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Starter for 10: interview with Tom Sellers

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Tom Sellers 2013 - Tom-Sellers-2_resized.jpg25-year-old chef Tom Sellers has had a stellar career to date, working at big-ticket restaurants such as Noma, Per Se and Tom Aikens. As he prepares to launch his own restaurant, Story, he tells Square Meal a few of his own.

Much is made of your young age – when did you decide that being a chef was the career for you?

I started cooking when I was 15, so I got a massive head start on a lot of people – by the time I was 16, I was working in London at Tom Aikens' restaurant. It was six months after I started working at Tom's that I realised I loved everything about cooking and was prepared to do whatever it took to get where I wanted to go.

Which chef has had the biggest influence on you in your career?

There are several, but I suppose when you're younger, you need more support and advice, and emotionally Tom Aikens was always there for me – I even lived with him for a while. Considering my age at the time, it was probably hard for him not to take me under his wing. Tom taught me how to cook, how to be quicker than anybody, cleaner than anybody, and more driven than anybody. It was Tom who got me the job with Thomas Keller and our relationship has gone from there.

Obviously, my time at Per Se was massively influential and character building. The way Thomas runs his kitchen, the systems he has in place and his ethos are second-to-none – it's just a different level to what anyone else is doing. I've always said that if I can get 20% of the processes Thomas has into my kitchen at Story, I'll be winning. He's a legend and I'm very lucky to know him on a personal and professional basis.

What was it like working at Noma when it was first named World's Best Restaurant at the S.Pellegrino awards?

When you see a group of people work so hard, and then receive one of the highest accolades in our industry, it's emotional. The time I was there was a good time: the focus was on getting the job done to the right standard, and the pressure was huge with René pushing us.

I think René is a genius: the way he looks at food is very special; not a lot of people look at food in that way. René wants his restaurant to be all about being in Denmark and the great produce they have there. I want Story to have a British sense of place and history.

Would you have liked to have worked at any other restaurants before setting up your own?

No, because it's very easy to become over-influenced – that's why I stopped. I could have carried on for another five years and opened a restaurant when I was 30 and I'd still have been young. But I had seen enough and I had found myself in food. Not all chefs get to that last stage. Lots of chefs can cook anything you ask them to, but they can't think up an original dish from scratch. I don't want to replicate anything and I don't want to imitate anyone. I just want to be me.

Is part of your drive fed by the desire to win the same industry awards as your mentors?

If someone had asked me what I wanted from life five years ago, I would have said I wanted to be the youngest chef to be awarded three Michelin stars. And to be honest, I would love Story to be named World's Best Restaurant some day – I didn't work in some of the best restaurants in the world not to imagine myself doing the same thing. But I've seen a lot of chefs who are driven by stars and awards and it can be soul-destroying, so I think it's very important not to become obsessed with that. I've learned that those sorts of awards come from a restaurant that has happy staff and happy guests, so we need to concentrate on getting the offering right. Now I just want a successful restaurant and whatever that leads to.

Did being expelled from school at 15 fuel your ambition to succeed?

School wasn't for me: I didn't enjoy it, I didn't apply myself, it got me into trouble and it resulted in me leaving. But in some ways, it was the best thing that ever happened to me – it forced my hand to go and do something else, and through working in a pub I found food.

I'm massively ambitious because I love what I do. However hard it's been – and working 18-hour days gets really hard – I've never woken up and not wanted to go to work. What more can I ask for in life?

What advice would you give to other young chefs?

To give everything and never give up. I believe you only get what you want if you work hard for it – talent alone won't get you there. Irrespective of how talented I or other people thought I was, I worked just as hard or harder than all the people beside me. Wherever I was working, I would look to the left and right of me and think, 'I want to be better than you'. If Story fails I want to be able to say I gave it everything. But I'm hoping that because I'll give it everything it will work out.

Tom Sellers 2013 - TomSellers1_resized.jpgIs there anything you don't like about being a chef?

Sadly, I think bloggers now have massive influence, and every day they're getting more powerful. It's really frustrating that in this industry, so much rests on other people's opinions, especially because in many other industries it doesn’t happen – if I opened a hair salon tomorrow, I wouldn't have 100 hair bloggers in there critiquing it the next day. They're an unnecessary evil and to some extent they can control the outcome of my restaurant. I don't have time for them.

What has been your biggest kitchen disaster?

Working at restaurants like Per Se, you can’t make mistakes – they're not allowed. One day, I'd made some polenta, and when I turned it out it just poured out of the tray. Service had already started and the menus had been printed, but they had to change and reprint the menu because of my mistake, which is very rare at a restaurant like that. They put artichokes on the menu instead, and all the commis-chefs had to stay behind and help me peel them instead of going home, so they all hated me. That was a pretty bad day.

I also severed the tendons in my hand in a temper at Trinity. I was very angry at something that had gone wrong in service, and in my temper I slammed my knife into my chopping board, but my hand slipped and went into the heel of the knife, and I was off work for eight weeks. That taught me not to lose my temper.

So you don't take after Tom Aikens in the temper department?

All chefs have an element of fire in them – some more than others. Tom's whole vision was that people give more and work harder under fear, but I think when you're working that way you'll take shortcuts or do something that's not necessarily correct if it saves you from getting yelled at. I know because I've been there.

I have massive fire in me, but I have had to learn to control it. At Story, a lot of people are going to find it hard taking orders from such a young chef, so it's important that I maintain that control and maturity. When things go wrong, people will be looking to me for solutions.

This feature was published in February 2013.

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