Features, Food

The rise of the chef at Soho House

New UK director Tom Collins tells House Four where he came from, what he’s doing next and why food is our focus for 2017

Finding a time slot when Tom Collins can have his picture taken for House Four isn’t easy. Three weeks into his new job as Soho House & Co’s UK director, his diary is packed out with meetings, calls and menu tastings.

The former development chef, who started as head chef at Soho House 40 Greek Street just five years ago, has to be ultra-efficient and expects the same standards of the 2,000+ people working in our restaurants and bars across the UK. Told that the pasta dish being prepared for his cover shot won’t arrive for 20 minutes (we’re still in the middle of breakfast service),
he makes a quick call. “I’ve just  been told this linguine lobster’s going to take 20 minutes. It needs to take ten.”

With a huge, company-wide focus on food in 2017, it’s Tom’s job to make sure that dishes like this arrive not just faster but better. Finishing his pasta hungrily, he sends feedback that the dish is good but finished with a little too much oil for his taste. Hustling around sites giving feedback on food and working on menus is only a small part of the task ahead, though. “We all need to work on our passion for food, engaging our senior chefs, junior chefs, everybody in the kitchen on what makes a really great meal,” he says.

Looking after kitchen teams is a top priority for Tom, who believes that Soho House’s chef retention needs to improve. “We need to educate and inspire them, show them new things, challenge them, show that we invest in them,” he says. “We need to make them happy at work and show that they are valued within the company.”

Seeing Tom in action it’s clear that he’s already happy and challenged in his own role. He’s come a long way since joining as head chef in 2012, but the way he joined the company offers a clue to why he’s progressed so fast. “I just emailed Nick. We’d met at a few events while I was chef director at Bistrotheque,” he explains.

Bistrotheque is the East London restaurant that Tom set up with someone he’d previously worked with. Having little experience behind him – just an apprenticeship in his teens and one other kitchen job  after finishing his business degree – he admits that the team were “winging it”. But sometimes that can lead to creativity, and despite its edgy Bethnal Green location (at the time the London dining scene was still firmly centred upon Mayfair), Bistrotheque became known for great food, with London’s leading restaurant critic Fay Maschler naming it as one of her top five openings in 2004. “The dishes are loveable French classics cooked with modern brio,” she wrote, praising Tom’s “uncomplicated but savvy” approach to food.

Soon it was the fashion crowd’s restaurant of choice, and Tom and his Bistrotheque partners pushed themselves with some hugely successful London popups. But by his own admission he’d “never done anything else” and was ready for a new challenge, so in 2012 he quit as chef director and emailed Nick Jones. As a regular at Shoreditch House, he had some ideas on how to make Soho House food better and after a meeting with Nick and COO Martin Kuczmarski was immediately put in charge of the kitchen at the very first House, at 40 Greek Street.

“I sat down with Joe Eva, who was the general manager at the time, and we had a really good chat about how we were going to improve the food,” he says, emphasising that you don’t need to chase Michelin stars to make a good head chef. “Joe and I got on well, and we worked hard on developing the whole team, getting them to engage with food. We’d do tastings every day, lots of trainings, I encouraged them all to get involved with the Cookhouse programme. It’s all the stuff we talk about now.”

Wasn’t it restrictive cooking Soho House regulars after running his own kitchen for so long? “You always have to work within boundaries,” he says. “There are always limitations on having house regulars but there’s no set recipes at Soho House, they just have to be really good and make you want to go back for more. And if you serve great food within the constraints of the brief you get more freedom.”

After making a success of the food at 40 Greek Street, Tom was made executive development chef in 2015, at the busiest time for new openings in the company’s history. A broad-ranging job, it meant working on everything from kitchen design to developing menus for new sites like Soho House 76 Dean Street, Soho Farmhouse, Café Monico and Soho House Barcelona. His influence began to show in a lighter, fresher style of food with more of an emphasis on salads, vegetables, grains and fish.

To stay up to date he has always eaten out a lot, even in his student days, to check out the competition and search for new ideas and trends around the world. But those he comes back to offer simple dishes, done well. “I like food that’s not overly elaborate. Chez Panisse in California is a good example,” he says, naming Delfina in San Francisco and Primeur and Trullo in London as other favourites.

The decision to focus on food in 2017 gave the chef another opportunity to step up, this time to director level. “Tom is a great example of someone coming through the ranks at Soho House and shows that if you work hard, are smart, committed, and passionate about food,
it pays off,” said Martin Kuczmarski at the time. “Tom will put a real emphasis back on the food in all our UK houses and restaurants, is a great people person and manager, and will give boundless energy to our places.”

Judging by his laser-beam focus on the morning House Four is following him – fighting for the hiring of a new breakfast chef, posing for pictures, briefing a mystery diner on the kind of feedback he wants on our food and service and then heading off to High Road House for a tasting, all in the space of a few hours – he’s already made a good start. But his passion for food is such that he won’t be hanging up his chef’s whites just yet. “I’ll still be cooking one night a week,” he promises. Look out for him on the pass.

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