PostClarks Does Kitchen Confidential with Tom Oldroyd

Pop into Oldroyd – London chef Tom Oldroyd’s eponymous restaurant – on a random Tuesday afternoon and you’ll find a hive of activity. Staff banter as they swing through, bookings for the evening’s service are being confirmed over the phone (all good), while Tom demonstrates how to make Malfatti, the little gnocchi-style dumplings he’s expertly fashioning in the kitchen.

We caught up with him over a cup of tea to chat about his passion for cooking, the stellar journey from a Guildford childhood via Venice and Soho to his own Islington joint – and why calm and comfort are essential for a chef.

Tell us a bit about your ‘chef’s journey’? I sort of, fell in love with restaurants when I was about eight years old. Our family friend used to take us to a posh hotel for New Year’s eve and it was silver service. I was very, very young and I just remember thinking, “Wow”.

I left school – maybe a bit prematurely – and went straight into working front-of-house in a hotel. Then I went travelling for a year and fell in love with food and the cooking of food. When I came back I decided to go to university, and I started cooking in the training restaurant there. I thought, right, if I’m going to open my own place I want to know how the kitchen works, so I’m going to become a chef and move to London. I got a job at Alistair Little on Frith Street in Soho – which is now Hoppers – and I worked there for 3 years, with Juliet Peston – a fantastic chef. I worked my way up through the kitchen, initially doing prep – a bit of peeling this and chopping that – and then I was making the bread and desserts. Soon I was running the sections, and towards the end I was the Head Chef. I was 21.

"I was always quite confident with it, but there’s always a bit of you that thinks, “I’m not fully trained to do it”. I wasn’t a trained chef, so no-one ever showed me the classic ways of doing things. But I was so excited by it that I just carried on going. I just went for it. "

While I was working at Alastair Little a couple of guys who used to eat there a lot got in touch, as they wanted to open a restaurant. That was Russell Norman and Richard Beatty of Polpo. I jumped at the chance – and it was a great experience. We went and did research in Venice and then we opened Polpo, a little Italian place on Beak Street. I was Head Chef and wrote the menus. 

Over five years we opened nine restaurants – including another Polpo in Covent Garden, Spuntino, which is like an American diner, and Mishkin’s, a Jewish deli. It certainly kept me on my toes!

I ended up having about 100 chefs working with me, and it became time to step back a little bit, hone it in and do my own thing. That was always the plan. We’d opened Polpo Notting Hill and we’d written the book, the Polpo cookbook. By that point, I’d done my bit.

So tell us about Oldroyd. The restaurant has been described as “One of the best new openings of the year“, and “The neighbourhood restaurant we all wish we had” – does it feel like that to you? It does. After Polpo I took a year out to decide what to do. There was that pressure to do something different. But what I realised was different was what people weren’t doing – I think the classic restaurant was missing slightly.

So, in July 2015 we opened Oldroyd on Upper Street, Islington. I love Soho – that was my playground – but this restaurant works better here because we have a lot of residents. We get a good mix of locals and people who travel to us as a destination – we’re quite close to the City, so we get city folk rocking up in a black cab!

It was quite instinctual to develop my own style. I’d always cooked Italian food, loved Italian food, that’s what I’d always done – but swaying slightly to French, and slightly to Spanish, was easy. It was the food I liked eating.

And is it still about the food for you? Yes, it’s the most important thing. What do they say, ‘You go for the food but you go back for the service’? Which is kind of true – the look of the place is really important, and the feel, and the service is really important. But the food is number one.

When we met your fiancée Meryl (presenter & entrepreneur, Meryl Fernandes) she mentioned that you wanted to create the kind of place you’d like to eat in? Yes. When we first met, I think one of our first conversations was about restaurant lighting! She’s been hugely involved – she was the one who made it happen. It was all our own money going into Oldroyd, so we wanted it to be ours, to put our look and stamp on it. 

