an interview with: tom kime
It’s not every day that one gets to rub shoulders with a chef like Tom Kime, so I was thrilled beyond belief when he agreed to sit down and have a chat with me.
You haven’t heard of him? Neither had I til I found myself seated in one of his cooking classes, courtesy a client event at work. In Australia, he’s probably best known for his appearances on daytime program “Ready, Steady, Cook!” – but in the homeland (being England) he’s better known for his four books, two restaurants, assorted television appearances (including one currently on the BBC that he did with Rick Stein) and, oh, for cooking Jamie Oliver’s wedding.
Tom has since settled on our sunny shores, and will be holding classes, tours & a grand ol’ dinner as part of the Sydney International Food Festival in October. But more on that later – let’s get you all acquainted.
Tom has an excited, charismatic personality and talks at a mile a minute – I’ve extracted the best bits of our conversation for you here (and even then, it’s amazingly long). Hope you enjoy it!
on how he started cooking…
“I started cooking at 19 at Art College where I was doing a foundation course in furniture design. I was living in a house with four friends and I said to them that I didn’t want to eat the food that they were going to be cooking on a student budget, and that if they gave me the money then we could pool resources and I’d cook every night. I made curry and soup and stew and bread…My mum’s a fantastic cook so I learnt a lot from her.”
on breaking into the food industry…
“I got involved with a friend of my parents who was in food television and said I really want to learn how to cook and did she know anyone who needed an assistant over the summer.
She hooked me up with an amazing restaurant in London called Le Pont de la Tour. I went along there, a fancy restaurant. It had 32 chefs, 16 per shift, and I said to the Head Chef there “Look, I really want to learn how to cook”. He said “I have 32 chefs, 16 per shift, why are you here?” and I said “I really want to learn”. So he said “Ok. I’ll make you my 33rd”.
I did that as a holiday job and loved it. My university didn’t really work out as planned – all my life I expected that I would end up an artist or a designer, but I had this moment where I realised that I didn’t really need to do art college to do that.
So after the Summer I decided that cooking was what I wanted to do so I called up the chef and said “Look, I really want to come and work here” and he said “I was hoping you’d turn up. There’s a job waiting for you.”
You get absolutely thrown in. But I got along with the guys, got promoted twice, and it was great.”
on turning cooking into a career…
“After Le Pont de la Tour, I did diploma in food and wine at a school called Leith’s. I did a year long component in seven months because I was hungry. So I did 9-6 five days a week and then a 16 hour shift on Saturday and a 12 hour shift on Sunday. And that’s how I started cooking.
I then went back to Le Pont de la Tour full time, but after that I went to a restaurant called Fulham Road which had a Michelin Star. Then I worked for Rick Stein at a Seafood Restaurant at Padstow, and he was an amazing person to work for and we’ve kept in touch. I’ve filmed with him just last year in Hanoi.
Then I worked at the River CafÃ© for three years.
The River CafÃ© was amazing. The entire menu changes there twice a day – but it means that you end up with an entirely different appreciation of produce and you have a repertoire that is ten times the size of your fellow chefs. I worked with Jamie Oliver who was a chef there, I worked with Ben O’Donoghue too, from Surfing the Menu.”
on moving to Australia…
“I came over here, worked at Cicada with Peter Doyle and was his third chef.
I worked 6.5 days a week, took every shift going and somehow managed to meet my wife and we’ve been together 11 years and have been married for 6 years.
I worked then for David Thompson at Darley Street Thai and that, with the River CafÃ©, were the two experiences that transformed my cooking career. Both places were very different but both had an amazing amount of integrity about their product. It wasn’t going to be bastardised or compromised.
[David Thompson] said to me “So, how long were you at the River CafÃ©?” I told him “Oh, three years.” And he said “Alright then. When do you want to start?”
So that was the interview. Then he said “All I want is you and your knives. Forget everything you know and I’m going to re-educate you.” Then he asked “How long can you give me? I normally need someone to give me two years.” I said “I can give you four months”. That was all I had.
