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Ones to watch: Tom van Zeller

Ones to watch: Tom van Zeller

by Nancy Anne Harbord 24 July 2015

We interviewed up-and-coming talent, Tom van Zeller – chef-proprietor of Van Zeller in Harrogate, North Yorkshire. Open for the past six years, it is more recently that his restaurant and its creative tasting menus have achieved critical acclaim, with 6/10 in the latest Good Food Guide and a number of glowing national reviews under his belt.

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Specialising in vegetarian food, Nancy has cooked her way around Europe and now writes full time for publications and her blog, Delicious from Scratch.

Tom van Zeller grew up about a mile away from the location of his current restaurant in the elegant spa town of Harrogate in North Yorkshire. Raised by a home economist mother who ‘always cooked nice things’, he was involved with professional cooking at an early age, coupling school with a long spell working at Betty’s Café Tea Rooms, the famous patisserie and bakery in the town. A modern apprenticeship followed – ‘they put me on the straight and narrow’ – culminating in three weeks’ work experience at Raymond Blanc’s legendary two-star restaurant, Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons. He says: ‘it was brilliant. I dossed in the grounds and went to work every day for three weeks.’

Training with the best

When a colleague moved down south to work at Tom Aikens’ two-star restaurant, Pied à Terre, Tom van Zeller followed. He says ‘it was pretty crazy, but I stayed for ten months and that was it – I couldn’t do it anymore.’ He spent time working in Australia and the US, the latter training under Paul Liebrandt. He says of this experience ‘that was a move into a brighter and different way of approaching food. I think it was a different, sort of left field approach to how food could be acceptable.’ On his return to the UK he worked with Simon Gueller, another highly successful Yorkshire chef. He says ‘I began to understand a little bit more about the market and the history of Simon Gueller’s success in the region – and what market there was available for that kind of food.’

Tom van Zeller
Tom van Zeller

But he still felt there were skills he needed to develop and wanting to continue moving forward he opted to work for Malmaison – ‘a different path completely’. During his years working for the hotel chain he says he learnt ‘how to become a head chef properly and to manage people, which is probably the most important thing I have ever had to learn in my life, and how to make money out of food. It was an amazing opportunity, which I struggled with because I was going from small independent restaurants into this big corporate world, being responsible for 25-30 guys. It was a discipline you see, what you learnt in a proper kitchen.’

He continues: ‘I could have stayed on that path and moved further into management, but I didn’t want to come out of the kitchen environment. So I looked around and this place turned up.’ Over the years since he worked at Pied à Terre he had kept in touch with owner David Moore. Having clearly left an impression on the highly successful entrepreneur, Tom van Zeller and Moore became business partners for this restaurant venture. Moore says of Tom van Zeller: ‘He’s cooking some of the best food in Yorkshire’.

 
 
By honest food I mean not doing too much with it, allowing it to express itself. So you are searching for really good quality ingredients and combining those as simply as you can, not adding anything unnecessarily and knowing to stop.

Tom van Zeller

Delicate, colourful and artistic

Tom van Zeller’s food is stunningly beautiful – delicate, colourful and artistic. But at its core are top quality ingredients from the productive region, notably from his home allotment. He says of this: ‘When it is ready all the stuff from the allotment comes here – the flavour is awesome. It makes an enormous difference and it is good fun for the chefs. The trees and fruit are doing really well. I’m still learning though, and battling with pigeons on all the veg!’

He describes his food as ‘honest – it hasn’t been faffed about with too much. By honest food I mean not doing too much with it, allowing it to express itself. So you are searching for really good quality ingredients and combining those as simply as you can, not adding anything unnecessarily and knowing when to stop with flavour and when to stop with presentation. When I eat I want to have a proper plate of food, not something tiny - you know it is Yorkshire. I don’t want to have something that doesn’t feel like food anymore, although it is really attractive and enjoyable to eat, I want it to be sustenance.’

 
 
‘I learnt how to become a head chef properly and to manage people, which is probably the most
important thing I have ever had to learn in my life.’

Harrogate at heart

When asked what the future holds, he says: ‘I’m always looking, that’s for sure, always keeping my eyes open. There is an opportunity in Harrogate at the moment which I’m very interested in. Since this isn’t my first time I have a clear idea of what is going to work and what isn’t. It seems to tick an awful lot of boxes. I keep looking at our food and seeing how well it goes down on our tasting menus – I think the food would fit that environment really nicely.’

‘We are 100% committed to doing this – we’re getting really good, consistent recognition, which is absolutely crucial. The Good Food Guide have been good to me, I owe them a lot. I was awarded Readers’ Restaurant of the Year in 2013 – that was a huge thing to achieve, because it was for the whole restaurant and not just for the food.’ And it remains in Harrogate, the town of his birth, which he plans to stay: ‘I love the atmosphere, the green fields, the fact that it is just at the foot of the Dales. It really is quite something – I grew up here, so it is just the ticket.’

 
 

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