He might be homeless, but this 20-year-old prodigal, proactive and provocative chef isn’t doing too bad for himself, says LAURA ROWE
On paper you want to hate Luke Thomas – and, to be fair, if some of his critics are anything to go by, in real life that can be pretty much the case too. After all, he’s the UK’s ‘youngest head chef’, having started his professional career at the age of 12; he is in the process of opening his third and fourth restaurants around the world; and he’s just had his debut cookery book, Luke’s Cookbook, published. He’s also been likened to Justin Bieber. But, to be fair, that was in the Daily Mail so it doesn’t really count…
I first came across Luke soon after he’d been made head chef of a luxury hotel, Sanctum on the Green in Berkshire, aged 18. I was working as a home economist (that’s the ‘here’s one I made earlier’ people behind the scenes) at The Welsh Menu Food Festival, and Luke was one of several chefs on the demo line-up. He’s certainly a man – or, at that stage, a boy – to divide opinion.
He’s stridently ambitious for a start. Preferring to watch Jamie Oliver’s The Naked Chef series on TV as a child, rather than play Xbox or PlayStation, he soon started chatting to his local, award-winning butcher, Steve Vaughan.
“I used to go to my local butcher’s all the time to buy meat to cook at home, and I used to just stand there and watch him,” begins Luke, as I talk to him over plates of his signature dishes (think wild mushroom gnocchi; ham hock salad with parsley, pine nuts and a vinaigrette; and scallops with lardons, apple and chicory) at his latest restaurant, Luke’s, in Broadway. “One day he invited me in for a few days and taught me some stuff and, knowing that I really loved cooking, he put me in touch with a restaurant – Soughton Hall in Chester – that he supplied. I did a full eight-hour shift and, at the end, they said, ‘Give us a call if you ever want to come back’. I rang up and asked to go back the next day, and the day after that. Eventually they just said, ‘Stop calling, and come in whenever you want.’”
Two years later, still aged only 14, Luke started working after school and on the weekends at the Michelin-starred Chester Grosvenor Hotel, as well as attending catering college one day a week. At 15 Luke beat 7,500 cooks to win the title of Springboard FutureChef. (His winning recipe is in the book – more on that later.)
“I learnt very quickly about networking with people,” says Luke. “I started getting to know people in the industry, and I was ringing them all the time. I was probably a bit of a pain, actually.”
Luke’s determination paid off, though. A simple call to Le Gavroche, asking to speak to the chef, saw Michel Roux, Jr. agree to give Luke work experience. He’s also worked at Rhodes W1, Jamie Oliver’s Barbecoa and at the three-Michelin-starred Alinea in Chicago. “If you don’t ask,” he says, “you don’t get.”
At 16 Luke was offered a job at the Grosvenor but, surprisingly, he declined. Arrogance? Folly of youth? Or just a bull-headed appetite to experience more? Maybe a bit of all three.
“My parents were worried about me turning it down and, while I was really excited by the job offer, I thought to myself, ‘Surely there is more out there to do?’ Anyway, I didn’t really want a job at the time.”
Turns out, once again, that Luke was right, and he began shadowing the team behind the Individual Restaurant Company (which owns Piccolino and The Restaurant Bar & Grill, among others).
“There’s a lot more to being a chef than just learning how to cook,” explains Luke. “It’s about the cutlery the customer eats with, on what plate, and with what music. I learnt a lot.”
That lesson paid dividends and, at 18, Luke was offered his first role as head chef – an opportunity given to him by fellow controversial figure Mark Fuller, who has managed rock bands and night clubs, and now owns celebrity-packed restaurant bars. Soon he would represent Wales on BBC2’s Great British Menu, and even have his own pop-up in London’s Embassy nightclub for six months. This was the inspiration for his debut cookery book, a project he shot with Cotswold food photographer Chris Terry and which came out in June.
“The dishes in the book are old school, but with a bit of a play around,” he says. “I always remember how, at home, we used to have toast with that disgusting crab paste on it, and in the book I have taken that idea but used fresh crab meat, with avocado and chilli, instead. There are dishes that I wouldn’t necessarily class as British – such as the crispy Oriental duck salad and a couple of American ones – but they’re all flavours that we’re familiar with and love. The whole book is quite Americanised, and retro in its style, too. My pop-up in London was called Retro Feasts, and it was all decked out with glitter balls, and had old-school music playing in the background. The publishers were quite keen to replicate that with the style of the book.”
Nowadays Luke spends about four days a week in the kitchen, with no actual permanent home. He divides his time between Chester (the site of his soon-to-be-opened 6,000 sq ft restaurant-cum-bar-cum-nightclub), the Cotswolds and London. He’s also opening a fourth place, a Retro Feasts in Dubai, and has revealed plans for an academy to nurture young talents, like himself.
“I don’t think age matters,” Luke says. “You can be 50 and feel like freaking out. Different people deal with things differently, but I take each day as it comes. The food has always been the driving force for me.”
So, do I like him? Surprisingly, yes. There’s a fine line between confidence and arrogance, but I think Luke knows which side to stay on. And besides, when you’re this successful – and naturally talented – who cares?