I’d never really cooked any Asian food before, so when I started and they said to me “Go and get the white turmeric” I’d think “I don’t even know what that is. I don’t know what it looks like. I didn’t even know it existed.” So it was very intense but it really changed everything about the way I cooked – the balance of flavour – and I started applying the lessons I learnt there to all kinds of food and all kinds of cooking.”
on his theory of cooking…
Tom’s book, “Exploring Taste and Flavour”, puts groups foods into the categories “hot”, “sweet”, “salt” and “sour”. It’s an idea that’s common in Asian cuisine, and he has expanded it further to apply to all foods and all cuisines. It’s a concept that he’s really passionate about, and he explains it to me further…
“So for example, you could have a salad with roast red peppers, rocket, shaved parmesan olives and balsamic dressing and it would have hot, sweet, salt & sour in the same way that a green mango salad would have that same balance of flavours. So what I started doing was thinking that you could group horseradish, rocket, English mustard and chilli in the same category [hot]. You could put lamb, prawns, scallops, pumpkin and roast peppers in the same category [sweet]. You could put parmesan, fish sauce, prosciutto, salami and feta cheese in the same category [salt]. And you could say that balsamic vinegar, lemongrass, lime leaves and cider vinegar and sorrel in the same category [sour].”
on writing his books…
One thing I found fascinating was Tom’s revelation that he is dyslexic. Despite this, he’s written and published four books (with a fifth one coming out in February 2010).
“That first book “Exploring Taste and Flavour” sold 30,000 copies, won three international awards and is still my favourite book.
The next book was “Street Food” and that was really exciting. I went to Chile, Ecuador, Argentina, Brazil, Mexico, Morocco, Sicily, Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Turkey, Thailand, Vietnam & Singapore and ate myself stupid – that’s all I did. I’d order enough food for five people and I’d sit there and I’d work my way through what I could and make notes and leave a tip, then I’d head across the road and do the same thing over again.
My favourite? I really enjoyed Vietnam. I loved the people there. Vietnam is always a favourite. But Sicily was also amazing – and Lebanon. I’d go to Beirut any day. The food is just phenomenal.”
on fussy eaters…
“I find a lot of people who say they don’t like food just haven’t had it cooked properly. I ran a series of courses in England where we had teenagers who get sent in by their parents before going on gap years, moving out, all that stuff. And there were always kids who would start by saying “Oh, I don’t like that. I don’t like that either.” So then we’d cook it and they’d say “Oh, I like that!” They just hadn’t tasted the food the way it was meant to taste.”
on people who say “I don’t have time to cook”…
“If you don’t give yourself enough time, you’re not going to enjoy it. You can’t prep it, cook it, shop it and eat it all in one night after coming home from work at seven because you’re going to end up just eating chocolate biscuits instead.
Considering what our grandparents had to do, where they had to wring out the washing, grind their own flour and they rode on a fucking horse, we’ve got plenty of time.
If you ring up for a pizza, that’ll take you 20 minutes. You’ve got to get in the car, get the pizzaâ€¦ in that 20 minutes, I’ll have a meal on the table. It can be anything. Rice with dahl, or frittata. The other day I made stroganoff. I bought 500g of organic beef rump, a packet of swiss brown mushrooms, a little pot of cream and two potatoes… it took me 15 minutes [to cook]. I mean, grill a piece of tuna and stir fry some broccoli and you’ll have a freshly cooked meal, full of nutrients and it will cost you less than it would to eat out.
Back when I was 19, I’d cook the meals for my share house and pocket the change for beers at the student union. I’d make a pot of curry to feed ten people and it’d cost the same as curry for two. So it’s cheaper cooking too.
If you set aside the time to cook it ends up going quicker too. I have a friend who’s 60, runs his own business and cooks on Sundays and freezes it up. So you chop three onions all at once for three different dishes. Same with garlic. It goes a lot quicker, and it becomes something you can enjoy instead of a chore.”
and finally, the SIFF events…
Tom will be holding five events as part of the Sydney International Food Festival. Just type his name into the advanced search feature on the SIFF website.
The most exciting one? A popup dinner held at the Paddington Town Hall on Friday 30 October 2009. Diners will be presented with six delicious courses from Tom’s five cookbooks, with matching wine. All attendees will also receive a signed copy of one of Tom’s books.
Tickets are $220.00 (with a 10% discount for a table of ten).
Book by emailing Tom (and, if you could, do me a favour & mention that you got referred by onebitemore), or you can email me and I’ll manage your booking for you. Just stick “Tom Kime” in the subject line.
Payment can be made by direct debit or PayPal on Tom’s website at www.tomkimechef.com.
For more information, you can download the flier here: OCEANIC FEAST FRI 30th OCT FROM TOM KIME