Youngest head chef takes on Great British Menu
So taking on the experienced Mary Ann Gilchrist (Carlton Riverside, Powys) and Michelin-starred Richard Davies (formerly of The Vineyard at Stockcross, now executive chef at The Manor House Hotel, Castle Combe, near Bath), under the watchful eye of judging chef Jeremy Lee in the Welsh heat, probably isn't going to faze him.
I first met Luke five years ago – we both hail from North Wales and, as I was training as a journalist, the 14-year-old Luke was gaining work experience with the likes of Gary Rhodes and Gordon Ramsey, and serving time in the kitchens of Michelin-starred restaurants around the country.
A precocious talent, he was cleaning up in cookery contests and, as I departed the north for Newbury in 2010, he was one of my final interviewees, having recently won another local prize.
I never forgot his name as, even then it was obvious he would be something of a star; a boy of 16 learning his trade, but clearly born to be in a kitchen and hugely talented.
Two years later his name appeared in the national press and I saw he was the head chef at Luke’s Dining Room, at Sanctum on the Green, just down the road in Maidenhead.
Television cameras have followed him throughout his inaugural year and, as I catch up with him after this break, he is tired having just arrived back from a wine-tasting expedition to Italy.
The last time I spoke to him he wasn’t old enough to drink, and I remind him of this and ask, where did it all go so right?
He says: “It got to the point where I was leaving school and I really wasn't sure, I really didn't know what I wanted to do. I’d always wanted to work in kitchens but it was a case of, do I go to college? Do I do an apprenticeship?
“I wanted to work abroad but really didn’t fancy living in somewhere like Dubai for a whole year just then.
“So I arranged for sponsorship around the North West and wrote to various restaurants around the world to see what would happen.
As a result, he spent short periods of time working in the Middle East, the US, under Jamie Oliver, “I even popped up in Harrods. I had all this experience under my belt and after that I thought, “What do I do next?””
Following a chance meeting he came onto the radar of nightclub impresario Mark Fuller, a man who has been at the fulcrum of the London celebrity and party scene over the past decade.
Fuller asked Luke to cook a meal for him, and was so impressed that he asked him to be head chef of his own restaurant, the Sanctum on the Green, Cookham.
“I told my dad, “This guy wants me to run a restaurant.” He said, “Don’t be so silly, you can’t do that, go and get a proper job.
“Still, I thought this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to be offered this now, I’d be stupid not to take it. This could be a massive success, it’s well worth a try, and it is working very well.”
Already no stranger to television, with appearances regular appearances on BBC Wales and on programmes such as UKTV Good Food and Market Kitchen, it was then that the BBC began following him around for a documentary and his first day at the restaurant, Friday, January 13, was a TV crew’s dream.
He forgot to place the veg order and the crockery didn’t turn up until 5pm. When it arrived it was wrong. Not panicking, he used his experience to get out of trouble, and you can see what happened for yourself when the documentary airs in May.
However, it was typical of a young man who seems to make things happen – and to whom things happen. His stock (if you will excuse the pun), has risen so quickly that he is on the cusp of becoming the next big thing in food, and a little bit of drama here and there will certainly do him no harm.
After that, though, for the next few months, he got down to business, starting with a five-day service. Modern-day celebrity is like a soufflé; all puffy exterior and sheen, but get it wrong and it will collapse and end up in obscurity.
He understands this, but his position is based on purely talent, rather than the ungainly pursuit of fame as an end in itself.
“You read about success stories and think, “Wow that was a massive gamble”, but I didn't see it like that that. My age was a selling point, but soon it won’t be the thing; in a few years it needs to be ‘Luke Thomas is a really good chef’ rather than ‘Luke Thomas the teenager’.
Search for reviews online and among them you will see one from Jay Rayner, which is not so much glowing as eulogisingly blinding. The notoriously prickly restaurant critic fawned over Luke’s asparagus velouté like it had been prepared by his own son.
So how does he feel about handling the pressure?
“Quite an achievement personally. I always wanted to succeed, to finish first, second was never an option. I didn’t realise it would all happen so quickly, though, it’s been like a whirlwind. It has happened so fast I haven’t had time to stop and think, because I’ve been so busy.”
Having travelled and cooked all over the world, the North-South divide in the UK did not faze him as he stuck to his principles.
“I haven’t really seen much difference between the North and South. It’s nice to do your own thing; you can tell it is the same menu, it's got a certain style, very clean. You have to develop a style, that is what people will recognise.
“I have become a little bit more adventurous, but I do try to stick with what I believe in – good simple food. Slightly quirky, yes, but I try and deliver good food day in day out, rather than try something that can’t be achieved. My food is more British than European. Good produce cooked well.
“I use lots of local suppliers, as much as possible. I use Welsh lamb, though, of course, I have to, I'm a Welsh lad. Phil Bowditch fishmongers and butchers in Little Marlow, that is a great place, I go there often.
“Sanctum on the Green is very foodie. It has a rustic family feel, laid-back, relax. It has a great feel, it’s not swanky – it’s just a great place with a good atmosphere.”
One thing has changed, though. As a boy at home, he would take over at mealtimes, cooking Christmas dinners and generally making the kitchen his domain. Not so much these days.
When he goes home to Wales, often once a week, these days he refuses to go in the kitchen. “One day a week, I do not cook at all. We’ll go out to my favourite Siam Thai and Teppanyaki Restaurant in Chester. We go every week, it is amazing.
“Flintshire is my home. It wasn’t hard moving South, I was used to being away all the time, but it is nice to go back. Someone else can take care of the food then.”
There is, of course, more to being head chef than simply cooking the food so, doing what he had always done, he sought advice from the best – Iain Donald, a man with 33 casual dining restaurants trading under two formats.
“I spent six months with him. What I learned was that you can be a great cook, but there is more to running a restaurant; I look after more than that, the finance and everything. We are doing well but we have to keep working hard.”
For any aspiring chef Michelin stars are the holy grail, so the subject has to come up and Luke has been compared to Marco Pierre White, the enfant terrible of haute cuisine, not just by Fuller, but in many of reviews of his food.
White was awarded his first star at 26. To beat that is well within Luke’s grasp, but he bats it away.
“If I get the star, great, if not, I won't give up. Hopefully, I will get another restaurant and then, hopefully, one day, one in central London. I am not going to slow down, I know that. I don’t just plan to be just here in five or 10 years. By then I want five or 10 restaurants.”
And is his temper like the mercurial White’s? “I’m fairly calm actually. Certainly not a diva. I don’t need to shout. Yes, I’ve thrown the odd pan around, but that’s about it.”
Luke Thomas will be on Great British Menu all this week, BBC2, 7.30pm.