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Tommy Heaney: from Crumlin to Cardiff

Tommy Heaney: from Crumlin to Cardiff

by Great British Chefs 29 June 2018

As he gets ready to open his second restaurant through Kickstarter, we talk to the Great British Menu star about how he went from being a tearaway child to one of Northern Ireland’s most promising culinary exports.

Northern Ireland has a pretty good record when it comes to producing top chefs. There’s Michael Deane, who has conquered Belfast with his various restaurants; Paul Rankin, who won the country its first Michelin star in 1999 and was a regular on Ready Steady Cook; and more recently Clare Smyth, who rose to fame as the head chef of Restaurant Gordon Ramsay, now has her own restaurant Core, and is currently the World’s Best Female Chef according to the World’s 50 Best Restaurants. Tommy Heaney, originally from a small town called Crumlin outside of Belfast, is one of the country’s more recent culinary stars. But it was by chance that he discovered his love for cooking.

‘At school I was only ever interested in sport, because it was competitive, and art, because it was creative,’ he explains. ‘I was always getting into trouble which wasn’t good for my mum, especially because she was a nursery teacher, so one summer when school was over she sent me to live with my uncle in the US. I started off washing dishes, then helped out with salads and stuff, then one day the head chef didn’t turn up and I was thrown in the deep end. The manager had to tell me what the different cuts looked like, and I had no idea what the difference was between sea bass and salmon or anything, but after the very tough lunch service – which probably wasn’t even that busy – I got a bit of feedback from customers saying they’d enjoyed their food and that was it. I knew what I wanted to do with the rest of my life.’

When Tommy returned home, he counted the days until he could leave school and start working in professional kitchens, flying back to the US during Christmas and the summer holidays to work with his uncle. When he finished his GCSEs, he moved there permanently to start learning his craft. ‘I never went to catering college or anything, I just learnt on the job,’ he says. ‘I went to a few different places in the US, and when I was about eighteen I came home and started working for a guy called Tony Hughes, who was a great chef. He taught me so much, particularly things you don’t really see anymore like the classics.’

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After a few years working with Tony, Tommy decided to travel, so he booked a flight to Australia despite having no money when he arrived. A friend sorted him out with a job at a local steakhouse, which sounded like the perfect job – work the shift, get paid and go out and party – but when Tommy arrived for the interview the restaurant looked much more high-end than he was expecting. ‘I got the job, told my mate how nice it looked and he said, ‘are you sure?’ – turns out I’d gone to the wrong restaurant and managed to get a position at an award-winning place instead!’ he laughs. ‘It was a lucky mistake though as it was a completely different way of cooking and I absolutely loved it.’

Tommy eventually returned home after a year, coming back via Thailand where he discovered even more new flavours and dishes. Realising there wasn’t much going on in Crumlin’s restaurant scene, he spent a few weeks in London working for Richard Corrigan until he realised he couldn’t afford to live there. He then moved to The Lake District to work for a short while doing large catering jobs, when he and his girlfriend at the time discovered they were going to have a baby. This prompted a move to Cardiff, so they could be closer to her family.

‘I started off working in a little pub, then got a job opening restaurants for a company, a pretty easy nine-to-five thing,’ he says. ‘One day I woke up and realised if I didn’t do something this would be it for the rest of my life. I was nearly thirty, so it was hard to go and start again from the bottom doing stages at different places, but it was something I had to do. It was quite strange – I’d be head chef at one place and then on my days off I’d be a commis at another, working for free.’

Up until this point, Tommy knew he loved cooking and had a real passion for the cheffing lifestyle, but he had always pushed to rise up through the ranks as fast as possible – something he put down to his competitive streak. This realisation that he needed to go back and learn the basics properly was a turning point in his career, and he started to develop his own style and approach to cooking, especially when working with chefs such as David Everitt-Matthias.

‘I learnt something different from every chef I worked with. Some people do stages so they can copy other people’s ideas but I was looking more at how to run kitchens, how ingredients can influence dishes and all the different styles of cooking that are out there. Being able to pick up the phone and ask these chefs for advice has been invaluable to me ever since.’

Whilst he was working at a restaurant in Cardiff, Tommy got talking to the owners of The Great House in Bridgend, where he lived. ‘They were in their seventies and I think they were looking for someone to take over the running of the kitchen, and they basically let me find my own style and cook what I like,’ he says. ‘I’ve been there for three years now as head chef but it’s only in the last year or so that I think I properly found my style. It’s very simple and not too crazy – Bridgend has a different mindset to London so I had to find a way to cook what I wanted without pushing the boundaries.’

Business started to pick up – especially when Tommy appeared on the 2017 series of Great British Menu. Shortly after that The Great House underwent refurbishment, doing away with the white tablecloths and slightly outdated décor with something more reflective of Tommy’s cooking. The food is unpretentious but technically accomplished, with a focus on using as much of an animal or vegetable as possible. ‘For our duck dish, we take the whole duck, remove the breasts and dry-age them for a few days before smoking them,’ explains Tommy. ‘We then take the legs and slow-cook them into a sort of ragù, and use the carcass to create a really punchy broth flavoured with fenugreek. It’s then topped with a confit duck egg yolk and some pickled vegetables, which change depending on what’s in season.’

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With The Great House now firmly established as Tommy’s flagship restaurant (along with the renovations the restaurant changed its name to Restaurant Tommy Heaney at The Great House), Tommy has his sights on the Welsh capital for his next venture. He already has the keys to the building – located in Pontcanna in Cardiff – and is getting ready to open later this year. This is entirely his own venture, with no outside investment, which is why he has launched a Kickstarter campaign to raise the funds necessary for furniture, an improved bar and marketing. With a series of guest chef nights, the opportunity to create your own ice cream flavour and even the chance to get your initials tattooed on Tommy’s arm (yes, really), it’s already gaining plenty of backers.

‘The new place will be very different to The Great House,’ says Tommy. ‘It’s got more of a bar-restaurant feel but the food philosophy will remain the same. It’s going to be informal, comfortable and relaxed, with an emphasis on bar snacks in the bar for those who don’t have time to enjoy the whole restaurant experience. We want to keep the prices attractive so there won't be any unnecessary amuse bouches or anything like that, and next door there’ll be a ‘deli’ area with a focus on small plates which are a bit quirkier.’

He may have started life as a naughty kid on the outskirts of Belfast and spent the early part of his career with a lack of direction, but today Tommy is a fantastic chef that knows exactly what his customers want. With appearances on Great British Menu and the beginnings of a mini restaurant empire emerging, he’s certainly got big things ahead of him.

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