Tom Shepherd

Tom Shepherd

Tom Shepherd

Tom Shepherd cut his teeth in Michelin-starred kitchens working for the likes of Michael Wignall and Sat Bains, before winning Staffordshire its first ever Michelin star at his own restaurant, Upstairs, located above his father’s jewellery shop. His success is a result of an ethos centred around drawing as much flavour as possible out of every single ingredient on the plate.

In an industry overcrowded with talented chefs, only the most ambitious and dedicated make it to the very top. Tom Shepherd always had a hunger to succeed, no matter what he put his mind to, and after finding his way into hospitality as a teenager, never looked back. His years of hard graft in the kitchen, learning from many of most respected names in the restaurant world, has resulted in a style that blends refinement with playfulness, and a Michelin star above the door of his debut restaurant in Lichfield.

Born and bred in the West Midlands, Tom knew relatively early on that he wouldn’t follow in his father’s footsteps and join the family jewellery business, but cookery was by no means an obvious career path for him. ‘I don’t really have one of those romantic stories about becoming a chef,’ he explains. ‘I just knew I had a drive to be successful. When I was at school, I was really into my sports at school but couldn’t really see a future in it. I picked up a pot wash job like a lot of teenagers do and, even though I hadn’t really had any interest in cooking until then, I quite quickly started to see that my personality suited the kitchen.’ This didn’t go unnoticed and Tom was soon offered a trainee manager position at New Hall in Walmley, where under head chef Wayne Thompson – someone he still holds in very high regard to this day – he began to uncover his true potential.

‘I fairly quickly felt like I’d found my calling,’ remarks Tom, who went on to spend three years in the hotel kitchen, being guided by Thompson and undertaking an apprenticeship at the same time. ‘I loved the balance of creativity with the physicality of the kitchen and was a very fast learner too. During that period I also started to have a better understanding of what Michelin was. I remember having my first Michelin-starred meal at Mallory Court, seeing difference in quality and at that point, thinking ‘if this is the level it needs to be, I want to do it.’’

Tom didn’t have to wait long for his first Michelin-starred opportunity. He left New Hall to join the team at The Samling Hotel in the Lake District, which had recently lost its star, and within a year they’d won it back. Over the course of the three years he spent there, Tom worked all the way up to the position of sous chef and immersed himself in the kitchen, developing both his skills and an understanding of what it took to consistently serve that quality of food. During this period, Tom also became aware of Michael Wignall (who he describes as ‘a ridiculously talented chef with an unbelievable amount of finesse’) who had recently won two Michelin stars down at the Latymer restaurant in Surrey, and set his sights on one day joining his team. An email and a trial later, and the young chef did just that, going on to spend two years in Wignall’s fast-paced and meticulously detailed kitchen, before leaving to take up the role of Sat Bains’ development chef.

‘Sat had always been an idol for me right the way through my life,’ smiles Tom, ‘so when this post came up saying that he was looking a chef to help extract as much flavour as humanly possible out of every single ingredient, I just had to go for it. Working alongside and having the chance to understand a culinary mind like his was just incredible. He was still the nucleus of all the creativity at that restaurant, but I would help reimagine dishes, which had been on the menu a long time. I remember the first one I did was this scallop black dish, which I reworked by adding a charcoal scallop emulsion and a black cracker. When I first presented it to Sat and the head chef John, they were both so excited, and said it was a three-star dish. It was an amazing moment for me.’

The only thing left for Tom to do after leaving Restaurant Sat Bains after fourteen months was to take on his first head chef position, which he duly did at the Michelin-starred Adam’s in Birmingham after being approached directly by Adam Stokes himself. This was the moment in his career where he both learnt how to manage an entire team for the first time and discovered what his own food was. ‘I realised that my food was a combination of all the different chefs I’d worked beneath,’ says Tom, ‘whether that was Sat, Michael or Wayne. And I basically applied that style to Adam’s, evolving the menu without reinventing the wheel.’ In his third year as head chef, Adam’s was named the best restaurant in the UK on TripAdvisor and that ultimately acted as a catalyst for Tom to start thinking about a restaurant of his own (‘I thought, if I can do it here, I can probably do it in a restaurant of my own.’)

In 2019, his father relocated his Lichfield jewellery shop to a new site, which by chance had a defunct workshop and storage space above it, and plans were hatched to convert the upstairs into Tom’s debut restaurant. Whilst the pandemic in 2020 stalled the conversion, it allowed Tom to both save money by doing parts of the work himself with the help of friends and family, and also create demand for his food in the local area through a series of home takeaway boxes. By the time Upstairs by Tom Shepherd opened in 2021, there was already a queue of people wanting to try his flavour-led food. ‘I never wanted anything to be too elaborate or finessed when we opened,’ he explains. ‘I just wanted to ensure that we were cooking well, sourcing well, and, most importantly, constantly delivering on flavour. It was food that people understood rather than being challenged by, and everyone who came in really got on board with that.’

That included the Michelin inspectors, who in 2022 awarded Upstairs a star after just four months of operation. ‘I broke down when I found out the news,’ Tom adds. ‘I’ve always relentlessly pursued that kind of success, so to suddenly get that phone call was an unbelievable moment.’ And it's that unwavering drive that he talks about, which really sets him apart from so many other chefs and ensures that his food won’t stop progressing. ‘I don’t think I’ll ever be overly comfortable with who I am as a chef because I always want to push on forward’ says Tom, who also went on to cook the main course at the Great British Menu banquet the year after winning his first star. ‘I’m as scared as I am excited to see how I continue to develop because I’m nowhere near the finished article just yet.’