Born in Bedfordshire, Robert Thompson was inspired to cook by his brother Patrick, himself a successful chef and the winner of the 1998 Roux Scholarship. By the age of ten he was set on becoming a cook and by the age of 13 he was washing up in his brother’s restaurant. He told The Telegraph: “As soon as I started that, school came second.” Starting catering college on the new three-year NVQ course, he quickly realised it was not of the same ilk as the City & Guilds route his brother followed, and after failing to negotiate a fast-tracked course, he left at the beginning of his second year.
He began as an apprentice at L’Ortolan in Reading, working under head chef John Burton Race, but found the confrontational atmosphere too much and left, now reconsidering his chosen career path. He eventually decided to return to cooking, working under his brother at The Falcon in Bedfordshire, then following him to Chimney’s Restaurant near Doncaster, South Yorkshire, where his sibling worked as head chef.
The turning point for him came in 2001, when he landed a job as commis chef at two-Michelin-starred Winteringham Fields in Lincolnshire, working under the fatherly instruction of chef-patron Germain Schwab. He remembers fondly the way Schwab would take him into the dining room to receive praise from satisfied customers. Showing great affection for his mentor, he told The Guardian: “Germain was there to guide me. He was always interested in flavour first and that’s what I take from him.”
Robert Thompson was made head chef only two years later, when Schwab retired from the kitchen, going on to maintain the restaurant’s two Michelin stars. When Schwab finally sold up, Michelin re-evaluated their award, but the next year bestowed Robert Thompson with his own star, making him the youngest British chef to receive such an accolade, at the age of 23. In 2007, the Good Food Guide named Winteringham Fields the fourth best restaurant in the country, ahead of legendary establishments like Michel Roux’s Le Gavroche and Gordon Ramsay’s Pétrus, saying: “Thompson soars, sending out extraordinary dishes that are deeply complex.”
Robert Thompson featured local produce heavily in these menus – game shot nearby, fish from Grimsby and vegetables and herbs grown in the restaurant’s garden. Producing plates such as Hare royale with rosti, hare sauce and foie gras, Roast chicken with confit egg and wild garlic, and seafood dishes such as Seared langoustine with quail eggs, marinated wild mushrooms and fois gras hollandaise, Tatler described his food at Winteringham Fields as “once bitten, forever smitten”.