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Tom Sellers was born in Nottingham in 1987. His mother is a nurse and his father a welder. He has one brother, Oliver. Sellers played ice hockey to a high level throughout his teens and, ironically, failed his cooking GCSE. He moved to London at 16 to work with Tom Aikens, after his first head chef noticed his talent. He then went to three-Michelin-star Per Se in New York, before returning to London to work for Adam Byatt at Trinity in Clapham. From there, he worked at Noma in Copenhagen for two years. Aged 26, he opened Restaurant Story and won Food and Travel Breakthrough Chef of the Year. Sellers is also executive chef of three-AA Rosette pub, The Lickfold Inn in West Sussex. In 2016 he became culinary director of Restaurant Ours in Kensington, which went into administration this year.
There's just something about the atmosphere in a restaurant the morning after the night before. Cooking
aromas hang in the air, glassware
still bears the greasy lipstick kiss
of its previous owner and multi-
lingual chatter fills the air as staff
gear up for service over sugared
espressos and cigarettes. While
there’s some evidence of this
at 9am at Restaurant Story,Tom
Sellers’s one-star, four-year-old
restaurant close by to Tower
Bridge, the tableau here is one
of energy. Staff buzz, a vacuum
cleaner whirls, a lick of a cloth
removes the dust that’s settled
overnight and within minutes the
dining room is service-ready.
CHAPTER I: AN EDUCATION
Sellers has just turned 30,
though it feels as though he’s
been around longer. He started
cooking properly with Tom
Aikens in his Chelsea restaurant
aged 16 when the chef was at
his tempestuous best. ‘Tom was
like a father figure to me when
I moved to London. Watching
his desire and imagination in
those early days made me think that I wanted a piece of it,' says Tom Sellers. 'Doing 110-hour weeks and getting up every day at 3am to go to the market, you quickly
realise whether it’s for you.
‘I was made to feel like an idiot at school and that lit the flame for me. If I’d been a plumber, I would’ve had the same drive. I felt the need to prove myself.’ And the teenage Sellers certainly did. He earned the nickname ‘Little Tom’ and many say that Aikens created Sellers in his own mould. There were certainly similarities, sure, but Sellers was honing his own style. After two- and-a-half years with Aikens, he rolled up his knives and went to work with Thomas Keller at the three-star Per Se in New York.
‘I got off the plane with nothing,’ he says. ‘I had nowhere to stay, no money. I actually stayed on Tom’s twin brother’s sofa. But I couldn’t care less. As a commis at Per Se you work 5am-5pm, but I’d still be there at 10pm with them shouting at me to go home. I absolutely loved it. I wanted to show the head chef that you can’t cage this animal – I want to be a chef more than anyone else in this building. Others might well be older, more experienced, or more talented even, but I wanted it more,’ he says. The same steely eyed determination he showed as a 19-year-old is visible today. There’s fire in his eyes, passion in his speech and he has an openness I hadn’t expected.
After two years in New York, he headed to Noma. René Redzepi’s Danish restaurant became the world’s best when Sellers joined and although he credits it with teaching him a lot, something wasn’t right. ‘I learnt the most about cooking with Tom [Aikens], I learnt about professionalism with Thomas [Keller] and at Noma I learnt about myself. Yes, I was cooking at the best restaurant in the world, but I was done working in other people’s restaurants. I wanted to do my own thing.’
CHAPTER II: FULL STORY
In 2013, Tom Sellers opened Restaurant Story in a £2million building on the site of a former Victorian public toilet. In five months, it won a Michelin star. It has since received five Rosettes – the AA’s highest accolade. ‘I called it Story because I’m telling my story through food. Opening was insane. Fay Maschler came in on night one. Giles Coren and AA Gill on day two.’ Bookings and five-star reviews poured in. Sellers had officially arrived.
‘The first two years were a blur. I just stood there and cooked. Only now can I sit back and think what a hell of a journey it’s been.’ His food tells that journey on a plate. There’s no other restaurant like it in the UK. It has its own identity without feeling forced or pretentious. Dishes such as bread and dripping – a large beef-dripping candle that melts wonderful fat to mop with bread – encapsulate his childhood, while those made with outré techniques such as venison, cauliflower and yeast show his love for local flavour.
Technically, there are a few better chefs, but how does Sellers describe his restaurant? ‘British. The whole modern European tag gets on my nerves. British produce is amazing, the seasons here are amazing and we don’t celebrate it enough. Can you get a better apple than in Kent? No. I’ve been all over the world and I can say scallops from Orkney are the very best in the world. We need to applaud it so much more than we do.’
Pride clearly resonates with Sellers. He regularly deviates to speak about himself in the third person, something many would construe as arrogant, but it actually comes as part of his own introspection. ‘I analyse. It’s one of my traits as a human. I’m constantly looking at myself, my restaurant to see if it can be improved. I’m my harshest critic.’
CHAPTER III: THE CRITICS
When it comes to external criticism however, Sellers is known to be spiky. Last year, he responded to Fay Maschler’s one-star Evening Standard review of Restaurant Ours, where he was culinary director. The review lambasted the food and, on the evening it was released, Sellers reviewed the review and posted it on his site. He took Maschler’s review apart for its inaccuracies in studied fashion. The restaurant press duly lapped it up.
‘Do I regret writing it? No chance. She must have written hers on the tube on the way home. For the first time in her life, she got reviewed and called out. It’s not cool to do that in her position and she had to know it.’
Michelin – arguably the critic that matters most – awarded Story a star in its first year. Many are astonished more haven’t followed. It plays on Sellers’ mind: ‘I don’t talk about it in the restaurant. I’m the gatekeeper and I have a responsibility to my staff. I tell the guys which way to sail, because that’s where the treasure is. Though I am kind of taking it personally now. We’ve retained a star for five guides and the restaurant is miles better now than when we opened.’
‘It’s the Holy Grail. I’ve worked in two or three stars all my life, so I think I’m qualified to assess it. Surely you can’t be ignored forever if you constantly pursue excellence?’ You’d think not.
Sellers’s own story is only just beginning. He may come across as insular, but he’s without doubt one of the most talented chefs of his generation. ‘Why does a horse wear blinkers?,’ he asks. ‘Because he doesn’t want distractions.’ Indeed, Sellers is one chef running his own race.
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