The head chef at the newly-opened Tom’s Kitchen in the Mailbox, Tom Wells reveals how a pineapple upside down cake changed his life
Tell us about your cooking.
I like to cook simple food with lovely fresh ingredients and like most good chefs, seasonality is massively important to me. I want to cook delicious hearty meals with clean flavours that people can relish. I’ve travelled a lot and cooked in a variety of great restaurants along the way so I’ve been influenced by a lot of styles, but I particularly like Asian cuisine and definitely classic British fare.
How did you become a chef?
At 14, I took a home economics class at school in Wolverhampton and one day I cooked a pineapple upside down cake and it literally changed everything! After that all I wanted to be was a cook. I studied food at college before spending a couple of years at the five-star Bath Hotel under Jonathan Fraser – a baptism of fire where I learned the importance of a strong work ethic. I then went travelling and worked at the five-star Cairns International before a couple of stints on cruise ships, including the Queen Mary II, which I loved. I worked with Richard Turner when we won our first Michelin Star and then spent a couple of year in Singapore with Luke Mangan, initially launching an Asian tapas bar before opening his fine dining place the Salt Grill and Sky Bar on Orchard Road. When I was interviewed for the role of head chef at Tom’s Kitchen by Tom Aikens, it was a bit like meeting my idol as his cook book was the first I ever bought! The culture here and the type of food we’re cooking is just my kind of eating. We want people to have great, affordable food in a relaxed environment and for them to feel they can come two or three times a week.
What do you eat when at home?
A lot of Asian food and anything that’s simple and tasty. My wife Clarice is from the Philippines and she makes a really good pork adobo made with pork belly and soy sauce. Obviously a fair bit of salt, so you can’t eat it too often.
Who’s the best chef in the world and why? And who’s the best in Brum?
David Chang who runs Momofuku in New York is unbelievable and I really want to visit Thomas Keller’s restaurant, the French Laundry, in California because he’s right at the top of his game. In Birmingham the food scene has changed so much with loads of great chefs like Richard Turner, Glynn Purnell and Adam Stokes. I really rate the Polish chef Adam Glamacinski who runs Sushi Passion in the Great Western Arcade.
Is the customer always right?
Well I’d like to say ‘no’ but along with our suppliers, the customer is the most important person to us! Of course they’re always right in terms of their expectations but it can be frustrating when a perfect medium rare steak is sent back.
Share a cooking tip
Make sure you use properly seasoned water when cooking green vegetables. It should taste like the sea.
What was your favourite food as a kid?
I was a really fussy eater until I was about 13 and lived off pizza and banana sandwiches. Then that pineapple upside down cake changed my life and I’ll eat anything now!
Food heaven and food hell?
Heaven is a Thai green curry. I’m in hell if you serve me steak on one of those sizzling black hot plates – I just don’t understand it.
What’s the most unusual thing you’ve eaten?
At the end of my street in Singapore they used to sell a lot of durian, a spiky hard fruit with a horrendous smell. Once cracked open, if you can get over the odour, then the flesh is really creamy, sweet and lovely.
If you weren’t a chef, what would you be?
I couldn’t manage being stuck in an office so something ‘outdoor-sy’ and creative would work. I reckon I’d be a pretty good landscape gardener.
What do you recommend from this evening’s menu?
We make our own ricotta cheese with aged balsamic and rosemary which is pretty special, but I’d probably suggest this great venison dish with a beetroot gratin, beetroot puree and pears poached in red wine. Served with croquettes made with shoulder meat it’s really lovely.