Ones to watch: Tom Westerland

by Henry Coldstream 17 January 2022

After spending years working in traditional fine dining restaurants, Tom Westerland realised what he really wanted to do was cook with fire. Now, as head chef at the recently opened Ember at Crockers in Henley-on-Thames, he’s doing exactly that. We caught up with Tom to find out about his latest venture.

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Henry is the features editor at Great British Chefs.

Henry is the features editor 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.

No matter how a chef has been trained or what restaurants they’ve worked in, they will all ultimately gravitate to a specific style of cookery. It may take time to discover exactly what that style is, be it classic hearty food or ultra-refined contemporary plates, but figuring out your culinary identity is often a defining moment in the career of a chef. Welsh chef Tom Westerland had always enjoyed the instinctive element of cookery but it wasn’t until recently that he found cooking over fire was the perfect way to express himself.

‘I’ve always loved that primitive feel about cooking,’ explains Tom. ‘My strengths have always been in that solid, old-school style.’ This perhaps isn’t surprising given the comforting style of food that he grew up eating in Wales, with his mum regularly cooking classics like cottage pie and macaroni cheese. Tom, however, was by no means a natural when he first started cooking as a teenager. ‘We did home economics at school and I was horrendous at it,’ he laughs. ‘My teacher said that she was glad she wouldn’t have to teach me the following year, so I basically chose catering out of spite.’

Tom soon fell in love with cooking though, getting work experience in kitchens throughout school before training at catering college in Cardiff. At the same time he began to work regularly in a professional kitchen for the first time at a local pub. ‘I remember finding the social aspect of it amazing,’ he says. ‘You meet the most interesting people in kitchens from all around the world. You’ve all got this love of food and they quickly become like family, which was something I really enjoyed about it.’ After a stint working in banqueting at the Holland House Hotel, where he would regularly plate up for hundreds of guests at a time, Tom moved to The Fig Tree in the coastal town of Penarth. By the age of just twenty-one, he had worked his way up to the position of head chef – but it was his next move that would prove career defining for Tom.

It was while working at the Fig Tree that Tom first encountered fellow Welsh chef Hywel Jones, who would occasionally do pop-ups at the restaurant. Noticing the young chef’s ability, Jones soon offered him the chance to join the team at Lucknam Park where he was executive chef and Tom accepted immediately. Initially working at the hotel’s two-AA-rosette brasserie, he quickly realised how much he had to learn. ‘It was knocked out of me straight away that I knew everything,’ Tom says. ‘I’d dropped back down to a commis chef and until then I hadn’t been in a position where if I did something wrong, somebody could tell me what was wrong with it. Having that discipline and level of precision really helped me along the way.’

Things went up another gear when Tom moved to the hotel’s Michelin-starred restaurant The Park (now Restaurant Hywel Jones). ‘I used to try hiding when I was first there,’ he smiles. ‘I’d jump on the pastry section to avoid having to set up the massive garnish section, and then I’d start doing breakfast prep to try and get out of doing service.’ Over the course of the next few years Tom got into the swing of things, gaining confidence as he worked his way through the different sections. While working at Lucknam Park he also began entering competitions, winning National Chef of Wales in 2018 and appearing on Great British Menu the following year. This was all part of the mentorship that Jones provided to Tom (and continues to do so today). ‘I almost see Hywel like a bit of a parent,’ he explains. ‘He’ll be a mentor to me for the rest of my career. Back then he was the one pushing me to do competitions to see how well I was doing in the industry. Even now he gives me a call every so often to see how I’m getting on.’

Ultimately in 2018 Tom ended up taking over as head chef of Lucknam Park’s brasserie and started to play around with his own style. However, he soon realised that the food he really wanted to cook wouldn’t be possible within the boundaries of the restaurant; what Tom really wanted to be doing was cooking over fire. ‘It’s just such an instinctive way of cooking,’ says Tom. ‘If you have gas or induction, you can pretty much guarantee that if you always do the same thing, it’ll come out the same way. With charcoal, each bag you open is slightly different, the airflow and temperature changes and that’s what I love. It’s cooking through feel rather than following rules and it really shows in the flavour of the food.’

Taking the decision to leave Lucknam Park after six-and-a-half years, Tom began searching for a restaurant that would allow him to cook his own style of food and quickly found The Grill at Crockers – a hotel and restaurant in Henley-on-Thames. Taking over just before the first national lockdown started in 2020 meant the first eighteen months weren’t easy – but a redesign of the grill concept allowed Tom to start afresh with a restaurant that embodied the food he wants to be cooking. Ember opened in October 2021 and sees the chef cook elements of every dish on the tasting-style menu over coals. ‘It’s been a really exciting but nervous time for me as it’s the first time I’ve been cooking things that I’ve completely put my heart and soul into,' he explains. 'Every dish that goes over the pass I look at and think ‘I really want to eat that’ but they also all have an element of fun and quirkiness to them.’

Tom’s under no illusions that his food will still continue to change and develop (‘I want to carry on refining my food and figuring out ways of developing even more flavour’) but with Ember, he’s finally landed on a style he really loves. With the years of experience he has behind him in precise fine dining, combined with his drive to push the boundaries of cooking over coals, there are big things still to come for this Welsh chef.