Talking to Tom: Tom Hunter Head Chef at the Scarlet
Saturday, 21 May 2013
Music may well be the food of love, but let's face it: food is the food of love too. So, what's it like to be head chef at the Scarlet Hotel, one of Cornwall's - hell, one of the world's - most romantic retreats?
We caught up with Tom after a busy weekend to find out how he landed the job and what it's like running a kitchen where sustainability is so high on the agenda.
I understand that your early days as a chef were spent in a very different environment to this Cornish cliff-top retreat. Can you tell us how it all began?
"I was bought up in London and my early experiences in kitchens were in the enormous hotels surrounding Heathrow Airport. We're talking 600 bedrooms, 24 hour schedules and giant corporate functions in a very hectic environment. Quite different to the Scarlet's 37 sea view rooms.
"But I loved it. It was a world apart from what I'm doing now in so many ways, but those big hotels are a great place to learn. They do everything, on a huge scale and at pace.
"It's a great foundation for being able to hold your own with whatever a kitchen, or an occasion, might throw at you.
"With this as a starting point, I got a job helping to create food for Concorde flights. That was just incredible, obviously no expense was spared and we were able to use the best of everything. It was during the final days of Concorde though; the crash in France happened whilst I worked for the company and after 9/11 everything changed.
"In 2003 the planes were retired and an era came to an end for me too."
And so you headed to Cornwall?
"Yes. We had our holidays down here when I was a kid and I thought it would be a great place to be cooking.
"Of course I didn't come straight to the Scarlet - at that time the hotel was only just a twinkle in the eye of the owners. I worked at The Wellhouse near Liskeard under Glen Gatland, who really helped me develop as a chef. I then spent four years as head chef before deciding it was time for a change.
"Myself and my partner moved to Pembrokeshire, where an opportunity had come up at Warpole Court in St David's. It's an old fashioned place in the best sense, with a great reputation and surrounded by a close-knit community.
"My son was born in St David's and, as much as we loved it, it was a long way from both our families. We decided to move back to Cornwall where my partner is from. It was all bizarrely well-timed. I knew the General Manager here at the Scarlet and they were keen to have me on board and the head chef position had just come up.
"It seemed like fate really, we knew we were right for each other!"
How would you describe the food at The Scarlet?
"It sounds glaringly obvious, but it's all about the produce and hence the suppliers. We have so many great local food producers on our doorstep. Some are tiny and only manage to look after us and a few others, whilst others are larger and send the fruits of their labour up to the top restaurants in London too.
"Everything we get is truly 'market fresh'. I don't tell them what I want, they tell me what I should have!. The menus (and that includes breakfast) change each and every day to reflect this."
The Scarlet Hotel has won many awards for its eco-credentials, how does that affect what you create in the kitchen?
"Firstly it means that the kitchen is different to most, and is certainly much more pleasant to work in.
"Everything is induction so there is no waste, and the whole environment is much cleaner and cooler.
"Secondly we have to think really carefully before we purchase anything. Meeche, our food and beverage manager, has been here since the very beginning so she guides us through any dilemmas in terms of sustainable sourcing.
"With ingredients, there is generally no problems; Cornwall is a mecca for fresh local food and the fact that our menu reflects the seasons means that we are making the most of what's on the doorstep. But sourcing equipment can be a little more difficult and time consuming, however we are finding more and more like-minded companies out there which helps."
Sustainable fishing is high on the agenda at the moment, what's your take on that?
"Obviously I think it's incredibly important and our fantastic location looking out to sea here only serves to emphasise the connection.
"We source our fish very carefully but it is difficult: the advice is changing all the time - for example mackerel is becoming contentious at the moment, whereas Cod stocks are on the increase.
"Also what applies in one fishery isn't necessarily the same in another - that's why the local supply chain - from ship to shore to plate is so important and it's disruption causes such an imbalance.
"So yes, it's a big challenge and one that I think we can work even harder on here at The Scarlet.
Writen by Lucy Cornes of Ellis Wharton Wines