It’s fair to say, British food wouldn’t be what it is today without the monumental impact of Tom Kitchin. The Edinburgh-born chef flourished under the tutelage of Pierre Koffmann, Alain Ducasse and Guy Savoy – three of the best chefs we’ve ever known – then returned to his hometown to start a place of his own. That restaurant – The Kitchin – has since become an institution, and Tom’s classic French technique and love for Scottish ingredients has inspired a culinary movement, both in Scotland and across the whole of Britain.
Though Tom has ascended to the very top of the pyramid, his start in food was rather humbler – it was good, home-cooked British food that first gave him the notion of cooking for a living. ‘I had a very normal upbringing,’ he says. ‘We’d eat shepherd’s pie, lasagne, a roast on a Sunday. My grandmother was a good cook and she used to cook dishes that she ate during the war, like trotters and tripe.’ As a fourteen-year-old, Tom ventured out on his own and got a job washing dishes in a local pub. ‘When you start earning pocket money, you feel like a king!’ he laughs.
Tom spent the next few years working his way through the ranks. He moved from potwash to starters, then desserts and onto the line. He left school at sixteen on the proviso with his parents that he would go to catering college and do a hotel management course. ‘I take my hat off to my mum and dad,’ he says. ‘As a father now, I understand how tough that decision must have been.’ As it turned out, Tom had no interest in learning about management – all he wanted to do was cook. He was still cooking at the pub and the owner had connections at Gleneagles, so Tom left school at sixteen, packed his bags and headed off for an apprenticeship at the legendary Scottish hotel.
‘Gleneagles was very traditional – you had a brigade of sixty or seventy chefs and there was a clear hierarchy. I was very much at the bottom of the ladder – the way it should be as an apprentice. Leaving home at seventeen to live at Gleneagles as a young commis chef – it was eye-opening! Everything about the industry then and now has changed. My job as apprentice was to be in the kitchen first, I had to polish all the pots and pans, had to have coffee ready for the chef de partie. I got my ass kicked.’
During his time at Gleneagles, Tom met fellow apprentice Dominic Jack – a chef who would become a close friend and business partner from this point on. They shared a bedsit and whiled away time reading books, like Marco Pierre White’s seminal memoir White Heat and cookbooks from the famous London restaurants of the time – Le Gavroche, Le Manoir, La Tante Claire. The allure of the capital became too much to ignore; Tom wrote to all the above and more in search of a job, and he heard back from Pierre Koffmann – the formidable head chef of three Michelin-starred La Tante Claire in Chelsea.
‘By that time, I thought I was a bit of a hot shot in Gleneagles,’ says Tom. ‘I arrived at La Tante Claire and quickly realised that wasn’t the case. It was a very challenging part of my career. When I look back, I’m very proud that I made it through the first year – there were so many moments when I wanted to leave.’ The impact of La Tante Claire and respect for Pierre Koffmann is evident – he still refers to Koffmann as ‘chef’, even now. ‘It took a long time for chef to even notice me,’ he continues. ‘He pushed me extremely hard. Without his guidance and the way that he pushed me, I wouldn’t be the chef I am today.’
After two-and-a-half years with Pierre, Tom moved to Paris to work with Guy Savoy. ‘It was great – it was tough but I enjoyed it. I didn’t speak a word of French when I left but I started to grasp a bit of the language and move up the tree.’ Fourteen months later, though, Tom returned to London to work with Pierre once again. ‘I had unfinished business,’ he explains. ‘There was more to learn from him. When I came back I was more senior, I was one of his boys.’ Tom stayed for another two-and-a-half years, becoming an integral part of Pierre’s brigade at The Berkeley. ‘Five years of military service with Pierre Koffmann,’ he laughs.
Again, though, unfinished business beckoned, this time back in Paris. Time with Pierre Koffmann and Guy Savoy had made Tom into relatively hot property, and he snagged a place in the brigade at the three Michelin-starred Louis XV in Monte Carlo, run by the legendary Alain Ducasse. ‘I just wanted to work for the best,’ he shrugs. ‘It was brutal. I mean, insane. I can’t even explain what it was like. It’s the epitome of three Michelin star gastronomy. I had tough skin when I went to Ducasse – I was twenty-four years old and I could handle myself in that environment, but I dropped down from head sous chef with Pierre to third commis with Ducasse.’
It turned out to be the perfect finishing school for Tom – he left Monte Carlo to work as a private chef for Lord and Lady Bamford, with an idea to save enough money to open his own restaurant. There was originally a thought of opening in London, but he and his wife Michaela – whom he met whilst working for Guy Savoy – both wanted to return to Edinburgh. ‘We were engaged and looking for a restaurant – we ended up in Leith, honestly, because it was the only place we could afford,’ he says. ‘It worked out because it allowed us to start humbly, start small and grow organically, without any outside pressure.’
Early on, though, the signs were there that Tom was a meteoric talent on the rise. Six months after opening, The Kitchin won a Michelin star, making Tom – just twenty-nine years old at the time – the youngest Scottish chef to receive the prestigious award. Through impeccable sourcing of produce and classic French technique, Tom has lifted up farmers, producers and chefs around him.
Over a decade later, The Kitchin is a bastion of Scotland’s rejuvenated culinary scene, and it sits at the heart of an empire that includes the Michelin Bib Gourmand-awarded Scran & Scallie, Southside Scran, the Bonnie Badger and Castle Terrace, run by longtime friend Dominic Jack. ‘Edinburgh has changed a lot in fifteen years,’ he nods. ‘People are coming here as a foodie destination, which is fantastic. We’re breaking the shackles of deep-fried pizzas and Mars bars.’
Where Tom was once a commis chef under the wing of Pierre Koffmann, now he is the mentor. Many great chefs have come through his kitchens over the years, and he clearly embraces the opportunity to become a guiding hand for young cooks. ‘It’s a surreal feeling sometimes,’ he admits. ‘I’m very proud of all the chefs who come through here and go on to further themselves. I think you naturally run your kitchen the way your mentors ran theirs – I have always run this restaurant with a firm fist and discipline so I push my chefs hard to fulfil their potential.'
Though Tom spreads his time nowadays between managing his many restaurants, looking after his staff and his four children, he is still a constant presence on the pass at The Kitchin. The enthusiasm for the industry that served him so well three decades ago hasn’t waned – ‘I just spread my time differently now,’ he muses.
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