We both wanted blue for the interior. And we love plants and we love wood, and I knew I wanted the banquettes around. Meryl put it together – she had the look set in her head, and I trust her absolutely.

We did it on quite a tight budget. It took about two, three months to get it open. All the parents and friends, everyone had a paintbrush. I got tennis elbow from painting this room! My Mum upholstered the chairs, and me and my Dad put the kitchen in. I drew it all out and measured it and measured it again. It was satisfying when it was done, but stressful!

The light fittings (from Flos, designed by Michael Anastassiades) – I think they were the first thing we ordered and they turned up on the day of opening. So everything was ready to go but we had no lights!? We stocked up on candles just in case, but the lights turned up and the customers were coming in as the electrician was finishing them off. 

So do you collaborate on menus with your team? Oh absolutely. We all chip in. I love designing and building kitchens, and I love designing menus. So those two together for me, it’s great. You’re always learning – I’m still learning now, all the time. The chef here teaches me stuff and hopefully I teach him stuff. When I first started out I didn’t have time to eat, I was just cooking all the time, but I visit a lot of restaurants and eat out a lot now.

And do you source locally? Our suppliers help write the menu too, because we’ll give them a call, they’ll call us weekly, and we’ll test what’s good. We use British everything as much as possible – there’s a lot of really interesting British charcuterie that’s happening, so we use all British charcuterie, and all British cheeses because I think they’re great. I cook now about three times a week so I can keep in touch with how the kitchen’s working and how the restaurant’s working, and who’s eating what, why and when.

How do you describe your kitchen style? We have a very relaxed atmosphere – well it has to be, it’s all open! There can’t be any screaming and shouting. I think it reflects in the food. I think you can taste whether something’s been cooked with confidence or not, or what a chef’s mindset is while they’re cooking – if they’re nervous, or tense, or angry.

I don’t think there’s really a place for sweary shouting, I’ve never worked like that. A kitchen has to be a really disciplined place – it’s quite dangerous, there are knives, there’s hot oil – there’s no messing around. We’re a good little team, there are about 15 of us. We had our first staff party a few weeks ago with a bit of karaoke – great fun. We’re a bit of a family here.

And what about your everyday style? What’s important to you? You’ve chosen a pair of Chilver Hi GTX from our SS16 men’s collection? What is it you like about them? Comfort’s important – I’m on my feet a lot. I could be in the kitchen, I could be running around town, I could be running up the road to buy lightbulbs! So, comfortable shoes, all of it is quite comfortable generally. Actually I wear my jeans in the kitchen, and just a T-shirt and an apron. Anything quick, easy and casual.

I love a boot – I wore a pair of boots for quite a while, every day, and put a hole in the bottom – I wore them out basically! That’s quite me if I find something I like. I like this boot, it’s a clean look. I don’t particularly like fussy stitching or anything – however I do love a brogue. But I thought, why not a boot? I like the Chilver Hi, it’s clean, smooth, not too much detail.

"I love a boot – I wore a pair of boots for quite a while, every day, and put a hole in the bottom! I like the Chilver Hi GTX, it’s clean, smooth, not too much detail."

So what are your plans for the future? More restaurants? Absolutely at some point, but we’re not thinking about it at the moment. We’re seven months old here, I think we’re up and running now – and we’re having a great time! I’ve been really, really pleased – we’ve had great reviews and local feedback, plus we’ve got a great team and we’re building great menus. At some point we’ll definitely look at something else. But we’re not in a rush.

I have always been quite focused with everything – I worked constantly growing up. And I enjoyed it. I wanted to learn as much as possible, so if I wasn’t working I’d be reading. Or on my day off I’d be watching Food Network all day, or shopping – I just surrounded myself with food. Thinking back to that posh hotel with our family friends – it was like a theatre, I loved the show of it all. I fell in love with it then. And I still feel that way now. My life took a path and I feel very lucky to do what I love doing every day.  

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