Luke Thomas first made a name for himself as the world’s youngest head chef in 2012. Five years on, the 23-year-old is all grown up and is turning his back on Chester and setting his sights firmly on London and beyond.
By Crystal Chesters
Luke Thomas was best known as the world’s youngest head chef when he joined Sanctum on the Green in Berkshire, England at the age of 18, which later became Luke’s Dining Room at Sanctum on the Green. Catering News Middle East met with the Welsh chef at Retro Feasts Dubai – first seen in London’s Mayfair as a pop-up and launched on The Beach at JBR in 2015 – to find out who he is today, five years on.
While he is wise beyond his years, Thomas retains a reassuring youthful sparkle in his eye, and an open-mindedness and thirst for adventure that reminds you that he really is just 23. In the surroundings of his restaurant at The Beach, Thomas basks in the mid-morning sunshine, which to him is a novelty being based in Chester most of the time. “I think over the past few years, Dubai has really rocketed in terms of its offering and now it’s a melting pot of global flavours,” he enthuses. “Even just this strip from the Hilton to Retro Feasts, you’ve got Greek, Mexican, Spanish, English – everything! And I think there are a lot of very credible brands here so being surrounded by those people and names is great.”
Global flavours are something that Thomas is keen to cultivate further into his menus and concepts. Travelling once or twice a week, he enjoys exploring the world via food and believes this is his primary inspiration as a chef. “I was in the Caribbean last week and on a Friday night all the locals come together and drink rum and cook the local fish. It’s super casual, it’s about getting together and eating super fresh, super cheap, delicious food and having a good time.”
However, he wasn’t always so footloose, admitting he was once “a bit afraid of travelling”. Having grown up in a single-parent family, he didn’t like school and cooking provided an outlet for his creativity. He started cooking at the age of 12, balancing school with evening jobs in kitchens, and learning the basics. “The first restaurant I worked in when I was 12, I learned classic bistro food and learned how to make all the classic sauces, beautiful mashed potatoes, I learned how to cook vegetables really well and get flavours into them, I learned how to marinate, to cook fish and meat brilliantly – I started to understand the flavours.”
He then went on to work in a Michelin-starred restaurant where he came to understand the “finesse” of food, however he admits that earning a Michelin star is not one of his goals. “I enjoy cooking in a different way – I get more of a buzz out of people eating really good, simple food and it being more about an experience. I think people chase experience now, which is all about the food, the environment, the location, who they’re with and what it looks like on social media.”
“It was a kind of pressure that I never knew existed. My parents weren’t career people and there were moments when I didn’t know who to ring for advice – I didn’t know these things happened in life, both good and bad”
The biggest achievement of his career to date has not been winning any prizes or becoming a celebrity chef at a young age – Thomas was catapulted into the spotlight by the BBC Three documentary series Britain’s Youngest Chef when he was working at Sanctum. What he is most proud of, is having taken a risk at a crucial crossroads in his life. “At the age of 17 I was in a tricky position over which way I should go. I’d cooked a lot in different restaurants and I knew I wanted to spend a lifetime with food but when you’re young, lots of people give you advice and it’s hard to know what’s the right advice.
“I got a really amazing offer to take over a restaurant in the south as head chef and honestly, I wasn’t equipped to do it at the time but I thought I’d say yes and figure it out later. Everyone was saying ‘you’re too young, don’t do it, go and travel and learn about food and come back in 10 years and do it’. But I took the gamble knowing some things would go well and some things could go really badly wrong.”
The opportunity came at a time when casual dining and street food was becoming very popular in London, and Thomas was at the forefront of this movement. However, it wasn’t easy. Being in the public spotlight only increased the pressure on him to succeed as a teenage head chef. “It was a kind of pressure that I never knew existed. My parents weren’t career people and there were moments when I didn’t know who to ring for advice – I didn’t know these things happened in life, both good and bad.”
Managing a team of staff who were older than him was the toughest, and Thomas admits he got carried away with his success. “You can imagine at 18, the guys that work for you don’t want to see you succeed. There were a few after a while that started to believe in me and understand what I was trying to achieve.
“I was way too ambitious at the start and when I took a step back I saw it for what it was and started to take the food seriously and forget about all the noise. It’s hard when you’re a teenager with this huge responsibility – it’s hard to know what to do, you don’t know how to delegate,” he comments.
Despite the challenges he faced at the time, Thomas doesn’t regret his decision and doesn’t think he missed out on any of the things other 23-year-olds have done. In addition to travelling the world, he has already learned a lot from mistakes that he may not have made until much later in his career. For example, having faced difficulties managing and delegating at 18, he now believes that creating a positive work environment is key to his success. “It’s now my focus to have the best culture in my restaurants. If you treat your people right, the rest just flows – the customers feel it, the suppliers, everyone feels it.”
He is also now in a great position to inspire other young people – chefs in particular. “I think young people are put into this situation where you either go to university or you get a job but there are a tonne of opportunities out there,” he says.
“For young chefs I’d say, learn your craft, work with as many people as possible, take advice, listen, absorb everything, go and eat, try new things, go and see different cultures – travel is the most inspiring thing you can do. Don’t just see the big cities but the places less talked about that have a really homely, specific food culture – that can change the way you think, cook and live your life for the better.”
Continuing to travel is one of Thomas’ big ambitions, alongside opening a restaurant in London. He has just pulled out of Gin Rickey’s and Luke’s Eating House in Chester, a venture he went into with Odysian Ltd, which sold the lease to The Alchemist.
He describes the upcoming restaurant in Shoreditch, set to open this summer, as his “first own restaurant” given that his Dubai and Chester outlets are operated through partnership agreements. “The restaurant in London is a big goal, something I’ve always wanted to do. When you’re young with no real backing, it’s quite hard to open a restaurant – you need money, you need people and all those things.
“This time it’s taken a few years to pull together because getting people to come on board and start believing what you’re about takes time, and it’s only happened through spending time with people and travelling…”
Thomas’ passion for travel is something that will permeate the concept of his new restaurant, which will bring different food traditions from around the world under one roof. “You might be next to someone who lives next door or someone who has travelled 3,000 miles; that sort of thing for me is so important.
“It’s experience, experience, experience and being accessible – whether you’re the guy who has nothing or the guy that has everything. If you can have an environment where you bring people together and on the back of that, help other people achieve their dreams, then that’s a special thing.
“That’s my ambition.”