Stopping in Hong Kong for a guest gig at The Principal earlier this year, TOM SELLERS tells a tale or two to CHRISTINA KO
TOM SELLERS TELLS stories. At the moment, his yarns are communicated via dishes – eloquent and edible poems wrought of oil or onions that are both deeply personal and independently delicious. You've probably chanced upon the dish he's best known for via social media or old wives' tales, served at his one-Michelin-starred Restaurant Story in London: a candle forged of beef dripping that's lit at the table and served with a side of thick-crust bread. As the heat of the flaming wick sends rivulets of fat streaming down the shaft, delighted patrons dip handripped chunks of the bread into that creamy puddle that gathers beneath.
Its genius is in the presentation, rather than the actual amalgamation of tastes (it's still ultimately a placeholder for your typical bread-and-butter combo), but when combined with a nostalgic tale – “if you're going to get really deep about it, it's about the relationship between me and my father, and how he would eat beef dripping at home and how that influenced me,” Sellers says – you've got a dish that not only wins competitions such as the Young British Foodie Awards, but an amuse-bouche that's made Sellers' name across the globe.
Sellers' own story begins a little over a decade ago when, having been expelled from school at age 15, he began his foray into the culinary world. He worked his way into Tom Aikens' kitchen, then Thomas Keller's at The French Laundry and Per Se, and finally René Redzepi's at Noma. After a decade cooking his way across the world's top restaurants, at age 25 he decided to throw his own hat into the ring.
“At Noma, I think I found myself in food,” says the chef, now aged 26, an old soul in a young man's body. “When I was working with René I think I'd come to a point where I'd been cooking in some of the best kitchens in the world. I'd kind of made the decision in my head that the next step would be to do it for myself. The goal was always to have my own restaurant, [but] I didn't say ‘by 25' or anything like that. I think still being quite young made the decision easier – it was just like, let's do it.”
He already had the name in mind, and the idea that it would focus on British cuisine. The menu came about organically, based around his experiences and memories. “I called it Restaurant Story because I thought I was telling my story. What we do at the restaurant is a product of what I've learned throughout the years, and also the stories that have revolved around food that I think are massively powerful. It's about trying to incorporate the narrative side of food in what we do. But ultimately we're a restaurant that sources great produce, and we try to be intelligent in the way that we treat that. And we don't dig too hard to try and find the story; the story normally comes out, which is always nice.”
The concept of stories lends itself well to comfort cuisine – but make no mistake, while certain ideas hark back to Sellers' own past, this isn't grandma's chicken pot pie we're dealing with. A scallop, cucumber and dill ash dish is plated sparsely and impeccably, a nod to Sellers' days in Denmark, “and how it changed my style in terms of becoming a lot lighter with my food, more Scandinavian”. Dill is also used, unusually, to season a green snow as well as in oil form in a dessert that includes almond ice cream, and has graced the menu since the restaurant opened. A squid-ink sandwich cookie with a smoked-eel and vinegar filling is called the Storeo, and pays homage to Sellers' time stateside with Keller, when “Oreos were something that I always had in my cupboard at home”.
Although all of those dishes are menu stalwarts – and all made an appearance at Sellers' two-night pop-up gig at The Principal earlier this year – none, thus far, have had the same wow factor of that simple candle. “There's a level of expectation,” the chef admits. “That's a dish that's become my signature, and will always stay on the menu. We're always improving and creating, so maybe something else will come out of it. It's a balance of trying to create and move forward, but also doing what you're doing now well, and consistently.”
He's currently moving forward with the things he calls “part and parcel of being a chef these days”: he did an episode of Great British Menu on the BBC that aired in April, and has a Channel 4 show that hits small screens later this year.
The Hong Kong guest spot aside, he's also booked to fly into Singapore in September to cook. In about year and a half, he'll open his second restaurant, which will have a different concept to Story. And Sellers is midway through sharing his story with the world – on paper this time, “a book about food and me and how I got here and how I feel about food and the industry and the chefs that I worked for. Now, more than ever, people are more interested in what we do in the industry, and I guess the publishers thought it was quite a good story.”
One tale he's reluctant to tell, however, is the one written across his arms in sweeping, romantic ink. “Misspent youth,” he sighs. “Just a load of rubbish. I got a tattoo when I was very young, and it just carried on and on. I've stopped. No more. They all hold significance. But it was just the way I expressed myself when I was younger. I left home when I was very young, and it wasn't all plain sailing. Growing up wasn't the easiest. Maybe it's a reflection of that. But people like them now and they think they're cool. So I just kind of roll with it, to be honest. I'm a big softie, really.”