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Lunch With
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Lunch with Tom Sellers at Story, London

21 October 2015

We meet the UK’s most talked about chef at his Michelin-starred London restaurant, Story.

Well this is awkward.

Tom Sellers, rising star of the UK’s burgeoning food scene, and owner of the hugely popular London restaurant, Story, is late; 20 minutes late to be exact. Once here, and in-between apologising profusely, he explains how he’s only just found out about the interview, leaving us to haggle over how much time we have. Once settled and with his small white dog, Daphne, in tow, we talk.

I’d read about Tom’s transformation from slacker schoolboy to focused and driven chef who plotted his career through the kitchens of the finest restaurants in the world with a chess player’s precision. Along the way he became one of the youngest chefs in the UK with his own restaurant to boot.

With a modish side fringe and an air of mischeif about him, Tom appears younger than his 28 years, but while his face offers a warm smile and open manner, his body language tells another story. His arms are folded high around his ribcage while his torso and legs point away from me – part defensive, part ready to dash off to the next part of his day.

Like most people, he warms up as he starts to talk and the time-conscious urgency melts away as he falls into the slow lilt of his Midland accent. He’s happy to talk at length about his humble beginnings in a “normal Nottingham estate”, winding his way through tales in an unguarded manner that perhaps I should have expected from someone who’s based the concept of their restaurant around their life.

As he talks about revelling in the high-octane pressure of life in a kitchen, I wonder where this laidback guy found the drive to fight his way to the top of such a competitive industry. “I fell in love with the energy that you get from cooking,” he explains. “The camaraderie with a group of people, the pressure, the heat. I was a bit of a rogue as a kid and there was a discipline there that I connected with.”

At the age of 16, life came into focus as he decided – as he has throughout his career – that if he was going to do something, he wasn’t going to settle for second best. He knocked on the door of Tom Aiken, then London’s most innovative chef, and asked for a job. After a one-day trial he was offered a commis chef position. He leans in, offering me a snippet of classic Tom Sellers folklore: “Tom [Aiken] said, ‘I’ll pay you £12,000 a year and you work 110 hours a week.’”

It was a masterstroke, the first of Tom’s many bold leaps out of his comfort zone and into the unknown. “I found out very quickly that I was entering a very different world. Tom [Aiken] is a very intense individual who expected the highest standards in a very pressured high-speed environment.” Rising to the occasion, the previous serial underachiever found the challenge infectious.

Aiken went on to become an influential figure in Tom’s life. “He realised I had some talent and saw that I was young and driven so he invested a lot, becoming a father figure to me. I was in his kitchen 19 hours a day and it was there that I went from being a teenager to a young man.”

But like all father/son relationships there came a point where Tom felt he had to go his own way. Nervous to broach the subject with his mentor, he found the words to say he felt it was time to leave. Aiken could see Tom’s potential and arranged the job of a lifetime for his protégé at Per Se in the US, one of the world’s top restaurants. “It felt like it was a reward for all the dedication and hard work I’d done for him. I think he knew that Per Se could take me to places that he couldn’t.”

Unlike the 16-year-old who fell into food without too much of a plan, two years later Tom was now showing the clearly thought out determination and confidence that has brought him success at such a young age. “When I left London the big drive for me was that I wanted to do things, to show that I wasn’t the underachiever I’d been at school. My plan was to work with great chefs and in the back of my mind I was like: ‘One day it’ll be a dream to cook my own food.’ I truly believe I was meant to cook; to express myself with food.”

At 18, Tom left behind the life that had shaped him and bought a one-way ticket to New York. His time at Per Se gave him the skills he needed to take his skill set and sense of possibility to the next level. Watching Thomas Keller manage the place gave him a wider view of what it meant to be a chef. He started to see that he could pull together a brand and a concept to create a common goal with a group of people.

Listening to Tom, I get the sense he’s spent a lot of time talking and thinking about his ‘journey’, as he explains both his personal and professional development while in New York. However, after almost two years at Per Se Tom found himself, once again, hungry for the next challenge. Next was a brief stint in France where he found the 40-hour working week limiting, followed by a return to London for a spell at Trinity, where he focused on the business end of being a chef.

Keen to return to an elite kitchen, Aiken again orchestrated a high-profile position at the world renowned Noma restaurant in Copenhagen. “It was hard. I had to learn a new way of cooking, of thinking: It was a totally different philosophy.”

The most important thing that he learnt at Noma was that it was time to go it alone. “I didn’t care how old I was or what people were going to say to me.” With the philosophy that has defined Tom’s short career he decided that he should stop thinking about it and do it. Two years later he took the most decisive step of his career and opened London restaurant, Story.

Feeling the weight of expectation, Tom was determined that Story be a reflection of his identity and tell the tale of his background, philosophy and journey. Petrified that he would be seen only as a facsimile of his illustrious list of mentors, he created a menu grounded in traditional British cooking, with more than a nod to his working class background.

His signature recipe is the ‘candle’, a bread and beef dripping dish, inspired by his father’s favourite weekend meal. “It all started with that dish and went on from there. I always wanted a restaurant and always wanted to call it Story, because I was going to tell what I was all about. My story, my life, everything I’ve worked for: the hours of blood, sweat and tears, it all came down to this.”

Gaining a Michelin star within five months of opening was the perfect start. However, despite all the accolades and glowing reviews, the ever driven Tom is still spurred on by his first and worst review. Despite his frequent pronouncements that he’s never asked for anyone’s approval, he seems haunted by the reviewer’s opinion that Story was simply “a restaurant to tick off the list and not to revisit”.

He turns to me momentarily as if searching for sympathy, as he confesses to “standing outside in tears after reading the review thinking, ‘What have I done?’” Keen to put a positive spin on a bad situation, Tom now thinks the reviewer did him a favour. “It made me think long and hard about how we can continue to reinvent ourselves, to keep moving forward and refining what we do.”

As we begin to wrap up the interview, Tom’s body rests back and he turns the chair away from me, gazing out of the window. I sense he’s shifting into a different mode, moving away from the temporary compliance he’d offered as he prepares to step back into the lead role. Interestingly, as the photographer starts snapping away, his eyes narrow and his smile gives way to a stern frown. His whole being takes on a petulant countenance as if to portray the rock ‘n’ roll figure he’s hyped up to be in the media.

More pressing duties beckon Tom as he steps into the kitchen. Rough-housing with his team, giving everyone a friendly punch on the shoulder. I leave with the distinct impression that the man is still a boy at heart.

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