How We Met: Luke Thomas & Brian Turner
'He needs to know he won't be a failure if he doesn't have a Michelin star by the time he's 21'
Brian Turner CBE, 67
After opening his first restaurant in 1986, Turner (right in picture) allied his work in the kitchen with being a successful TV chef, having appeared on 'Ready Steady Cook' since 1994. He is also chairman of the charity Springboard's FutureChef competition, inspiring young people aged 12 to 16 to cook. He lives in London
Luke was just 14 when he reached the final of FutureChef. There was an air about him: a young man with perhaps more confidence than he deserved – a thing you either love or hate. I thought, I'll keep an eye on that lad. And sure enough, the next year he got through to the final again, and won, with a perfectly cooked rack of roast lamb.
I got to know him over the next two to three years, bringing him back to FutureChef meetings, where he was great at enthusing other young people in the audience. He was also very proactive in telling people that he was going to get to the very top. As an older man, I kept thinking, "Don't do that son, let your actions dictate, otherwise people are going to say you're arrogant." He wanted to become the youngest chef to receive a Michelin star and after a while people got tired of hearing it.
Having helped create a young man by making him a winner, I felt responsible, and said to him, "Luke, slow down, calm down; the title of world's youngest Michelin chef is a great title, but it could become a millstone round your neck." Is getting a Michelin at 21 do-able for Luke? Yes it is, but is it wise and sustainable? Well that's another matter, as while winning a star is difficult, dealing with losing it is harder. He needs to know he won't be a failure if he doesn't have one by 21.
He tries hard to compete with what he thinks [Michelin] stars are all about. But these days, chefs might make a purée as a vegetable, put it on a plate, put a swipe in it and it looks great. But it's easy to lose the essence of the food, and Luke mustn't get so excited about making things look so picturesque he forgets about flavour – not that he's done that yet.
I cringed a bit when watching the BBC3 programme [Britain's Youngest Head Chef] on him a few months ago. People who do TV are taking a chance and for Luke, it didn't come off. No doubt some people were watching and thinking, "Who does he think he is?" But he is wise beyond his years and I think Luke will learn from it.
I'm full of admiration for the things he's done. Luke's got fingers in several pies: he's got the restaurant in Cookham Dean [Luke's Dining Room], a pop-up one in London, another in the Cotswolds, a book coming out and a few other things; I don't know how I would have coped at 19. I feel in my heart it might all be too much. But he's not exploded yet – so perhaps he can move at a far faster pace than others.
Luke Thomas, 19
Since winning FutureChef in 2009, Thomas has worked with some of the best chefs in the industry. He now runs his own restaurant, Luke's Dining Room, in Cookham Dean, Berkshire, and opened a bistro, Luke's Broadway, in June. He has appeared on TV shows including 'Junior Masterchef' and 'Great British Menu'. He lives in Berkshire
I used to watch Brian on Ready Steady Cook and I'd read a few of his books, so when we met for the first time, at FutureChef, I was star-struck: I was 14 and someone as high-profile as Brian had so much time for me. I came third that year, so I went back the year after and won it. It was important to do something different – create a high-risk dish – but taking a gamble sums up what I like to do, and it worked.
I wanted to know people in the food industry, so I started going to a lot of events. Brian would come along and act like a father figure, introducing me to other chefs. At one conference, where he was talking on stage, he suddenly stopped and said, "There's a face in the audience you should meet," and he made me stand up; he talked about FutureChef and what I was up to, and that's how I met Heston [Blumenthal] – he came up after and said, "If you ever want to come to the Fat Duck, give me a call." I called him the next day.
I love reinventing old-school dishes, while Brian is more traditional. We made a dinner together a few years ago, and Brian did the main course – a saddle of lamb with fondant potato and Savoy cabbage. When they do banquets, many chefs get very clever about it – I've made that mistake too, thinking I've got to impress by putting tons of things on the plate, rather than just concentrating on a perfectly cooked piece of meat, as Brian does.
Brian's said I should slow down, and maybe he has a point: when I was 17, my mission was to become the youngest Michelin-starred chef. I'd already got my [first] restaurant, and I wanted [a star] by the time I was 21. But now I've realised it was a sign of immaturity, a bit naïve. Do I still want one, though? Of course.
Brian's the same whether you're watching him on TV or just sitting having coffee with him: he's friendly, chatty and open. A lot of TV chefs I've met – and I won't name names – have left me thinking they're not the person I saw on TV at all.
We had breakfast recently, and started chatting about Britain's Youngest Head Chef [for which Thomas received criticism for not spending enough time in the kitchen and for indulging in celebrity engagements]. I asked him what he thought was the best way of dealing with the negative comments. His advice was good: to take it on the chin, and learn from it.
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