Michelin starred chef joins Suffolk restaurant

Tom Clarke (left) formerly of L'Ortolan, a one Michelin star restaurant in Reading has joined Rik Wi

Tom Clarke (left) formerly of L'Ortolan, a one Michelin star restaurant in Reading has joined Rik Withers and Ryan Edgeworth at Forage Kitchen in Rougham Picture: Forage Kitchen - Credit: Archant

Big plans are afoot for the business as it rides out 2020 and prepares for change in 2021

One of the experimental dishes at Forage Kitchen in Rougham Picture: Forage Kitchen

One of the experimental dishes at Forage Kitchen in Rougham Picture: Forage Kitchen - Credit: Archant

An Essex boy at heart, Tom Clarke, formerly of Raymond Blanc’s Manoir aux Quat’Saisons, and most recently head chef of L’Ortolan in Reading (holder of one Michelin star), has packed up his knives and returned to East Anglia. Relishing the chance to be closer to family, and to experiment and expand the offering at Forage Kitchen in Rougham alongside chefs Rik Withers and Ryan Edgeworth, he and restaurant owner Mel Evans reveal what’s on the menu for the eatery (known for its 10 course tasting menus) in the next few months.

What’s your background in the industry Tom? What inspired you to cook?

Tom: My grandparents owned a bakery in my hometown, Chelmsford, so I grew up surrounded by good, honest food. My grandparents understood their surroundings, which meant lots of shot game and rabbits, locals dropping in homegrown produce, and a wealth of countryside knowledge. That inspired me, and it became clear from an early age what direction I wanted to follow. I went to catering college in Colchester, then moved to two Michelin starred Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons under Raymond Blanc. After two years I joined Alan Murchison at L’Ortolan, before being offered the chance to continue training in France for a year at L’Oustau de Baumaniere and Le Strato – both two Michelin star restaurants at the time. I wanted to experience the culture of living in Franch and to continue to develop my skills and understanding of French cuisine in particular. Living in France gave me the opportunity to explore new ingredients and techniques, often foraging locally, and using the very best seasonal produce.

A sheep's milk and Mexican marigold dessert at Forage Kitchen Picture: Forage Kitchen

A sheep's milk and Mexican marigold dessert at Forage Kitchen Picture: Forage Kitchen - Credit: Archant

When I came back to the UK I returned to L’Ortolan as acting head chef, working again, with Alan, before taking on the kitchen fully in 2015, putting my stamp on the food style and menu and retaining its star for the next six years by introducing contemporary methods and being influenced by Asian, Nordic and other world flavours and infusions.

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Forage Kitchen has gained a reputation for inventive food, cooked for a small dining room. What made you want to bring in another chef Mel?

Mel: I wanted to have a third chef for a while and put two job adverts out. Tom and his wife Nancy (heading up front of house now) answered and Tom was really the main person we were interested in. For progress we want to push in 2021, we’ve got great plans, but we needed someone else on board – an extra pair of hands. We didn’t know who would apply, but we were shocked at the level and amount of applications.

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What attracted you to the role Tom – coming from a fast-paced kitchen to a restaurant with just a few tables is a bit of a culture change?

Tom: After I first trained I wanted to get out of the region, further down to London. But just before lockdown I’d handed in my notice (in February) to move back to East Anglia. I have family this way, and my other half wanted to work more, so it made sense. Being back we have a better work-life balance and more support from family. Other than that, multiple things attracted me to this job. I’ve always wanted to, eventually, have a small restaurant with a similar set up to this. When I came out to have a look it was great because it’s similar to what I was trying to do in my previous role, with chefs coming out and presenting the food – serving dishes. Because I was so busy at L’Ortolan it was hard to do. But now I’ve gone from an average of 60 to 80 covers per sitting to 16 I’ll be able to plan things, I won’t have to worry about rushing!

And how has the local food scene changed since you’ve been away?

Tom: There’s so much better access to ingredients than when I was younger – it used to be very ‘quiet’. It wasn’t until I moved away and was being sent samples, finding out they were from Suffolk, that I realised how much the industry has grown.

How will the dynamics of the kitchen change?

Mel: We’ve always shied away from having a ‘head chef’ so Tom very much joins Rik and Ryan. It’s not a typical kitchen. Previously Tom led a team of 11 but here it will be the three of them doing everything together. Before, you’d see a dish from one chef, then the next from the other chef – that won’t be the case in future as they can work on each dish as a team.

Tom’s background is traditional French cuisine and Rik and Ryan haven’t had that influence - they focus on performance, flavour and getting experimental dishes 100% right. It’s going to be really really exciting to see what Tom can bring to the party. I don’t think it will change our style dramatically. What Tom’s done himself is similar to us but coming from a slightly different angle. It’s still about high quality ingredients in season and playfulness.

Tom: I’m looking forward to being able to express myself. At L’Ortolan, because it was very much a French restaurant, you had to sell certain things – perhaps fillet of beef, or foie gras. A lot of the time though you don’t want to use produce like that, you might want to use secondary cuts or different cuts of meat, like using a bavette for a tartare. We would have to, because of the level of the place, use prime cuts – that’s what the clientele and regular, repeat customers wanted and expected. I wasn’t restricted on flavour, just on elements of produce and I’m excited to not have that restriction here.

What are the plans for restaurant for the rest of 2020 going into 2021?

Mel: We had so many things we wanted to do this year, including a food festival. But looking ahead for us the next stage could be a farm, or some land where we can grow more of our own ingredients. At the moment we’re at the point of building our reputation and customer base. And a big part of that is our Discovery box. We’ve just released our November box. It’s £75 including two meals to make at home, a couple of guided tastings and a host of artisan products, from raw butter and sourdough bread, to wine, cookie dough and more. There’s an opportunity with the box to do something a bit different on the other side of Christmas. We’re hoping it will be a membership where you get the box, then access to a whole diary of exclusive events, live stream videos and hands-on foodie experiences.

At the moment, for example, we’re talking to Mark at Dingley Dell about doing a pop-up on the farm where we take members on a walk and talk and serve them a four-course meal afterwards. We’ve never been a traditional restaurant – we don’t have the usual constraints others have and I want us to capitalise on that in 2021. The end of this year, going into next year, is our planning process and bringing Tom on board is going to help galvanise what we want to do.

Are you planning on opening in December if you’re able?

Mel: Absolutely. We’ve already released our December and January dates. In January we usually have our ‘Best of...’ showcasing the dishes we were most proud of in the previous year. Obviously it’s been a bit different so we’ll be doing a best of 2020 and the previous years – more of a ‘Best of Forage Kitchen’.

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