Photograph by Ciaran McCrickard
Tom Sellers has a lot on his plate. Not literally, having devised a style of cooking and presentation that combines artfulness and minimalism. What I mean is that his head, as is the case for many ambitious chefs at the top level, is heavy.
Nottingham-born Sellers' first solo venture, Restaurant Story, was a critical and commercial success. It's as concept-heavy as restaurants get – as the name suggests, each course is designed to invoke memories, so the whole menu forms a narrative by the end of the meal – and won a Michelin star in April 2015, five months after it opened. More recently, he's taken on a pub, The Lickfold Inn in West Sussex, and the culinary direction of Restaurant Ours, a huge, vibrant space set over two floors in South Kensington.
While Ours has plenty of admirers, it's also been divisive, especially in its reception by the London restaurant press. After one or two notable negative reviews, Sellers felt the need to post an open response on his website that challenged Evening Standard critic Fay Maschler's bruising one-star verdict, and in turn looked to provide a voice for chefs and restaurant staff.
His intention was to combat what he felt was a case of his reputation working against him, and to question the relationship between chefs and critics – not to mention the relationship between critics' words and reality.
When we caught up with Sellers at the undeniably beautiful Restaurant Ours he was, as his reputation suggests, a bag of contradictions: aloof but passionate; browbeaten but effusive. He opened up about his route into cooking, his mentors, and how quickly industry awards and media acclaim can be used as a stick to beat chefs with.
What's abundantly clear is that balancing restaurant openings is a tricky business. When it came to setting up his first shop, the narrative made it look easy. With Ours, it's clearly a different story...
The public is always going to have a preconception of what you are
How did you get into cooking?
I started washing pots in a pub when I was 15, and then I very quickly realised I wanted to cook. I left Nottingham, moved to London and took my first job as a commis chef at Tom Aikens. At the time, it was probably one of the most progressive and best restaurants in the city. I worked there for a couple of years, then I moved to America and worked for Thomas Keller at Per Se as a chef de partie. Then I went to Noma in Denmark, which obviously everyone knows. I worked at Noma for a couple of years before opening Story.
Of all the chefs you worked under, is there anyone's identity you see most clearly in your own food?
I think 'identity' is a great word. I work really hard on our restaurants having their own identity, and I guess that was something that was probably influenced by René [Redzepi, head chef at Noma], because when I was at Noma I saw that he was very much about identity. I think you can only really find that when you start cooking your own food, and that's a process, because of course everyone influenced me at the beginning.
Restaurant Story won a Michelin star quite early on. How does that affect your thinking when it comes to opening a new restaurant?
I don't think it affects my thinking; I think it affects the thinking of the general public. They probably have a perception of something I'm doing before they come through the door. That's what I've learned with this project – however much you try to direct people down the path you want them to go down, they're always going to have this preconception of what you are.
Story had so much so much success so quickly and so early, it's striving for more accolades and it's very niche in that respect. People who then come to another establishment, whether they want to or not, will already have a preconception about what I'm trying to achieve. Taking that viewpoint, it makes it more difficult.
You're a well-decorated chef – what do industry awards mean to you, and to the restaurant scene generally?
Firstly, I think Michelin is the holy grail. I don't care what anyone says. People say it's not current enough anymore, but I think there is no higher achievement in this industry, and there never will be. We're in a lot of the top tens and top 20s of pretty much every guide, and yes, that's great, too. It's a byproduct of us working really hard and it's always nice – it's like the icing on the cake.
I also think, from an industry point of view, AA is massively influential. We have four rosettes with them, which is a huge achievement – obviously we want five and we're working very hard to do that. We want to turn one Michelin star into two, as well, and we're working really hard to do that.
A lot of the other industry awards are voted for by the industry, and I don't really engage in the industry on that level. That's by choice, but it's not because I disregard it – it's because I just like to do my thing.
You're chef-patron at Story, but you're culinary director at Ours. What's the difference in the role?
It's my restaurant, and my name above the door, but [the name of the role] was my way of trying to let the public know that I won't be cooking here every day of the week. My home, where I cook and where I create, is at Story. Here, of course, the menu is my brainchild, as well as the concepts and the idea, but ultimately I won't be here executing it daily like I am at Story. We were trying to get that across to the general public in the most user-friendly way. How do you say that in two words, you know? Because if I were to say, "Yes, this is my restaurant, and I'm the chef-patron," then people will come in and ask "Well, where is he?" The bottom line is I can't be in more than one place at one time, and I think we just tried to manage that aspect.
Did you expect a different audience, bearing in mind the location?
