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Tom Simmons: simple food done well in the capital

Tom Simmons: Welsh food done well in the capital

by Tom Shingler 24 October 2017

Most young chefs spend years over-complicating dishes before they realise beauty lies in simplicity, but chef Tom Simmons is a step ahead of the game – as a meal at his eponymous restaurant in Tower Bridge shows.

There’s nothing worse than having an incredible looking dish brought to your table that’s billowing with liquid nitrogen and features dozens of vibrant components which doesn’t actually taste that great. A clever chef knows that understated, clean and balanced plates are the way to really impress guests, with bold, obvious flavours to match.

It can be hard to find examples of this sort of unfussy cooking in London these days, as restaurants try to out-do each other with Instagrammable, wild and wacky dishes in a bid to generate some hype and media attention. Tom Simmons, at his new eponymous restaurant in Tower Bridge, however, is sticking to what he knows. With a love for the produce of his native Wales and a respect for British and French cuisine, it’s all about the ingredients.

Tom first appeared on MasterChef: The Professionals back in 2011, making it to the quarter-finals. Since then he’s worked alongside chefs including Mark Sargeant and Tom Aikens, but it was his brief time in France that really influenced his style.

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‘I think the thing that sticks in my head the most is when I worked in France for six months,’ explains Tom. ‘I was at a really nice restaurant in Morzine, and it made me look at things completely differently. They treated ingredients with so much more care and attention that I was used to.’

That was the ingredients side of things sorted – but where did the simplicity come from? Chefs are often a little too keen to show off their skills on a plate, incorporating as many techniques and combinations as they can. For Tom, it was necessity that resulted in a simpler way of cooking.

‘When I came back from France I took on a head chef role at a five-star country house hotel in Pembrokeshire,’ he says. ‘It was huge, with a brasserie, a main restaurant and then a large function room as well. It was like nothing I’d done before and I realised I needed to keep things simple; you have to when you’re cooking for hundreds of people every night. My dishes started to focus around three or four components, letting the ingredients speak for themselves. It’s something that’s become inherent to the way I cook.’

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Tom’s time in Pembrokeshire gave him the skills needed to set out on his own, and he decided to move to London with the aim of setting up his own restaurant. A brief stint cooking for banking directors confirmed this. ‘I hated it. There was never the buzz of service, which is what most chefs will tell you is the best part of the job. It all felt a little bit fake, so I left to start focusing on setting up my own restaurant.’

After a site in the Olympic Village fell through and investors backed out, Tom and his partner Lois (who runs front of house) were worried everything would fall apart. The race was on to find new investors and a new location. ‘We probably looked at between five and ten sites everyday for two weeks,’ says Tom. ‘When we came across a site in the new One Tower Bridge development it was perfect – a new build, round the corner from Borough Market and near some other great restaurants like Story. We’ve been here from day one, planning every part of the place. We wanted it to reflect our Welsh heritage and love of France, so the tables are all handmade from Welsh oak and the flooring is reclaimed French wood. There are photos of the Welsh countryside, and it was actually my mum who designed most of the restaurant. As an artist she’s got a good eye for it, and I wanted her to be involved because I got most of my love for food from her.’

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Restaurant Tom Simmons opened in July 2017, serving set lunches, an à la carte in the evenings and a proper Sunday roast at the weekend. ‘If someone had told me how hard it was going to be here during the first few weeks of opening I probably wouldn’t have done it! I thought being a head chef was tough, but when you’re also a restaurant owner you have to wear so many hats. Knowing what to do when something goes wrong with the building work, working out the menu and guiding the team all at once – it was crazy. But we got through in the end.’

Today the menu is a checklist of English-French-Welsh classics. There are Tamworth pork chops with heritage carrots, morcilla and a pistachio romesco; beef short rib with pommes purée and roast shallot and Welsh cheeses such as Perl Las and Hafod Cheddar for afters. It’s modern British cooking done right, with a slant towards Welsh produce – but Tom says he won’t use ingredients simply because they’re Welsh.

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‘I’ll use whatever I think is the best,’ he says. ‘It just so happens that I think Welsh lamb is the best in the world, and the same people we get that from have this incredible Welsh organic grass-fed beef that they age in pink Himalayan salt rooms. We also work with smaller businesses in Wales for things like our water, and we’re working towards finding a fish supplier too.’

While the lamb and beef is Welsh, the scallops come from Orkney and the crab from Brixham. Tom might be playing on his Welsh credentials, but he’s not pigeonholing himself. He wants his food to champion the flavours of his country without being restricted by it – so that iconic Welsh seaweed laverbread is stirred through the mayonnaise for his cockle popcorn, while burnt leeks add a bitter bite to the butter. Whether you’re interested in the flavours of Wales or just want a well-cooked, unfussy meal that celebrates everything great about British cooking, Restaurant Tom Simmons is a welcome relief in a city full of restaurants trying to create the next big thing.

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