of the biggest inspirations I had. He’s Austrian and has this very military style of organising the kitchen. He taught me so much about how to be disciplined and organised – before then I was very scatty and a bit all over the place. I also worked in Canada for a chef called Julian Owen-Mold  and he taught me to be creative, to look at a dish from a different angle.

Are the dishes at Duck & Waffle your style or are they more the style of the restaurant rather than your own? Obviously our personalities shine through in it but we honed in on a Duck and Waffle style. My own style is a bit all over the place. I was classically French trained so I know a lot of the classical dishes from the old cook books but I’m also very proud of being British and enjoy using British food in dishes. At the same time I twist towards American style food too. I like to try and take a dish that is very old or well-known and try to make it modern. It’s hard to put it in to words sometimes but I think a lot of the time it’s experiences in life that come through onto the plate – for example Dan’s wife is Italian so he has a lot of Italian influences from that and his trips to Italy.

You’ve worked in Michelin kitchens, how do they compare to where you are now? They are very different – we smile a lot more in our kitchen! Not that they don’t smile in Michelin kitchens but it’s so serious, long days, long hours and it’s not that we don’t work hard here – we just take the pressure off the chefs. It’s not drilled into them every single day that they have to be perfect – people make mistakes. I don’t miss it but if Michelin would like to give us a star I wouldn’t say no!

Your style is very much about Duck & Waffle at the moment so where do you see yourself in the future? I’m really enjoying my time here at the moment, we’ve got a great brigade and a great restaurant. I would love my own place – I’d like three different restaurants with three different styles to show off with creativity but that’s a long term goal.

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The Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 16th September 2015

Tom Cenci, head chef, Duck and Waffle, London