I took on this restaurant because for me it was one of the most desirable spaces in London, and when you're sitting here you can't really argue with that. It's an amazing space. I had a crush on it, and I wanted to deliver a restaurant that hopefully people could come to and have a good time at. If the counter product of that is becoming a place where people from West London come – because it's in West London – and celebrities come because they want to come here, then it's a byproduct. That's not our selling point, by any stretch of imagination. But you have to play to your strengths as well – I said from the beginning I never wanted to alienate anybody. I want everybody to come to this restaurant, and we do get a good balance of people.
But I do think, before I even opened this restaurant, the press wanted to compare it to Chiltern Firehouse, they wanted to compare it to The Ivy, they wanted to compare it to a place where that demographic of money and celebrity would come.
Restaurant Ours – in pictures:
Do you think conceptual restaurants have more of a hurdle to clear when it comes to public perception?
Yes and no. The concept here is we just wanted to create a place where people want to have a good time – hence the vast open spaces, the music, the relaxed approach to the food, the cocktails, the walkway. I want a space where people come and have fun. I feel it's been used against us slightly here, but whatever. I don't think there's much to not 'get' here, unless you're 79 years old [sic] and you have an agenda.
At the end of the day, I'm the one here putting everything on the line – I work extremely hard, and I'm in hospitality because I like to give to people. That's my job. I want to create great opportunities for the hundreds of staff that work with me now. I felt that the journalism was lazy and 100% had an agenda. But I'm a big believer in 'the cream always rises', you know? This restaurant will be here for a long time, and it will become as good as Story in its own right. But that takes time, it takes dedication, it takes hard work, and it takes great people. We're working extremely hard every day to make this a better place. Like I said, I believe in the concept, I believe in the food, I believe in the space. If I didn't, I wouldn't be here.
You've had something of a love-hate relationship with restaurant critics recently. How do you feel the relationship between critics and restaurateurs works?
When I responded to the [Fay Maschler]review, everyone was like, "Oh my God. He said something." Yes, like I'm actually a real person. I think when you're in these shoes and you get critiqued every day of your life, then why shouldn't we be able to say something back? And why can't we just say it? Why do we have to be advised by our publicist, or our agent, or our representatives?
Personally, I don't need critics and reviewers. Critics and reviewers need restaurateurs, because without us they don't have a job. That's what frustrates me. They have every right not to like my restaurants – fine, whatever, cool. Food is one of the most subjective things in the world, like music, like being slated in a review because they don't like the music or they don't like what the staff are wearing, or they don't like the entrance. Come on, man. What's your agenda here? To just not like anything? Cool, ok. But to attack me personally, it's just not cool, man.
If we get critiqued every day, why shouldn't we be able to say something back?
It was very personal to me. And I have a right to protect my business, my staff, myself, my livelihood, this industry. It's about time some fucker in this industry had the bollocks to say, "Do you know what? Cool, we go through this every day, but every now and then, shit like that is not good." You can't behave like that and there be no repercussions. It's disheartening. That shit hurts, and that's what people need to realise. And it doesn't just hurt me, it filters down to everyone; it fucking hurts the 150 people who work here that I'm responsible for.
You strike me as someone who, first and foremost, loves to cook. How difficult is the other side of the industry to deal with?
My time is no more precious than anyone else's. I'm no more important than anyone else. If I have an appointment, if I need to do press or media appointments, I'll do them. Do I enjoy them? I've had bad experiences when the media have misinterpreted the way I've said things, and things purely being said that I never said. So I think as that goes on, you get jaded by it but I don't by any means think it's not necessary. Of course, it's part and parcel of what we do, and I guess it comes along with success.
When I first started Story I felt like everyone wanted to support it; that I was this young kid who had come from pretty much nothing, who had worked really hard his whole career for great chefs; he'd gone out there and opened his own restaurant, and people wanted to support that. Fast-forward three years and now I guess I'm pretty successful, so I have a slightly different image. That's human nature, because anyone who's successful has a hundred people who want to tell them they're not as great as people want to make out that they are.
Has any of this affected your love for the restaurant industry?
The industry is great. I love being part of it. I want young chefs to have a voice. Like I've said, people should choose the path they want to choose and they should feel that they can do that and be supported in it, whether they succeed or fail. There are many failures. I've failed many times. You just have to keep going, you've got to be resilient, stay focused, and yes, of course be influenced and be guided, but don't be over-influenced. I almost felt like I was made to feel like I was stupid and naïve by certain people when I started making my own decisions. But that's what's great about this industry: there are no rules. You can do whatever you want. I can cook whatever I want in whatever environment I choose, and who's really to say whether it's right or wrong?
Tell me about your upcoming book…
I've been writing it for two-and-a-half years – it comes out late September. So, yes, obviously I've been working on it a very long time, and it's something that I've given a lot to.
It's not just a cookbook; it's kind of a diary. It talks about my philosophy of food, it talks about who I've worked for, it talks about everything. It talks about critics, it talks about social media, too. Again, it's very honest. I'm sure it will ruffle some feathers.