Chef interview: Luke Thomas
British chef Luke Thomas has opened his first international project in the region; we find out more
Caterer Middle East met Luke Thomas before the opening of his first international restaurant, Retro Feasts, and finds out why age is really just a number for this 21-year-old head chef
Those who have been in Dubai for many years may remember the grumbling when the construction started opposite The Walk on Jumeirah Beach Residences.
Many claimed it was going to rob beach-goers of an amazing stretch of sand and sea. And then The Beach opened up, and the naysayers were silenced. A community area, it filled up with restaurants, outdoor activities, and lots of sand and sea, and became a new hub of activity.
And in one of the wooden caterpillar pods right on the beachfront, British diner Retro Feasts has taken residence. The décor oozes a retro vibe with guests entering through a traditional red telephone box.
Inside, diners will find a casual, friendly setting that includes white brick-work tiling, bespoke vintage wall coverings and iconic artwork. A bright colour palette of rust red, navy blue and sunny yellow all combine with minimalist, mixed furnishings to bring back nostalgic memories from Britain in the 70s and 80s.
The menu includes traditional British favourites, with classic dishes such as king prawn cocktail, popcorn chicken, mac n’ cheese, coronation chicken salad, fish finger sandwich and the Retro burger. Puddings feature the likes of Eton mess, chocolate brownies and even the iconic knickerbocker glory in a pot.
The concept was first seen in London’s Mayfair as a pop-up in June 2013, created by British entrepreneurs Luke Thomas and Mark Fuller, the former its executive chef (see box out on page 35).
The Dubai outpost has been launched in partnership with Meraas, and Thomas tells Caterer he is excited about the potential of the brand in the UAE.
He says: “There are various conversations about where we were going to take Retro Feasts, and we were already in talks with Meraas about ideas for Dubai.” Thomas says Retro Feasts on the beachfront worked as a concept, and the brand was all about him “trying to put British food on the map as something that’s cool and fun to eat”.
Thomas continues: “There’s no other British concept here [The Beach] at the moment and I think that it’s quite unique, in the pod and [with] the design features. We all agreed that it was something that could be quite well received.”
Adapting to local culture was not difficult in itself; London’s pop-up had cocktails which have locally transcended to becoming interesting juices, mocktails like a virgin piña colada, and indulgent shakes. “We’ve adapted to fit in with the licensing laws over here,” explains Thomas.
This is Thomas’ first international restaurant, and when I ask the inevitable ‘why Dubai?’ question, he says: “On the basis that it’s outside the UK, and it’s going in one direction and it’s up. When you look at the brands and the chefs now in Dubai... I think it is important for chefs to be associated with that scene.”
And it’s probably one of the first few times in this market that a celebrity chef has not been the focus of the invites and releases about the restaurant. It’s been all about the food, the interiors, and location. Was that intentional? “Yeah absolutely, I think certainly for this pitch and for where it is, it needed to be stronger in terms of British, cool, new diner on the beach, as opposed to it being all about the chef,” he explains.
Thomas has had previous experience in Dubai, getting work experience at the Burj Al Arab and with Gary Rhodes. His first visit was four years ago, followed by another stint two years after that. In that time, Thomas marvels, the food scene has changed a huge amount.
He points to chefs like Jason Atherton and Tom Aiken (read more about this in a future issue), and adds: “I think it’s just a really, really cool time to do something in Dubai for me.”
While he’s a young chef, Thomas has imbibed the lesson of being completely hands-on. Saying he was involved in everything from start to finish at the Dubai restaurant, Thomas says not just the food but the styling of the brand was important, “to really get over that it is a British diner on the beach in the Middle East”.
This includes training, which was made easier with the head chef and manager Tom Briggs, who worked with Thomas in the UK, now installed in Dubai.
In addition, Thomas plans to be in Dubai as and when needed, and imagines he will be in the region “an awful lot” over the next few years. With so many international chefs opening in the region, it’s not always the case the chef will visit his international branch often.
When asked about this, Thomas says: “It’s really important. We get approached about restaurants and openings, and it’s so important to be hands-on because the reality is that when you’re not, it’s not true to you, it’s not necessarily your product as such.
“And I think really, for this concept to work in Dubai and for people to understand it and certainly with the training of the team, for them to understand the concept, you’ve got to be here and you’ve got to be hands-on.”
A question he’s been asked before, and with good reason, is about his age. Does he face challenges on this front, we wonder? He outlines his experience: “When we launched the first restaurant in the UK, there was huge amounts of press and therefore the pressure does mount even higher.
“People came to the restaurant for a couple of reasons. They might be a foodie and they’re interested, but they are kind of intrigued and there’s an almost ‘can he do it, can he not do it?’ kind of thing. That is something, as time progresses, that people start to believe.
“We won Restaurant of the Year for Berkshire and we were up against Heston Blumenthal, Marco Pierre White and so on, so when awards like that start coming in, you almost don’t need to start saying ‘we’re now at this stage’, you let that [the awards] talk about where we’re at.
And it’s something that takes time, and with any brand regardless of your age, but certainly, in the chef world, you know how hard and pressured it is. So I think there is definitely a certain level of added pressure.”
One of the challenges is also obviously being the manager for team members who may, in most cases, be older than he is.
Thomas agrees and says: “It was challenging because, as you can imagine, some 18-year-old kid comes in and you’re told, ‘here’s the new boss who is now in charge’, and it’s like, hold on, how does this work? And that is again something, where over a short period of time, you have to switch on to learning how to deal with people.”
He says he works on the principle of having good people around who want to work with you, who feel like they are equally involved and have a sense of ownership.
“That’s been the key for me in terms of the learning pathway with having people in my restaurants in the UK — to get people on board who feel like they’re really involved and who buy into what I’m about as well. It’s hard to find people and once you’ve got them, you have to really keep hold of them.”
