Tom Sellers, the 29-year-old chef-restaurateur, may be almost as well-known for his riposte to critic Fay Maschler as he is for his inventive, witty food. He takes Amanda Afiya on a whirlwind tour: from his Nottingham upbringing via Noma and the French Laundry to his London battleground, while slaying a few trolls along the way…
"I know it's a bit clichéd, but never judge a book by its cover," he offers cheekily. I nod, and carry on psychoanalysing him. "Do you not think I'm black and white?" he queries. "I've always been honest, and over the past few years I've become more honest. Everything I've said, I've meant - I want to be the best restaurateur in the world, I want to be progressive, I want to help the industry and I want to be brave enough to defend the industry when I feel it's required."
Defend the industry - what could he mean?
Yes, the man who famously opened Restaurant Story on the site of a Victorian toilet block near Tower Bridge after a £2m makeover - or the "precocious talent", as The Daily Telegraph put it - has a bit of a rep for speaking his mind. "I've never really given a toss," Sellers continues. "Some people say things for effect,
but I never really have."
Since opening Story, the absolute love of his life, in April 2013, the Nottingham-born chef and Tom Aikens protégé has developed his business interests at pace. In December 2014, he opened the privately backed Lickfold Inn in Petworth, West Sussex, and 17 months after that, Restaurant Ours, with Sellers cast as its culinary director.
Awards have been steady, too. Five months after Story launched Sellers was awarded a coveted Michelin star; and just four months ago he was presented with the AA Restaurant Guide's ultimate honour - five rosettes - in front of the industry's finest. He has also been named Breakthrough Chef of the Year by Food & Travel, broken into the Good Food Guide's top 50 restaurants, and been featured in Forbes magazine's 30 under 30.
The person before me is a complex one, I suggest. A bit of a lone wolf. You're more likely to see him pictured with Rudimental or Professor Green than his peer group, and he claims he doesn't care what people think of him.
"I'm very in tune with my emotions and I'm very aware of what's happening," Sellers says.
"But a lot of people don't see the other side; they don't see the hours, they don't see the level of responsibility I have, they don't see the trolling on Instagram or Twitter that I have to deal with, like, 'I hope your family get Aids', 'your restaurants are shit' - I get this stuff daily - 'you're a fake chef', 'it's all publicity', 'you can't even cook', 'go back to Nottingham and live with your trampy family'. I get abuse from people all the time and they don't see the other side - the 6am starts, the 2am finishes, the 150 emails a day.
"I'll do anything for my staff," he continues, barely drawing breath. "'Chef I need 500 quid', 'chef I've got girlfriend problems', 'chef I'm struggling with my mortgage payments' - I'd do anything for my people, but no one sees that side of me."
Losing the plot
The trolling goes some way to explaining his outburst last summer in response to an unpitying review from London Evening Standard critic Fay Maschler. She awarded Restaurant Ours just one out of five stars and described dishes as being "designed for Instagram, not the mouth", said her dressing was "tasteless and wet" and the music "deafening". "In other parts of the menu," she added, "the dismal dietary notion of 'clean eating' seems to pervade - probably sensible, given the likely clientele."
Maschler had a point - she probably isn't the "likely clientele" - and one can't help wondering what the ebullient Grace Dent would have made of it, but hey, everyone gets a bad review once in a while. Take it on the chin, correct the things you agree with and move on. Or not.
"If she had put a three-star review in and said 'I really didn't get it, this could have been better, that was really good' - then fine," says Sellers, "and I'd have been, 'cool, no problem'.
Instead, she was malicious, vicious, sloppy, and I was like, 'nah, my people deserve me to say something.'" So he did.
Entitled "Faymous: a response", Sellers penned a witty riposte to the review, defending Ours on his own website. Sellers, who was on the stoves at Ours the night Maschler came in, tells me: "I felt I had a responsibility, not only to the owners, but to myself and to everyone who works at Ours to respond to that. It's my job to protect us, because, if you think about it, one star is the biggest insult.
How can a guy with one of the best restaurants in the country, who is pushing for two Michelin stars, get something so wrong? Because I definitely didn't."
To understand Sellers, you have to go back to his formative years. In October, Sellers published his first book, A Kind Of Love Story, shattering publisher Orion's illusion of a recipe book and, instead, delivering his memoirs.
