TP TALKS TO... Tom Cenci
‘You can’t not like an ingredient. It’s often a case that you don’t like how it was cooked or what it was paired with.’
See my latest interview with Travelling Peach where I discuss everything from kitchen secrets to comfort foods and also talk about my time abroad which involves goats and guns (yes you read that correctly)
MY FAMILY COULDN’T COOK. SOMEONE HAD TO LEARN SO WHY NOT ME?
To be honest, I became a chef because my mum, as much as I love her, is a really bad cook and most of my family can’t cook either. My mum raised my brother and I alone; she was always really busy so, as children, we lived on microwave meals. I didn’t know much about food at that age but there was always something inside me that was interested in food and learning how to cook. Maybe it was innate or maybe it was because I wasn’t naturally encouraged to so I wanted to explore. Then, aged 14, I applied for a job at Clifton – a 5* hotel which, at the time, had 1 Michelin star. They offered me an apprenticeship and I never looked back.
DON’T BE AFRAID TO EXPERIMENT
There aren’t any foods that I don’t like. I’m not a big fan of ginger because I find it overpowering but I’ll still eat it. I try to eat any foods I can so, if I go to a restaurant, farm or anywhere else where there’s an ingredient that I’ve never had before, that’s the first thing I’ll order. I want to taste everything. You never know what exciting sensations and flavour combinations you’ll discover. I’m lucky; I eat everything.
JULIAN OWEN-MOLD – A MODERN REVOLUTIONARY OF THE MILITARIZED KITCHEN
The chefs who inspire me the most are the ones I’ve worked with. Whether it’s the Head Chef, someone at equal level or someone in a lower position, they’ve all taught me things - not just about the ingredients, the food or a new dish; sometimes character traits. One chef, Julian Owen-Mold, completely transformed my idea of how a kitchen can run. Most kitchens are very militarized, with lots of hierarchy and structure… It’s like being in the army. The Head Chef is the General, the Sous Chefs are Lieutenants, the Commis Chefs and the rest of the team are soldiers and everyone follows orders. Julian taught me that it doesn’t have to be so structured. You can divide jobs equally amongst the chefs and it doesn’t always need to be you (i.e. Head Chef) who gives the orders, everyone else has to follow them and, if they don’t, they’re out. He opened my eyes to a more modern way of running a kitchen.
‘At Duck & Waffle, we set the trends. Then, when it becomes one, we move on.’
ON IGNORING THE TRENDS
People always ask me what the next trend will be but it’s difficult because a trend is something that comes and goes. An old trend from the 80’s might return, or a new ‘wacky’ trend could take off… It’s almost impossible to predict so we try to ignore them. We focus on being creative and original ourselves; then when we come up with an idea we love, we go with it. It’s interesting because we’ve found that by ignoring the trends we’re actually leading them. People copy us, which is flattering but as the trend takes off people start to think we’re following it. That’s when we change our menus.
CLEAR MIND + PLAYTIME = FANTASTIC FOOD
My best ideas come when I stop thinking and just wander. I can find inspiration anywhere… eating out at a nice restaurant, going on a night out and ending up at a delicious street food vendor… but the best way is simply to spend time in the kitchen playing around. Experimenting and having fun with it is the best way because, if you’re relying on your own cooking style, memories of past experiences and the ingredients currently in front of you, you know that you’ll create something very original.
A great example is the ox cheek doughnut. It’s one of our iconic dishes now but, when we first started designing it, it was supposed to involve keema bread – a basic Indian bread stuffed with meat. We tried but it never really worked; then, out of nowhere, it ended up becoming an ox cheek doughnut and it just worked. Instead of baking it, we fried it. That turned it into a doughnut but we kept the ox cheek… We then thought ‘Ok. If it’s a doughnut, it should be sweet’ and added a delicious paprika sugar and apricot jam... It’s one of those dishes that, when you eat it, just makes you smile.
‘The ox cheek doughnut with a delicious paprika sugar and apricot jam… one of those dishes that just makes you smile.’
I DON’T HAVE A COOKING STYLE: I COOK WHAT TASTES GOOD & MAKES PEOPLE HAPPY
I don’t really have a cooking style; it’s just me. Even after 5 years of being open, people still ask us what the cooking style is at Duck & Waffle but it’s difficult to pinpoint because the dishes are so eclectic. The menu just comes from our hearts and experiences, and from us as chefs who work together on the menu and collaborate to design the dishes. The biggest thing is that, if the dish makes us happy, it’s going to make other people happy. That’s what we look at.
ON NURTURING DUCK & WAFFLE FROM A NO-NAMED SHELL TO A GLOBAL PHENOMENON
Working with Duck & Waffle happened spontaneously. Dan Doherty (Exec. Chef at Duck & Waffle) and I have worked together on-and-off for 15 years. One day, he asked ‘Do you want to come and work on a new project?’ I really enjoy working with him so I didn’t think twice. He arranged an interview with the owners and we just clicked. It wasn’t always glamorous though. At first, we were all stuck in an office with a basic concept… the restaurant didn’t even have a name, it wasn’t 24hr, it was just an empty shell on the top of a skyscraper… but somehow we just knew it was going to succeed. We started to collaborate on the menu, then the name came along, followed by design, it became 24h and the rest is history.
