Since the age of 18, chef Tom Barnes (yes, him off the Great British Menu) has only ever worked in restaurants with multiple Michelin stars. He was in charge of the kitchen at Simon Rogan’s L’Enclume when it won its third star in 2022.
Next year, he’ll be opening his own restaurant, called Skof, right here in Manchester. So he’ll be aiming for a star, right?
“I’ve worked since I was 18 in restaurants that are either two or three Michelin star level,” he tells Finest, without flinching.
“I did that for a reason. I’m using everything that I’ve learned in the past and putting it all into this. We will be striving to make it the best food we possibly can using all the best ingredients from the farm. It’s an amazing team. We’re in a good place to hit the ground running.”
We’re going to take that as a yes.
When we meet, Tom’s jet lagged from a trip to Singapore. He’d been flown out at short notice to cook with his long-time mentor Rogan.
His career has seen him not only enticing people from all over the world to the teeny town of Cartmel in the Lake District, where L’Enclume was founded in 2002, but globetrotting to kitchens in Barcelona, Hong Kong, Denmark and Croatia.
But it all began, as things occasionally do, in Barrow-in-Furness.
Tom loves his hometown, but he admits its dining scene wasn’t hugely inspiring. The nurturing of his culinary talent came from closer to home; baking cakes with his grandma. A passionate cook, and now in her 80s, she still does the family Christmas dinner every year.
“I’d go to my grandma’s every day after school and again on a Saturday and then all the family would come round for Sunday roasts,” he says. “I made a cake with her in the kitchen when I was quite young and that became ‘my thing’. When I went round there, I baked a cake.”
School was another matter. He remembers being ‘pretty shit’ at most of his school subjects, preferring to muck about, much to the frustration of his grandad. He was never far from a bollocking.
“But I remember in food technology in secondary school, it was Christmas time and I made this chocolate log,” he says. “I was comparing it to the picture in the recipe book and I thought mine looked just as good. I remember taking it home and [granddad] going back for a second slice.”
This appreciation spurred him to apply himself in his food tech classes, bringing home food regularly to show an ever-prouder granddad.
After his mum spotted an ad in the local paper for a Saturday job at the two-AA Rosette Lakeside Hotel, he seized the opportunity, aged just 15.
This led to an apprenticeship under the restaurant’s head chef, Duncan Collinge, who had worked for the Roux brothers at Le Gavroche – the first restaurant in the UK to get three stars.
He learned knife skills, how to make stocks and sauces properly, butchery, veg prep; all the foundations, and all at Michelin standard.
“I threw myself into it. I’d turn up when all the other senior chefs started. I went in at the same time as them to do 12-hour shifts, even though I wasn’t meant to. I even did a breakfast shift on the morning of my GCSE maths exam.”
To celebrate completing the three-year apprenticeship (one of only two trainees out of 12 that made it through) Duncan took Tom for lunch at L’Enclume for his first taste of Michelin star food. Little did he know that in a few years time, he’d be in charge of the kitchen.
From 18, he went on to work with chef John Campbell at The Vineyard in Berkshire and at Phil Howard’s revered The Square in London, both two-star kitchens and a ‘brutal’ step up.
“I learned a lot from them both,” says Tom. “John Campbell was very scientific in his approach. You could ask him, ‘Why does this vegetable go brown?’, and he would just break it down for you, the science behind it.
“Phil Howard was very much about the best ingredients. I suppose Simon [Rogan] is similar. [Our Farm in Cumbria, where much of the produce for L’Enclume is grown] is his big passion. He set that up to get the best ingredients possible.”
The exceptional produce from Our Farm will also be used in dishes at Skof.
Tom headed back up north to start at L’Enclume in 2011. By 2013, he’d been promoted to head chef, the year it was awarded its second star. Then in 2014, he won the coveted Roux Scholarship.
Part of the prize was a three-month internship – a ‘stage’ – at any Michelin star restaurant in the world. He chose Hof Van Cleve near Ghent in Belgium, a restaurant that has held three stars since 2005.
He had long admired its chef Peter Goossens’ approach to cooking. He cycled daily from his hotel digs to the remote rural restaurant.
