Meet NCOTY finalist Tom Swaby, senior sous chef at Roux At Parliament Square, London
Tom has been cooking for 15 years working in a number of different restaurants and hotels at a high level. He has worked in a 2 Michelin starred restaurant under Michael Caines as well as a number of high-end hotels such as Pennyhill Park. Tom has been fortunate enough to stage at two of the best restaurants in the world, Alinea in Chicago and Eleven Madison Park in New York. Working with the current NCOTY title holder, Tom is now at Roux at Parliament Square in Westminster as a senior sous chef. It’s a contemporary fine dining restaurant using modern techniques with classical flavours and ideas.
The creativity of being a chef and the constant learning and evolving are what he loves the most about his job. Working with food, amazing produce and producers as well as being part of a team are also reasons he enjoys this career. He feels it’s a job that never stops evolving and the buzz of service can’t be beaten. Being a chef is a career he wanted from a young age as he has always had that passion for food. However, if he was to do something else, it would be in the teaching profession.
Steve Groves, his current head chef, has inspired him the most in his working life. He’s worked with him on and off for 10 years both at Launceston Place and currently at Roux at Parliament Square. Steve has taught him so much both as a chef and as a person. And not just on the cooking side of things but the organisation, the way to lead, motivate and drive a team in an inspiring way. He has always helped mentor any and every chef within the kitchen whether it’s been as a sous chef or head chef. Tom feels it’s a pleasure to call him his main mentor and a close friend.
Working at Buckingham Palace when he was just 16 and still at college was the most memorable day of his career. He felt so privileged to work on one of the Queen’s birthday dinners and this is something that will live with him forever.
Tom entered National Chef of the Year as he felt he was at a stage in his career where he felt confident enough in his ability to test himself against some of the best chefs in the country. He told us: “The National Chef of the Year competition is the most prestigious cooking title and that is reflected in the quality of the judges. I wanted my cooking to be judged and receive constructive feedback from the best in the business and I see this as the perfect opportunity.”
Tom has spent over a decade working in some of the top kitchens around the world and has worked under some incredible chefs so he wanted to use the knowledge gained from this to inspire the next generation of chefs, not only within his current brigade but in schools and colleges as well.
When creating the entry, he feels the biggest challenge any chef had was being able to adapt to not working. Chefs are always so used to being full on and having the buzz of a service and having a purpose, so to have that stop suddenly was a shock. The challenge of the whole world changing is something that week by week, Tom is getting used to overcoming as it is happening so quickly. Working in a kitchen has always meant adapting quickly so this mentality has helped in these uncertain times.
Entering this competition in lockdown has given Tom something to really focus on. He knows from his own experience that being away from the buzz of kitchen life is not something that many of us have experienced and it has come with a lot of uncertainty. He felt it important to give as much support to the whole team as possible so he set up a weekly zoom call with the kitchen team so that they could all catch up and have a bit of fun. Some of the team live alone and are away from their home country and Tom feels it was important that they had that support. In some ways, he feels it’s been good to have some time to recharge the batteries and take a step back to look at how they operate. It's been great to assess how they do things and consider how they can improve going back and re-opening. Cooking at home has been a real pleasure too and he has enjoyed having the time to hone his skills in bread baking, chocolate work and pasta making. It has definitely inspired him to be more creative and sharpen up on his skills. In times like this, Tom also believes it is important to do what we can to support the local community, so he has helped out by shopping and preparing meals for vulnerable neighbours.
The semi-final dish was a very personal dish based on his childhood holidays from memories shared with his family in Devon. He wanted to use the memory of eating a sandwich as a child and modernise it using his culinary knowledge to develop something tasty, appealing and enjoyable. Tom wanted to show his skills as a chef and cook what he also enjoys eating as he felt it was important to keep the essence of the memory within the dish. Showing an understanding of a product and thinking about sustainability and respect was also key and that's where the idea of introducing a bisque to his dish worked well.
To win NCOTY in 2020, with all the challenges this year has brought, would be phenomenal for Tom. It would be a privilege to be in such a position and he says it would be the best day of his cooking career to date. It would give him a great sense of pride to be named alongside the incredible past winners and that would stay with him forever.
Passion, determination, drive and a desire to succeed are the key attributes a good chef needs. Tom says “It's an amazing industry and I truly believe you get back what you put in. You can always teach people techniques and learn daily but the drive and want to do it comes from within. I find that’s hugely important even after over a decade of cooking.” His style of cooking summed up in just three words would be classic, flavourful and honest.