Nineteen-year-old Luke Thomas may be one of the country's youngest head chefs, but he has big ambitions for his restaurant at the Sanctum on the Green hotel in Cookham Dean, says Katherine Alano
Thomas has been cooking since the age of 12, and his CV reveals an impressive list of stages at UK restaurants, including the Chester Grosvenor hotel, Soughton Hall and its Stables Bar & Restaurant, Steve Vaughan Butchers and the Individual Restaurant Company, as well as work placements at Michelin-starred restaurants such as the Fat Duck and Rhodes W1.
Following a chance meeting with entrepreneur Mark Fuller some months before, Thomas opened his own restaurant in March at the nine-bedroom Sanctum on the Green hotel in the picturesque village of Cookham Dean in Berkshire.
"At the time I wasn't sure about my next career move, and after a meeting with Mark he said he wanted to open a restaurant with me. Even though people say that I might have been too young, I thought it was crazy to turn down a £3.5m business."
The 45-seat Luke's Dining Room is open for dinner Wednesday to Saturday and lunch only on a Sunday. Thomas and his brigade of two other chefs serve a simple menu with a choice of six starters, mains and desserts. The menu changes every six to eight weeks.
"A lot of my inspiration for the menus comes from my travels across the world and the unusual flavours that I have picked up along the way. That will always stay with me, and I adapt some of those discoveries in the dishes that I create," Thomas says.
Thomas's current favourite is Elwy Valley lamb, sweetbreads and fennel, goats' curd and charred onion (£20). "I have always liked goats' cheese with lamb, but to make it a bit fresher I use goats' curd. I also serve it with char-grilled cucumber, which I first experienced at Noma at Claridge's. I thought it was different and unusual and perfect to freshen up the dish a bit," the young chef explains.
Scallops, mussel curry, fritters and almond cream (£9) is the big seller among the starters. "What's one of the nation's most popular dishes?" asks Thomas. "Curry. So why not put it on the menu? I have had a variation of the dish before and wanted to break it down into the elements of what you have with a curry. Therefore, I added elements of almond flavour, mango chutney and crispiness of the poppadoms with the fritters."
Other starters include, beetroot-cured Scottish salmon, caviar crème fraÁ®che (£8); and blue cheese bonbons, baked Black Mission fig and caramelised walnut (£8).
Slow-cooked pork belly, creamed Savoy cabbage, crackling and cider jus (£17) is a popular main course with diners. Rolled and glazed with Madeira, the dish is served with creamed Savoy cabbage, celeriac purée and pancetta lardons. To cut through the creaminess, Thomas serves it with a sharp Granny Smith apple purée and crispy black pudding. Crackling is made with a Sosa product, Airbag (a coarser cut of pork crackling).
Also on the menu is baked sea bass, crispy salt and pepper baby squid and Oriental dressing (£18) and the more traditional 8oz rib-eye steak with triple-cooked chips and oxtail jus (£22).
Desserts include Thomas's take on old classics such as brioche bread and butter pudding (£6) and local blackberry and apple crumble with custard (£6).
And how has Thomas coped with not only running the kitchen, but, as business partner, the day-to-day management of the restaurant? "It was very difficult at the start," he admits. "What I have learnt is you have to have the right team behind you, and it takes time to earn respect."
Together with his skill in the kitchen and his enthusiasm for business, Thomas is not going to rest on his laurels. "I like working with figures. I like numbers. I like making money. Luke's Dining Room is not just a restaurant but a real commercial venture," he concludes.
Sample dishes from the menu
- Salt-baked celeriac velouté with autumn truffle salsa £6
- Crispy duck salad, pink grapefruit and soused red onion £8
- Tranche of Brixham plaice, potato and parsley "risotto" and shrimp beurre noisette £18
- Crab and venison cottage pie, braised red cabbage and loin £21
- Gnocchi, wild mushroom ragoÁ»t, roast butternut squash £15
- Whipped chocolate mousse with orange and ginger confit £6
- Passion fruit parfait, exotic fruit salad £6 Selection of artisan cheeses and quince jelly £9
Luke's Dining Room Sanctum on the Green, Old Cricket Common, Cookham Dean, Berkshire SL6 9NZ 01628 482638www.lukesdiningroom.com**