Sensible words by Thomas, and in light of his prior comparison to wild child maestro chef Marco Pierre White, I ask what he thinks of that association. He smiles.
“It’s pretty strange, I must say. It was only a few years ago that I got his cookbook for Christmas, so when people compare you it’s kind of cool. I think it’s nice, and look at the way Marco’s success has come through many years of hard work, determination, passion and drive. I think that’s the key — not to lose that.”
Thomas continues to say he’s a fan of Jamie Oliver, and says he has inspired a generation of people to cook. “I remember being glued to the television when his TV show first came out because it was this young guy who was cool, and talked about food in a real fun way.”
Thomas loves the experimental, almost sensation-based style of cooking, adding he’s not a big lover of pastry because of its exact measurements and requirements to create the perfect product.
He says: “I like to throw a bunch here, and other things there, and that’s really my style of cooking. That’s why I admire Jamie so much for his approach to food, and also for what he’s done with his Fifteen charity and helping a generation of people get into this industry and see them go on to be a success.”
What’s next for Thomas? “In terms of new projects, there’s not anything solid in the horizon because this is a big project for me. We’re up and operating now but it’s been a long process, especially if you want to do something right. It’s not something that comes overnight.
“I’ve just launched a new restaurant in the UK which has been a really busy time. Who knows, next it might be another cookbook potentially, and then we’ll have to see from there.”
He continues: “We have to be humble in the sense of taking it step-by-step. This has been a big project for Meraas and myself, and we want to see this to be a huge success. So I think we certainly wouldn’t rule out a future in the Middle East for more concepts, but for now our focus is to make sure this place is the best.”
Thomas adds that he entered the F&B industry because he loves food and being creative. “My goal is to continue being able to do both of those things, no matter whether there’s no more restaurants or 20 more — to still be able to have that hands-on approach.”
He also says people are extremely important in this industry, and in this regard, he says: “Probably something I’m going to get involved in next is to bring in more youth into the industry and help people find their way — a bit like how Jamie [Oliver] launched Fifteen as a springboard for people.
I take a lot of enjoyment in doing that in the UK for my staff, and I always say to them to be completely honest with me in the sense of what their goals are, and then we can plot out their career as well.”
He continues: “It’s always important to have people around you who are equally as ambitious, equally as keen to succeed, in my or their own business, and that’s a big thing for me. A lot of people helped me, people like Gary [Rhodes] helped me out and I think it’s important to do the same thing.”
Cognisant of the fact that he’s a young chef in a competitive, cutthroat industry, Thomas dishes out advice for other young chefs looking to enter the sector.
“One, follow your dream. Secondly, be prepared for the hard work, but at the same time, enjoy it. People ask me: ‘what’s your goal?’ My big thing is to keep enjoying it and to keep loving food, because, do you know what, if you do that, it makes your job an awful lot easier. When you stop enjoying it, then there’s a problem.
“One thing I would say is — don’t be scared to be a little more ambitious and do something, because it’s a big world, there are restaurants opening here, there, everywhere.
Don’t be scared to do something different, don’t be scared to do something when you’re 20 or 21, because it is competitive and you’ll see other chefs who will say you’re too young. I say, there’s 17 year olds playing in the Premiere League in the UK, are they too young? No, I don’t think so. That’s what I always say. Follow your dreams.”
Born in North Wales, Thomas balanced his school studies with weekend and evening jobs in the Michelin-starred kitchens of the Chester Grosvenor Hotel & Spa, the acclaimed restaurant Soughton Hall, and alongside award-winning butcher Steve Vaughan.
Thomas won Future Chef 2009, coming top against 7500 competitors aged 15, and went to work with some of the UK’s top chefs.
He secured experience at some of the top restaurants in the world including: Gary Rhodes, Jamie Oliver’s Barbecoa and three Michelin-starred restaurants such as Alinea in Chicago. He has also worked with the UK-based Individual Restaurant Company, which owns brands such as Piccolino and Restaurant Bar and Grill.
Thomas competed for Wales in the 2013 series of BBC2’s ‘Great British Menu’ and was also the focus of BBC Three’s documentary ‘Britain’s Youngest Head Chef’ which looked at his achievement of becoming chef patron of Luke’s Dining Room at just 18 years old, which won Berkshire and Buckinghamshire Restaurant of the Year in 2013.
Other television work by Thomas includes Market Kitchen (UKTV Food) and appearances on Channel 4’s lunchtime cookery show ‘What’s cooking?’ and as a mystery guest on ‘Russell Howard’s Good News’ and ITV’s ‘This Morning’.
Thomas partnered with Mark Fuller to take over the ground floor restaurant at the ‘Embassy nightclub’ for a six month pop-up social diner called Retro Feasts. The pop-up focused on recreating childhood favourites into revitalised dishes.
Thomas then founded Luke’s Broadway, a modern British bistro in the Cotswolds, in partnership with Puma Hotels. In 2014, he published his first book, Luke’s Cookbook. In the same year, he opened Luke’s Eating House & Gin Rickey’s Bar in Chester. And this year, Thomas moved abroad for the first time with Retro Feasts in Dubai.
What's the trend?
Luke Thomas says: “In the UK at the moment, the barbeque-style scene is huge and is still growing. Concepts like Retro Feasts, so diners, burger bars, retro bars, hot dog bars, are flying as well. Alcoholic milkshakes are meant to be a big trend in the UK this year.
Restaurants like Zuma with the bar lounge and the restaurant concept, that is certainly what people are going for now. They are not looking to go to a bar, then to a restaurant, then to a bar and then to another club. They’re looking at more of a lifestyle venue.”