“I was the only stagier and treated as part of the team. Peter took influence from all over the world, lots of ingredients I’d never seen before. He had eight different varieties of pepper that would go on different dishes. I’d just turned 25 and it was my first experience of getting involved in another culture, another way of life. I had nothing to do but work so I totally threw myself into it.”
But after receiving worrying news from back home – his father had become ill – Tom was soon back in the UK, working again at L’Enclume.
“When he first got his diagnosis, we thought he’d only have a few months to live. 10 years later, he was still going. It had always been my ambition to work at a three-star abroad and I’d never done it because of that. I sat down with Simon and said, ‘Look, I think my dad’s doing alright for now. If I don’t do it now, I’ll never do it.’ He was very supportive.”
So Tom headed to Geranium in Denmark for a very different experience in a huge kitchen with a huge crew of stagiers of around 17 different nationalities. The diverse team learned from one another’s backgrounds as well as from the scrupulously detail-oriented head chef, Rasmus Kofoed.
After his stage in Denmark, the siren call of Rogan’s empire lured Tom back to Cartmel once again, to ‘help for a little bit’ at the more casual Rogan and Co restaurant. Under Tom, Rogan and Co won a Michelin star six months later, and he was promoted to oversee both restaurants.
What he doesn’t mention until prompted is that it was also on his watch that L’Enclume won its third star, making it the first ever three-star in the North and one of only eight in the entire country – five of which are in London.
“I was very proud of that, being from the North,” he smiles. “Working for L’Enclume as long as I have done and being a part of that journey with Simon.”
In 2020, he added getting his main course dish through to the final banquet on the Great British Menu to his already rather impressive CV, wowing judge Michael O’Hare and the panel of food critics.
All this wild, creative experience will be brought to bear when Skof arrives in Manchester, at the Hanover building, one of the fabulous Edwardian warehouses constructed by the Co-op, just a hop from Victoria station in the Noma district.
But it won’t be some rarified temple to haute cuisine. “I want to make it warm, inviting and cosy,” he says. “It’s such a beautiful building so I’m trying to keep some of those natural features.”
Warm and cosy aren’t the types of descriptors you would normally associate with a fine dining restaurant. But Tom is adamant that the 36-cover restaurant won’t be a stark and intimidating space where diners feel they have to sit up a bit straighter and mind their Ps and Qs.
“There will be no tablecloths, no dress code. Nothing like that. I want absolutely zero stuffiness or pretentiousness. I want it to be amazing food, the best I can do, in an environment that’s fun and friendly. People can come in and have a night out with great food and it won’t be like, ‘oh, you have to have Champagne’. If you want a beer, have a beer.”
In the evening, Skof will offer two tasting menus: an entry-level and a more expensive version, while at lunch, alongside the tasting menus will be a snappier starter, main, and dessert for around £50.
Inclusivity is important to Tom, so he’s come up with these affordable options while maintaining the impeccable sourcing and skilful staff, who’ll be joining him with experience from L’Enclume and Rogan’s other restaurant Roganic.
So yes, Tom could well be aiming for a star – there’s only one other starred restaurant in Manchester, mana in Ancoats. But he’s not taking anything for granted, and neither is he presumptuous enough to think he knows how to crack that elusive Michelin code.
“No, not at all,” he says. “Look at the restaurants that have got three stars and how different they are. You’ve got the Waterside Inn which is super classical and the Fat Duck just around the corner which is very scientific, and then L’Enclume which is very natural. I don’t think anybody truly knows how it works – which is quite cool.”
Tom will be in the kitchen too – unlike some ‘celebrity chefs’ who roll their brand out and then never darken the restaurant’s door again. He’s lived here with his partner Carla for a couple of years now. He loves eating at Mr Hong’s BBQ in Chinatown, Higher Ground, Erst, Sam Buckley’s Where The Light Gets In, as well as his local, Osma in Prestwich.
So now he’s fully assimilated, Manchester is going to be key to the soul of Skof.
“I’ve always loved coming to Manchester,” he says. “It’s always been an ambition of mine to be here. I want a restaurant that the people of Manchester will really want to come to, that they can be proud of.”
Skof opens in the Hanover building at NOMA, spring 2024.