The black and white book, bound in an elaborate hardback cover, is a random collection of stories, capturing Sellers' most critical influences - his time with chefs Tom Aikens, Thomas Keller, Adam Byatt and René Redzepi - and his family life, growing up in Nottingham and the things that have inspired his freethinking cooking.
"The two most important elements that shape your life are the ones over which you have no control: who your parents are and where you were born and raised," he writes in the book.
"Everything about the way I was brought up taught me never to give up or give in."
School, he says, was basically "just a big hangout". "If someone said 'don't touch the fire', I'm gonna touch the fire. My brother and I are exactly one year apart [bar a day], so we're a similar age and we were as thick as thieves."
When the boys were in their early teens, Sellers' parents bought a house in a village just outside Nottingham. It was cottage-like, with three bedrooms and a small back garden, so Sellers was forced to share a room with his brother, which he hated.
School was on the east side of the city and surrounded by estates. "There were a lot of rough kids there, and my dad brought me and my brother up to kind of look after ourselves and to be quite streetwise," says Sellers.
His mother worked as a nurse and spent much of her time "worrying" about the kids, while his father - a big, burly welder by trade, who worked in a quarry and was used to using his hands - was "the kindest, most generous man", but also old school. "His mantra was that if you had a problem with someone you sorted it out with your bare hands - step outside into a field or the car park and deal with it like men," he references in the book.
"Oliver and I have the same fiery blood in our veins. At school we were a handful, always in trouble, sneaking out of lessons, pea-shooting the teacher, smashing windows. You name it, we did it. Stupid, stupid stuff. I was suspended three times; always for fighting. I had my nose broken and my thumb, cracked a few teeth, needed loads of stitches. My brother and I left school with the reputation that you didn't mess with the Sellers boys."
It left Sellers with a great pride in where he came from, however, and a great sense of confidence in the fact that he and his brother could look after themselves. They studied martial arts from a young age, were young boxers and played lots of sport. "We were educated about our surroundings. I'm not saying that's right or wrong, but I have a 'nothing will defeat me' kind of attitude and if something does go wrong, I think, 'fucking get up and carry on' - that comes from that upbringing, 100%."
For someone who spent more time outside the classroom than in it (he was suspended three times, but never actually expelled) he did remarkably well in his GCSEs. "I got one A, two Bs, five Cs and a D, and I failed cooking - true story. I didn't know I wanted to cook at that point and I took home economics because I wanted to piss about for an hour. I got an A in art, because I could draw, two Bs in English and five Cs, among them French, science and geography. Obviously, my mum was over the fucking moon, but I didn't give a shit."
He left school and started working in a pub, the Hammer and Pincers, near Nottingham, initially as a potwash, working under head chef Damian Clisby "who saw something" in him and later advised him to work with Aikens.
At the time, he was seriously into sport and was playing ice hockey at a high level. "It pretty much took up my life. I trained three times a week, playing on Saturday and Sunday, and probably could have carried on and pursued that, playing for this country, but I decided not to. I decided to stop and cook because I fell in love with food instantly. People say I'm a naughty boy, that I messed about, that I got kicked out of school several times, but I don't think I was by any means stupid.
"I never listened, so if I took a test I would fail it because I hadn't listened to anything and I was made to feel quite stupid about that. But that didn't mean that I was stupid, so when I left school I had this big thing in my head that whatever I did, I wanted to prove to everyone that I can be really good at something.
"I didn't know what it was going to be, but when I decided I was going to cook, I thought, 'right, I'm going to do this properly'. I think the driver was definitely from being made to feel that I'd failed at school. You're made to think that if you don't get certain grades you don't need to set any expectations."
Despite his somewhat thuggish reputation, today Sellers prepares some of the most elegant and revered food served in the UK. As the AA says, the imagination, technical skill, impressive flavours and sheer fun should win over even the most hardened critic: "The bread and dripping is a signature which should be on the menu for as long as its doors are open - a candle made of beef fat, fabulous sourdough bread and a powerful beef jelly extract," it says in the current guide.
"Onions star in a dish with Old Tom gin, while fallow deer is a fine piece of meat, cooked to perfection, with yeast and dandelion in a captivating combination."
While Sellers covers a lot of ground, talking about Restaurant Ours, the Lickfold Inn, endorsements and pop-ups, among many things, he constantly returns to Story. All roads lead to Story, in fact.
