Tom Barnes: a bright future for British food

Tom Barnes: a bright future for British food

by Pete Dreyer 11 March 2020

Barrow-born Tom Barnes has emerged from under the wing of Simon Rogan into one of the most exciting chefs in the country, winning a Roux Scholarship in 2014 and next appearing on Great British Menu in 2020. Pete Dreyer talks to the chef and takes a look at his career to date.

Pete worked as a food writer at Great British Chefs.

Pete worked as a food writer at Great British Chefs and trained at Leiths School of Food and Wine in London. Although there’s very little he won’t eat, his real passion is health and nutrition, and showing people that healthy food can be delicious too. When he’s not writing or cooking, you’ll probably find him engrossed in a bowl of pho.

Few chefs have contributed as much to British food as Simon Rogan over the last two decades. Simon presides over a widespread yet laser-focused restaurant empire that includes Roganic in London, Aulis, Rogan & Co and L’Enclume – the imperious two Michelin-starred jewel in the crown that tempts thousands to the otherwise-sleepy Cumbrian village of Cartmel every year. Provenance and sustainability have become part of common culinary parlance, but it was Simon that ushered in the farm-to-fork philosophy that we all so vehemently believe in now.

When Tom Barnes first joined Simon at L’Enclume in 2011, that farm-to-fork philosophy was still rather unconventional. ‘L’Enclume was still growing when I arrived,’ Tom tells me. ‘I started as a chef de partie, but there were only seven chefs in the kitchen so it was a great opportunity to really get stuck in with the whole business.’ Aside from a few stints overseas – three months at Hof Van Cleve in Belgium and a year at Geranium in Copenhagen – Tom has been with Simon ever since, being there as the stable of restaurants has grown into arguably the most influential in the country. In doing so, Tom has become an indispensable part of his machine.

L’Enclume was a welcome return to Cumbria for Tom, who was born and raised in Barrow and started his career as an apprentice at the Lakeside Hotel near Windermere. ‘I had a great head chef at the hotel – Duncan Collinge,’ he says. ‘He’d worked with the Roux brothers at Le Gavroche so he taught me all the basics – how to use a knife, making stocks, sauces, butchery; stuff like that.’

Tom left the Lakeside Hotel after three years, but it was three years that prepared him well for a career in elite-level kitchens. He left the Lake District at twenty-one years old and headed south to Stockcross, where he spent two and a half years with John Campbell at The Vineyard. Like Duncan, John turned out to be the perfect mentor at the perfect time for Tom. ‘John’s knowledge of food is like no one I’ve ever met,’ he says. ‘You’d ask him a question and he would always have the answer. He’s a really clever guy – great at showing you how to cook something and breaking down the science behind the process.’

The Vineyard had just received a second Michelin star when Tom arrived, and he admits that the first six months were tough as he transitioned to a new level of kitchen. After two and a half years at The Vineyard, Tom decided it was time for pastures new, and John Campbell pointed him in the direction of his good friend Phil Howard at The Square. ‘John was really good to me when I was leaving,’ says Tom. ‘He set up a trial for me at The Square. Lots of chefs at The Square back then had come from The Vineyard – Gary Foulkes, Mark Kempson and Ross Gibbens had all been with John before going to work for Phil.

‘The skill in that kitchen was unreal,’ he continues. ‘Especially when you look at what they have all gone on to do.’ Tom had his time at The Square cut a little short in the end – his dad became very ill back home in Barrow and Tom left to return home. ‘It looked really bad at the time,’ he says. ‘Fortunately things turned out okay, but I came back to Cumbria and as luck would have it, I ended up at L’Enclume.’

Mackerel tartare
Caramelised potato, smoked eel and buttermilk

Tom spent the next six and a half years at L’Enclume and blossomed under Simon’s mentorship; he succeeded Mark Birchall as head chef after three years, then promptly won the Roux Scholarship in the same year. L’Enclume, meanwhile, scooped awards left right and centre – a second Michelin star in 2013, four consecutive top spots (and ten out of ten ratings) in the Good Food Guide between 2013 and 2017 and five AA rosettes. ‘Simon had a really good track record of people doing well in the Roux Scholarship,’ says Tom. ‘After Mark won in 2011, Simon said I should have a go.’ Tom reached the final in 2013 but didn’t win until the following year. ‘It’s the best thing I’ve done in my career. Being part of the Roux Scholarship family is amazing. When I was leaving Geranium (in Copenhagen), before I came back to Rogan & Co to work with Simon, I wasn’t 100 percent sure what I wanted to do, so I emailed them and asked what they thought. Alain and Michel Roux Sr brought me to The Waterside Inn, put me up in a room and we had a long chat about my options. For people who have achieved everything they have achieved, they are incredibly generous with their time. When I was leaving, Alain had put together a little goodie bag of chocolates for me to take back to my family!’

Tom left L’Enclume in 2017 to spend a year at Geranium in Copenhagen, but soon returned to the fold when Simon asked if he would take over as executive chef of Rogan & Co. ‘I love working with Simon – he’s a great guy,’ says Tom. ‘From the outset the goal was to win a Michelin star at Rogan & Co and bring the standard up to match L’Enclume. They’re different concepts – Rogan & Co is à la carte and more casual, but we wanted the quality to be right up there.’ When Rogan & Co promptly received a Michelin star at the first time of asking, it was another mission achieved in a list of achievements that grows longer and longer.

And yet, Tom is still just thirty-one, and there are plenty more goals on the horizon. Winning a third Michelin star at L’Enclume is an ever-present goal, of course, and Tom is competing in Great British Menu in 2020 as well. ‘They’d asked me before but I’m quite shy on camera so I’d always been a bit unsure,’ he says. ‘This year they told us about the brief before they selected the chefs so that was great – I could have a go at the brief without being committed. I sent my menu and got through, then after that everything goes quick – you find out you’re in and suddenly you’re there cooking!’ Tom filmed the programme whilst juggling his roles at Rogan & Co and L’Enclume and working on new opening Henrock – a new hotel with sweeping views across Lake Windermere. Tom grins. ‘It was full on! But it was good, I’m really glad I did it.’ We can't wait to see what he came up with when he hits our screens in March.