A Wild Thyme with Apprentice Chef Tom Hall and his CackleBean eggs
Wild Thyme Restaurant with Rooms is a stone’s throw from the central square in Chipping Norton and conveniently just round the corner from a free long-term car park. It would be a wonderful place to base yourself for a weekend away (or longer!) exploring the fabulous Cotswolds. The family-run restaurant is led by Head Chef, Nick Pullen, who goes out of his way to source the best ingredients from the local area. In the winter he makes the most of the region’s excellent game. I went to visit his apprentice chef, Tom Hall, who was keen to tell us about the local eggs they use.
SD: What made you decide to become a chef?
TH: I’ve always wanted to become a chef ever since I was about 11 or 12. It was cooking with grandma that got me interested. They made a lot of fish and unusually for people of their generation, they loved Asian food. It started with Chinese takeaways, but soon they were making their own Asian inspired food. As far as I can remember, they never used a cook book though, it was all done by feel. My grandma was an excellent cook.
SD: Which chef do you most admire and why?
TH: Ferran Adrià, because he obsesses about getting everything perfect. His team spends most of the year developing the menu, designing and sourcing and then they open for only a few months. I had just come back from Spain and chose to study him as part of my course.
SD: What does being an apprentice chef involve?
TH: It depends where you go. Here we’re a small team so you get to to jump on everything, whereas at a bigger place, you might be shadowing specific people. Working in a smaller team gives you more direct practice, while in bigger teams you can be put on the backburner for longer.
SD: How much choice do you get over where you work as an apprentice chef?
TH: Quite a lot of freedom. I worked for a year at Eckington Manor and then seven months at The Wild Rabbit before deciding that hotels weren’t really for me and choosing to move to a smaller, restaurant environment where you can be a bit more personal with customers.
SD: If you could set up your own restaurant, what would it be like?
TH: I don’t really know, because I’m still defining my own style, but something similar to Wild Thyme in terms of size. I’d like it to be fine dining, but with a casual feel. I don’t think people want shirt and tie these days. It would probably serve mixed cuisine made from local, seasonal produce. Here for example we have dishes that have French influence and dishes that have Thai influence.
SD: Is it easy to make more exotic cuisines from local produce?
TH: Yes, Asian ingredients like soy work well with local produce. It’s easy to combine different flavours. I have a friend working at another restaurant where they have a kitchen garden and there are two chefs, one of them passionate about Asian cuisine and the other Welsh. They both use ingredients from the garden, but they produce very different dishes.
SD: What advice would you give other young people considering becoming chefs?
TH: Patience! It’s something I don’t have. I try to run before I can walk. I’m constantly told that. Even if it’s a nice environment to work in, it’s still a hard job. In some places the hours are long and coffee is the only answer. You can have some 18 hour days. But here the hours are good and if you love what you do, you don’t really notice the hours so much.
SD: Do you have a favourite meal you like cooking?
TH: Chinese Chicken Noodle Soup – it’s real comfort food that my grandma cooks.
SD: What have you learnt from working at Wild Thyme?
TH: The importance of waste. At other places where there is a much greater flow of cash, you use the best and bin the rest. Some really good food gets wasted. Here we use the baby shoots of the purple sprouting broccoli, which normally would be thrown out with the stems, but they’re even better than the heads themselves. I’ve also learnt how to keep a cool head and have seen a lot more of the business side of running a restaurant. Things like how important it is to have a good relationship with local suppliers.
Here we use the baby shoots of the purple sprouting broccoli, which normally would be thrown out with the stems, but they’re even better than the heads themselves.
SD: Have you applied to any other chef competitions before? Which ones?
TH: Two weeks ago I took part in the Birmingham Good Food Show complex knife skill test. (Tom modestly didn’t tell me until I asked specifically, but he actually won Gold at this competition, his first ever chef competition!)
SD: If you were to make a meal that featured local produce, what would it feature and why?
TH: Custard tart – we were talking about this recently as the dessert for a wine pairing. It would be a great way of showing off the colour of the local CackleBean eggs we use. These eggs have such a wonderful colour that we’ve been inspired to give this dish a try. It should produce a vibrant orange custard tart, that will pair beautifully with the dessert wine.
SD: Do you think that using local produce requires chefs to be more creative?
TH: It depends where you are. Here not really because there is so much available locally, but I can imagine that in a city, it would be much more difficult. We made the most of the game season this year and are also able to forage for things like wild garlic seeds and elderflower.
Nick clearly takes great care of his apprentice and has been able to teach him a lot in a short time. He was kind enough to spare some time to talk to me afterwards about setting up Wild Thyme.
SD: I know that Wild Thyme has been a dream of yours for a while. How precisely did you know what you wanted to set up?
NP: Well, originally I wanted to set it up in Portsmouth, my home town, but I didn’t think the area was affluent enough to sustain the kind of restaurant I had in mind. I was looking to open a fine dining restaurant that specialised in cooking local, wild food, hence the name Wild Thyme. We set up in Chipping Norton in 2008. I don’t think we would have survived the economic crisis in Portsmouth, but here we can draw on customers from all the local villages. The game round here is also excellent especially in winter. During the summer we source more farm food, but from local farms like Evesham.
Our egg supplier, CackleBean is a good example. They are small-scale, but they really do produce the best eggs. They used to produce blue hen’s eggs as well, which you don’t normally see. Sometimes they struggle with delivery because, as a small producer, they can get let down by the drivers, but it’s worth it for the eggs. You just don’t get that quality elsewhere.
SD: Tom mentioned that he had learned to value the importance of reducing food waste working with you. What kinds of strategies do you have for managing this?
NP: It’s all really about thinking of ways to use the by-products of key ingredients. The venison, for example, I use the loins for the main course, the fillets for the starter and the bones for making stock. Food waste is a major issue. It’s not just more economical for restaurants to limit food waste, but food waste is one of the biggest contributors of CO2.
SD: Does cooking with seasonal produce help the profitability of running your restaurant?
NP: It certainly helps, but it’s still bloody hard to make a profit out of food. The raw ingredients are just so expensive.
It’s still bloody hard to make a profit out of food. The raw ingredients are just so expensive.
SD: Yes, there’s a huge difference in price between what consumers are used to seeing in the supermarket and the kind of quality, slow food you are serving. That must make it very difficult for chefs like you.
N: Rick Stein once said that “food should be expensive”. It was quite controversial at the time, but I think it’s important that people value the food they eat and understand the difference in quality between mass-produced and produced with care.
SD: There’s a big shortage of chefs at the moment. Do you think this is partly due to people cooking less at home?
NP: It’s certainly one factor. If you ask most chefs, they will probably quote their mother or grandmother as inspiring their love of food and cooking, but these days many families are using ready-made meals or sauces and cooking at home has become more commoditised, which doesn’t inspire the same passion for food it used to. Schools don’t help either as they don’t teach an appreciation for food or cooking.
After all this talk for CackleBean eggs, I went to hang out in The Tea Set and came across them again. It seems they are quite the local legend. I had to have one, so I ordered a smashed avocado with poached egg and homemade chilli jam. Letting loose the bright orange over the bright green avocado was very exciting, especially for someone who loves colours. Just as I was tucking in, a customer came in to buy some in the packet to take away and the lady behind the counter said in a kind of congratulatory way “they’re very good eggs”. The customer simply responded “I know they are!” If ever there was a hen that laid a golden egg, it must have hatched at CackleBean farm and bred all the chickens there!