"Every decision I make leads to Story. Don't get me wrong, I partner up with brands that I look up to, such as AP [Audemars Piguet] and Mercedes as I see that their dedication matches mine. Other opportunities that I take have to be seen as a financial decision for my business and I consider each one strategically.
It's an important bolster that means Ican develop my team and improve the equipment we use in the restaurant. It also means that we can close for the Christmas holidays each year and give everyone a break.
"You know how I do a deal? Say I'm sitting with the CEO of a brand, who do they want to work with? They want to work with someone who is future-proof, with the right skill set, so I sell the dream and say 'right, this is what I'm doing, this is where I come from'. Then I always say, 'Look, I'll tell you what, we don't need to make any decisions now, why don't you come and eat at Story?' And I know that when they leave Story, the deal's done."
It's easy to see why some people might think that Sellers is arrogant or overconfident, but it's also easy to see how he can be misconstrued.
When I ask him who's the biggest competitor of his generation, he's quick to point out who his idols are - Sat Bains, Jason Atherton, Tom Kerridge, Daniel Clifford and, despite an altercation at the AA Awards a couple of years ago, Claude Bosi - yet he can't name many peers.
"I don't mean it arrogantly when I say I only compete with myself. What drives me is to be the best I can be, regardless of others. It means I don't have much interest in going to lots of industry events. I want to cook, it's why I do what I do and I'm very focused on making my restaurants better integrally, rather than taking the time out to make them look better from the outside.
"You know my CV: I worked with Tom Aikens, Thomas Keller and René Redzepi, all for a serious amount of time. I want Story to be around for the next 20 years, I want Story to become an institution, a Le Gavroche, a Le Manoir, a Ledbury, a Midsummer House.
"It comes down to ambition and my inner battle is more powerful than any other factor. I have learned over the last four years just to be totally real in a world that loves to manipulate everything."
What Sellers has achieved is remarkable. The journey hasn't been easy and yet, from the outside looking in, it looks like many opportunities fortuitously came his way, that his mentors fashioned his next move well, giving him an extraordinary career before many in the industry had even left uni. However, it's a career he doesn't take for granted and it's an industry he feels absolutely privileged to be in.
"I think it's one of the most, if not the most, entrepreneurial industries in the world. I just wanted to come into it and cook my all at Story. It's a very special place and I'm very proud of all our accolades. It's my home.
"I think I'm the most real person in this industry - I'll always say what I think, I never try to avoid a question. I say it how it is and I stand by what I say. It's my opinion and I'm happy for people to challenge it, of course, but I feel there are a bunch of young kids who want to be in this industry and they need to look at me and think 'fuck it, he was young, he did it'.
"You don't have to be a product of the industry to be part of it, and you don't have to work for someone for 15 years, in their shadow, waiting for them to give their approval."
Tell us a story
April 2013 Tom Sellers opens Restaurant Story in Tooley Street, London SE1, having trained under some of the finest chefs in the world, including Thomas Keller (Per Se), René Redzepi (Noma) and Tom Aikens
September 2013 Story is awarded a Michelin star within five months of opening
October 2013 Sellers is awarded Breakthrough Chef of the Year at the Food & Travel Awards 2013
Spring 2014 Sellers appears in the ninth series of BBC2's Great British Menu
August 2014 Restaurant Story is rated 7/10 in the 2015 Good Food Guide and makes it into the Top 50 Restaurants
December 2014 Sellers opens the Lickfold Inn, a much-loved local pub near Petworth, West Sussex, following a total refurbishment. It is later awarded the Best New Pub accolade and ranked sixth in the Top 50 UK Pubs in the Good Food Guide 2016, and 10th in The Times' list of Best Al Fresco Pubs in the UK
October 2015 The Lickfold Inn is awarded three AA rosettes
May 2016 Sellers becomes culinary director at Restaurant Ours in South Kensington, London September 2016 Story is awarded five rosettes in the AA Restaurant Guide 2017 October 2016 Sellers' first book, A Kind Of Love Story, is published by Orion
Tom Sellers on…
I think the more diverse this industry can be, the better. I don't pass any judgement or think that a certain style makes a good restaurant or a bad restaurant - I think it makes it a different restaurant. I think what upsets people was I openly went out there with a massive set of balls and said I want to do this restaurant and it doesn't matter that I'm 25 years old, and it doesn't matter that I didn't work for a Gordon or a Marcus for 15 years and waited until I was 35 - all of that shit's irrelevant. People always say that's disrespectful, but I say no, it's not.
