Tom Phillips is the UK candidate 2018 for the Bocuse d’Or competition and sous chef at Restaurant Story, London. He speaks to Katie Pathiaki about the preparation before the European selection in Turin, Italy, next week
Where did you first hear about the Bocuse d’Or?
One of the first things I remember when I started working at the Ritz were the plaques hung up on the walls in the corridors. I recall this particular one in a frame with a medal and certificate, which always stayed next to the chefs’ office, where the others would alternate. I asked chef [John Williams] about it one day and he told me it was from the Bocuse d’Or.
What interested you about the competition?
I was already quite interested in competitions, so I went away and researched it. I already knew about Paul Bocuse and how instrumental he was to classic and nouvelle cuisine, so to learn about this competition was incredible.
How did you continue to stay interested after leaving the UK?
On leaving the Ritz and going to Per Se in New York, the then executive sous chef Matthew Peters was working towards national selections for the US team. He won, then he moved to California to the Bocuse training centre, which is in the building next door to the French Laundry, and I followed what he was doing.
When I made the decision to leave America I went to California and did a couple of days at the French Laundry. On my last day I had breakfast with Matt, he told me all about the ups and downs, the training and how it was going. He then said to me “you want to do this don’t you?”, and gave me two options: either I renewed my visa and worked at the French Laundry while getting to oversee what the American team were doing, or sack off my plan of going to France, go straight to the UK and knock on the door of whoever was in charge of the UK team and let them know I wanted to be involved.
So what did you do?
I tried France and it wasn’t for me. I was back in the country for maybe four days before I was going to John Williams’ office to tell him I wanted to start getting involved in Bocuse UK. I initially wanted to just help out and become an assistant for whoever was going to compete next and try to be involved, then he asked me if I was interested in competing.
Aged 25, how are you feeling about being the youngest British chef to take part?
It’s crazy! I am a big believer that age isn’t really a factor in things like this and it’s more about how you are mentored which effects how you approach it. It is daunting, but I feel really lucky to have Adam Bennett as my coach who has competed twice for the UK.
What is the most valuable piece of advice he’s given you?
He had a massive input with my food and direction. He’s done it four times, competing at the European selections and twice at the world final, so he has a lot of experience.
Has it been tough juggling the competition and the relaunch of Restaurant Story?
Definitely. The team at Story have been completely behind me, Tom [Sellers] has been giving me the time off. It’s been tough, not only trying to split my focus between two big projects but also being to be in two cities.
How did it feel to beat all of those high-calibre chefs at the national selection?
It was a shock! I was the youngest out of all of them and they’re all incredible chefs. So I felt a little bit nervous but my commis Nathan Lane [a freelance chef working for the Bocuse D’or] and I enjoyed it from start to finish and that must have really shown in our food. When they called our name out I probably sat there for a couple of seconds before standing up. It was just amazing.
What can you tell me about the prep?
It’s all super-secret for now. I grew up in south Wales and I’ve tried to bring as much of that experience into this. You’ll see what I mean by that by the way we deliver our food. I’m using produce from throughout the UK, including Staffordshire turnip, Old Winchester cheese and Scottish pine vinegar.
Have you encountered any problems?
We’ve had a few bumps; I think it’s just about taking accord. The one thing I’ve learned is when a problem arises, instead of letting it frustrate you, take a step back and work it out. And it’s crucial to practice to iron out any problems.
What kind of hours are you putting in?
It varies. Most days it’s like a normal restaurant, so any time from 8am to 11pm. I can’t remember my last day off. I was at Story at the beginning of this month and the rest I’ve been based in Birmingham training full time.
How important is it to take part in competitions?
Competitions aren’t for everyone, in any industry, but I’ve always looked upon it as a way of trying something for myself. Especially when I was younger and at a lower position in the kitchen; you don’t really have a say in what you do, so when a competition arrives, it’s the chance to try and learn something you don’t have the chance to do in work. Then as you go through those processes you learn so much when you compete, as people say, you learn a lot more when you’re losing than when you’re winning.
What do you think you’ll bring back from the competition to Story when you’ve finished?
I’ve had the opportunity to develop a lot of ideas and methods and new ways of doing things. This competition is not just about putting a plate of food on the pass; you have a window of five and a half hours to produce a hell of a lot of food and you can only do that if you have military precision and organisation. That’s something I’m learning and will take away with me.
What do you hope to achieve in the future?
After we compete I’ll be going back to Story and, like anyone, I want my own restaurant one day, so hopefully that will be the next step. Whatever happens, the Bocuse d’Or will become part of my career and I’d like to help to train the next candidate and go on from there. The biggest thing for us now is qualifying. Obviously, it would be incredible to be in the top five, but we would be happy to qualify. When I think about the future I hope I can be an integral part of the competition.
Tom Phillips began his training at Bournemouth and Poole College where he undertook the Specialised Chefs’ Scholarship arranged by the Royal Academy of Culinary Arts. He first learned about the Bocuse d’Or as an apprentice at the Michelin-starred the Ritz in London, where the hotel’s executive chef and former candidate John Williams introduced him to the competition.
On leaving the Ritz, Phillips moved to the US to work at the three-Michelin-starred Per Se in New York. It was there he met current Bocuse d’Or title holder Mathew Peters, who told him to pursue his dream and get involved.
Taking a detour to do a stint in Paris at the three-Michelin-starred Epicure in the eighth arrondissement, Philips returned to the UK to begin working at the two-Michelin-starred L’Enclume in Cartmel. Four days after returning to the country he approached the UK team and was one of five chefs invited to take part in the National Selection.
He joined Tom Sellers’ Michelin-starred Restaurant Story in London as a sous chef in October 2017. Restaurant Story reopened this month after a month-long interior renovation. The menu has been removed and each table is “treated individually, creating their own bespoke story”.
The Bocuse d’Or
The Bocuse d’Or was founded by the late chef Paul Bocuse in 1987. It attracts international teams of chefs who compete to take part in the final at Sirha International’s hotel, catering and food trade exhibition in Lyon, France.
Each team consists of a head chef, a commis and a mentor. They start at the National Selection (which this time took place at the Skills Show in Birmingham NEC in November 2917 in a three hour and 45 minute cook-off), before going on to compete against 20 nations in the European selection stage, to be held in the Oval Lingotto exhibition centre in Turin from 11-12 June.
In order to qualify for the final, the teams must be placed in the top 10. Contestants are required to prepare 14 plates based on a theme, which is yet to be announced, as well as a platter using beef fillet of Fassona Piemontese pedigree, Baraggia Biellese and Vercellese rice and a calf sweetbread.
Each candidate is encouraged to add a personal touch to their dishes, taking inspiration from their country of heritage.
If successful, Tom Phillips will go on to compete at the final in Lyon in January 2019 where he will have five hours and 35 minutes to prepare his dishes. A jury of 24 chefs will judge them, split in half with 12 each judging the meat and fish dishes.
The chef with the highest overall score is awarded the Bocuse d’Or trophy, a golden effigy of Paul Bocuse and €20,000.
No UK chef has ever reached the podium at the Bocuse d’Or world finals. Phillips is now hoping to go all the way in the competition, making it through the European finals in Turin and getting to Lyon in 2019.