Ones to watch: Tom Noest

by Henry Coldstream 14 October 2021

Falling in love with the idea of becoming a publican at the age of eighteen, Tom Noest immersed himself in the industry and now runs two critically-acclaimed gastropubs.

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Henry is a food writer at Great British Chefs.

Henry is a food writer at Great British Chefs. Having previously written pieces for a variety of online food publications, he joined the team in 2021 and helps with all editorial aspects of the site. When not writing, Henry can usually be found eating and drinking his way through London's many restaurants and bars, or cooking in his kitchen at home.

It’s easy to romanticise the idea of owning a country pub; spending time in cosy surroundings with regulars who over time become friends sounds pretty idyllic (and that’s without even mentioning the abundance of food and beer on tap). In reality though, a lot of hard work goes into running a successful inn. Chef Tom Noest may only be in his mid-twenties but he already looks after the food at two pubs in the Cotswolds and can count food critic Giles Coren amongst the biggest fans of his big, bold, classical style of cookery.

Falling in love with the hospitality industry can happen in all sorts of different ways; for Tom, it simply came as a result of working behind a bar after school, while deciding what to do next. ‘It was just a job at my local pub, The Wheatsheaf in Northleach and I really enjoyed working there,’ he says. ‘After a while I started to think ‘there could be a career here’ and dreamt of one day having my own place. I just loved the whole pub atmosphere; the people, all the different drinks and obviously the food.’

Quickly realising the importance of understanding every aspect of running a pub and having predominantly spent his time doing front of house until this point, Tom decided he needed to gain experience working in kitchens. This led to him finding a job working under former Bibendum chef Bob Parkinson’s at his Cirencester restaurant Made by Bob – somewhat of a baptism by fire given it was the first time he’d ever worked in a professional kitchen. ‘My dad had always cooked a lot and used to run a little cookery school out in France, so I had a basic understanding,’ explains Tom. ‘But they really threw me in at the deep end at Made By Bob and shook me up a bit. I just remember being so scared that before every service I’d go to the loo and pray. It was horrible for the first six months or so, but slowly I began to understand and after a year or so I’d learnt the basics.’

At this early stage in his career, aged just twenty-one, Tom could have very easily carried on gaining experience in other kitchens and pubs but instead chose to take the plunge and started looking into opening his own place. He began talking to his now-business partner Peter Creed, who at the time was running a few pubs for the Lucky Onion Group, and they quickly decided they would open their first spot together. In late 2017 they took over The Bell Inn in the small Oxfordshire village of Langford with Tom heading up the kitchen, although that wasn’t the plan initially. ‘We basically couldn’t find a chef,’ he laughs. ‘So Peter was like ‘why don’t you just be head chef’. I was absolutely terrified at first and had no idea what I was doing but over time I grew into it.’

Inspired by the likes of institutions such as St John (‘Our copy of The Book of St. John at The Bell is completely knackered because we’ve used it so much’) and The River Cafe, Tom began to develop his own hearty style of cookery grounded in classical technique. It can only take one amazing review in the restaurant industry to put a chef truly on the map, and for Tom it came from Times restaurant critic Giles Coren, who visited The Bell Inn shortly after it first opened and described his garlic, parsley and bone marrow flatbread as ‘the best mouthful of his life’, and heaped praise onto the chef. This, however, only put further pressure on Tom. ‘It almost came too soon for us,’ he says. ‘It was such a great review but it suddenly meant that every day was as busy as a Saturday and the people were coming here expecting to have one of the best meals of their life. It was madness for about three months.’

The quick success of The Bell Inn (which included being awarded a Michelin Bib Gourmand in its first year) meant that the young chef’s food was in hot demand, grabbing the attention of Soho House founder Nick Jones, who wanted to work with Tom and his business partner on a new concept. This eventually led to the opening of The Little Bell in the grounds of Soho Farmhouse in 2018 with a menu similar to that of the original pub, but with a focus on biodynamic wines and more sharing plates. ‘It wasn’t something we’d really planned to do but it’s been great,’ says the chef. ‘The Little Bell attracts a bit of a different clientele so we’ve met some really interesting foodie people through it.’

Plans to open a second pub were put on hold when Coronavirus hit the UK in March 2020 – a time during which The Bell Inn was turned into a shop selling pies and dried goods as well as offering takeaways – but 2021 finally saw Tom and Peter open The Lamb Inn in the rural village of Shipton-under-Wychwood. Here, Tom continues to serve both crowd-pleasing plates of food like pizzas and fish and chips as well as some bolder, more refined dishes – something which Tom sees as a key part of the continued popularity of the pubs. ‘I just really like the idea that someone can come along and have a burger and a pint on a Monday night and be in and out for £15,’ he explains. ‘But you can also come for a celebration and order a £25 main and a very nice bottle of wine.’

Not many chefs can say that they ran a kitchen of their own by the age of twenty-five, let alone at two separate pubs, but this hasn’t let Tom get carried away with dreams of Michelin stars and fine dining ventures. This a chef who’s found his happy place cooking the unpretentious food that he loves in the atmosphere he fell in love with aged eighteen – and he shows no sign of stopping any time soon.