…a love lost
Adam Byatt [a former supporter of Story] and I haven't spoken since the split. I have learned some harsh lessons. I never thought in my wildest dreams I'd be where I am today - it's mind-blowing. I have the utmost respect for Adam, he was instrumental in my career, he was instrumental in the happening and opening of Story, which I'll be forever grateful for, but business is a cruel mistress and you don't always look out of the same window and that's all that happened with me and Adam. The best result was for me to go down the path I was going down and for him to go down his path. I miss Adam, I do. He's an amazing guy.
In terms of succession management, I'm a year ahead; I'm like Alex Ferguson. I take huge inspiration from people like that - Ferguson, Steve Jobs - I read all their books. I take inspiration from the way Ferguson ran Manchester United football club because that's what I do now, I have to plan.
People always ask me about my time at Noma. What was it like working for René Redzepi, the man whose restaurant is considered to be the best in the world? Simple. It was like getting on a bus that was never going to stop. For anyone. If there was an earthquake, or the biggest hurricane or snowstorm in the world, René wouldn't stop. Working with René was never about ticking boxes, or doing things the way they had always been done, or the way people would understand or expect. If he got knocked over, he would just come back twice as hard. He taught me that if you have the tenacity and the drive and the will to achieve, nothing can stop you. It is that I thank René for, above everything."
Tom Sellers' restaurants
Restaurant Story, Bermondsey, London
Opened April 2013
Key staff Sam Ashton-Booth, head chef; Luke Headon, head of research and development; Ursula Ferreira, general manager; Joe Paulinski, restaurant manager; and Patrick Frawley, head sommelier
Atmosphere Occupying a former toilet block near Tower Bridge, the restaurant has polished concrete floors, Delft tiles, chocolate brown leather chairs, blonde
wood tables and a large floor-to-ceiling window. It brings together serene fine dining and Sellers' characteristic, youthful charm.
On the menu Bread and dripping; potato, carrot and coal; onion and lovage; beef, vanilla and bitter leaves; foie gras and clementine; and almond and dill
Lickfold Inn, Petworth, West Sussex
Opened December 2014
Key staff Graham Squire, head chef; and Simone del Santo, restaurant manager
Atmosphere Sellers sensitively restored this Grade II-listed building, keeping the exposed wooden beams, the brickwork and the open fireplaces, and adding furniture that blends seamlessly with the decor. He has created a British menu to reflect the locality, served in the airy dining room, while downstairs is a buzzing local.
On the menu Scorched mackerel with cucumber, dill and seaweed; Sussex goose with salsify and new season rhubarb;and Old Spot pork loin with pickled chicory and cider jus
Role Culinary director
Opened May 2016
Key staff Jarad McCarroll, head chef; and Sam Sedecais, general manager
Atmosphere A West London hotspot that oozes glamour, elegance and fun, Ours is "casual dining at its best". Sellers has designed an Á la carte menu that is "enticing, fresh and visually breathtaking".
On the menu Scallop gremolata; cod with lovage and mussels; rabbit with sauce gribiche; Hereford beef with beetroot and rye; and doughnuts with salted
Sellers is currently exploring partnership opportunities for restaurant businesses in Hong Kong and New York, and is in ongoing discussions about a site in east London for his informal bar and restaurant concept.
Tom to Tom
Probably only a handful of chefs who have worked in my kitchens over the years have had what it takes to become a great head chef or restaurant owner. Great talent doesn't come along that often; people who truly stand out from the crowd.
I understand him, because I was exactly the same at his age, but I didn't have that father figure to guide me. As you begin to mature as a cook, and when you have a very creative head, it gets more and more difficult to take orders. It frustrates you, because you have all these ideas of your own.
He made the choice to hit the ground running and of course he's worked his arse off. His will to achieve was as strong as mine. I know what it's like to have super-high expectations, and a fear of failing, at a very young age. It's a lot of weight and stress on your shoulders. You have all the tools, apart from management, but ultimately it is mental strength that carries you over the line. Tom Aikens, from A Kind of Love Story
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