MAGNIFICENT NATURAL SKYSCRAPER ARTWORK, 24 HOUR DINING & COCKTAILS
Running a 24hr restaurant is definitely hard work but the concept works so well for both our guests and ourselves. We’re really proud of it but what I love most is the view. Everyday it’s different - just fantastic! I’m here everyday so it’s easy to take them for granted but it’s not until I see a beautiful sunrise or a sunset, or a slightly different cloud formation, that I remember where I am. I always thought a sunrise or a sunset was the same - that if you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all - but everyday is different here. Sometimes there’s a different cloud formation, different colours, the way the sun and moon rise and fall…To be surrounded by such unique sky artwork makes for a very special dining experience.
‘Being a chef is hard work so, if you’re not passionate about cooking and you don’t love it, then it’s not for you. I think that speaks for any job.’
THE BIGGEST SURPRISE OF MY CAREER: THAT I STUCK AT IT Until I became a chef, I never realised how hard the industry is. You don’t know what you’re getting yourself into until you’re actually doing it, which is one of the reasons why the industry is currently struggling. It’s intense work; long unsociable hours; and when everyone else is partying on the weekend, you’re working so it’s difficult. You have to really love it. That was the biggest surprise of my career: I stuck with it. Even now, I still work the Friday and Saturday nights but I love it. I LOVE to cook and I enjoy being here. There are only a few people in the world who are fortunate enough not to work. We all have to have a job so why not do something you enjoy?
‘It’s difficult because, if you love your job, most people don’t understand that. They think that you’re just talking about work all the time but you’re not. It’s like your hobby. Like I say to my parents… if you’re a singer, you’re allowed to sing outside of work but, if you do anything else, you’re not.’
Exactly. Lots of chefs, especially here, encourage each other to have new foodie experiences, even on our days off. We’ll go out, visit other restaurants, experience places that have won awards, have accolades or even quirky street food vendors… Eat and be merry! haha
TURKEYS, GUNS & FINGERPRINTS
When I worked for Harvey Nichols Fifth Floor restaurant in Istanbul, Turkey, we visited a potential butcher and let’s just say that it wasn’t the most sanitary of places. There were live animals right next to the butchery - which should never happen - and the abattoir should be in an entirely different location to the butchery. Here, they were right next to each other. It it wasn’t a great first sign. Afterwards, the main butcher took us to lunch to sample some of the meat - obviously we didn’t want to after we’d seen where it was prepared. ‘Luckily’, when the meat arrived it was overcooked - horrible! We wouldn’t eat it so he gave us a lift back to the train station. On the way, he took out a gun and, for some reason, started showing it to us. I can’t speak Turkish so one of the Turkish directors translated. Being from England, we don’t carry guns so I was a bit surprised how openly he was waving around this gun. Then the Director told me ‘Do you want to hold it?’ Dazed, I automatically said ‘Yes, I’ll hold it’ - I don’t know why, I just did - so I held this gun, gave it back and, the next minute, my mind was spinning thinking ‘Oh God! My fingerprints are on it’ so I had to ask the Director ‘Can you ask him to give me the gun back so that I can wipe my fingerprints off it?’ haha. She was in stitches laughing because, in Turkey, it’s normal to carry guns; then they dropped us off and we never heard from the butchery again.
‘I would have done the same. Purely on the basis of the abattoir next to the butchery next to the crazy man so…’ Yes, strange things happen when you have to go and visit some meat.
MY ULTIMATE COMFORT FOOD
I love a good spaghetti Bolognese. I don’t know what it is but there’s something about eating it at home. It’s the ultimate comfort food. I really enjoy cooking and experiment quite a lot but when you’re in the kitchen everyday, surrounded by fabulously refined and decadent food, on your day off, you crave a fish finger sandwich, burger or spaghetti Bolognese; something simple, homely and different. I like a Twinkies too. They’re an American sponge treat and one of my guilty pleasures. They’re so naughty - they taste almost of nothing and are very bad for you - but there’s something about them. Perhaps it’s nostalgic. They remind me of good times travelling across America when we used to stop off at petrol stations and have a Twinkie as a treat.
THE SECRET TO MAKING THE PERFECT FRIED EGG
Everybody loves fried eggs but most people struggle to make them properly. It’s actually very simple… cook your egg in a cold pan, not a hot one. Take a cold pan, add a little bit of oil and crack the egg into it. Then put it onto a gentle heat to cook it. The egg will always be perfectly cooked and shaped, with the white fully cooked and the yolk deliciously warm and runny.
I don’t have a favourite restaurant in London but I do have favourite dishes…
Dirty Bones cheeseburger dumplings are really good.
Bone Daddies - definitely the best ramen in London. I absolutely love it. The 48-hour broth is so tasty, so strong, so rich… You have one bowl and you’re done. It’s incredible!