Tom Hill, head chef [Rawduck and Ducksoup]
How did you fall into cooking? Were you always interested in it?
Yes, I grew up in Bristol and always cooked with my parents. I always wanted to be a chef but when I went to school or went to college, people put me off the idea of cooking.
They said it was long hours and not great money. After I while I decided "I don't care, I want to cook" so I walked into a kitchen and asked for a job which taught me all the basics and everything I needed to know. I spent a lot of time working for Mitch Tonks in Fishworks in the beginning and learned a lot from them, then I was with Mark Hix for about three years and I became head chef at The Chop House in Farringdon.
Did you find that it was long hours and not great money, like you were warned?
I think there are the long and unsocial hours but you do get accustomed to it - and you enjoy it. They were right to a degree, but I think it all balances out in the end.
What drew you to working at Ducksoup, then Rawduck?
I was always on board with what they were doing. The idea of the natural wine, I really like what they were doing with the food, it reflected well in the Mediterranean and Middle-Eastern cuisine which always interested me, so that was the draw to go and work there. Plus it's a cool little place to go to in Soho, I'd been there before to eat and drink and loved the place. So when I heard there was a job going there I jumped to it.
But then catastrophe struck just five months after when the original Rawduck on Amhurst Road collapsed. What was it like working there when it went down?
I had just started at Ducksoup when Rawduck opened, so I went over to Hackney and did a bit with them and literally a month later, it collapsed. When it happened, everyone was devastated and shocked - when you open a new restaurant, you don't expect to get a phone call saying the building has collapsed! I think it was a Friday night as well, in the middle of service and the manager called up Ducksoup and said "We've had to evacuate" and within two days everything was gone. We had a lovely ceiling in there and a bar that was built especially and a wine cellar that was pretty much full...
Shit. Did you manage to save anything at all, especially from the wine cellar?
We saved a few cases of wine, but it was just people going in and grabbing what they could, I don't think they realised what the value of some of the wines were. We managed to take a few bits and bobs but it was just an empty space that a lot of work had gone in to and obviously that all went with it. It was just such a shock to then think, "what do we do next?"
What did you do next?
We had some help from Hackney Council, then we found out about a new site on Richmond Road.
Which is where the amazing new restaurant is now - do you think in some way it was fate?
Definitely. I think it was a strange blessing in disguise - I mean, what happened led to a few good awkward months, but we ended up with a great new space that suited the food and the drinks we do, so it worked in our favour in the end.
How often do you change the menus?
In Ducksoup it's a weekly thing, so we sit down on a Friday and talk about what we've eaten during the week, what we've been into and we give the menu a big tweak within the course of the week. Pretty much the whole menu will change (except for the regulars that we keep on) on a weekly basis. There are dishes we'll bring back that are popular, but a lot of the time we'll try and do something new and different. In Rawduck, we don't change it that often, but we tweak a few things, like perhaps fortnightly, I'd say. The menu there is so well structured and offers something for everyone.
There seems to be a big Middle-Eastern and Asian influence in a lot of your dishes - have you travelled to these places to pick up inspiration?
I've travelled through Europe and while I haven't made it to somewhere like Beirut, the food and flavours from there definitely influence what I like to cook. I've done a bit of travelling round South East Asia and Indonesia as well. The three of us [with co-founders Rory McCoy and Clare Lattin] are going to Japan next month as we're doing a food and culture tour.
What's the plan for that? Have you got a hit list of restaurants to visit?
We fly into Toyko and are spending four days there, then heading down to Kyoto and the Pacific Coast. We've got an itinerary set up and some restaurants on there that we've looked into. The thing we really want to do is to get out and see what the traditional food of the villages is - what the locals eat, basically. Hopefully we'll come back there with lots of ideas.
Have you seen that documentary, Jiro Dreams Of Sushi? Will you be paying his much lauded restaurant a visit?
Oh yes, Jiro. It's not on the list because I think it's pretty much impossible to get there - there's like a six month waiting list or something. But there's loads of little hidden places on our list - places like where there's only eight bar stools.
So can we expect more Japanese tastes and flavours at Rawduck in the autumn?
I definitely think there'll be a few things creeping on to the menu from our trip there.
Rawduck has a real ethos of healthy eating - is this a kick back against the huge trend for gourmet fast food?
I think the healthy eating thing came more as a change of life - we've all got a bit older and we've got a bit more health conscious.
How do you make healthy eating exciting?
I think it's all about the ingredients - using spices and seasoning. Also the way it's presented is quite important, to make it look tasty.
What would you say the signature dish in Rawduck is?
What we're focusing on is the pickles. The idea is if you ferment pickles, it aids your digestion and it eases you in to the rest of the the meal you're going to have. We use kohlrabi, beetroot, daikon and sauerkraut and it's quite interesting what ingredients you can ferment. We have little Japanese pickles called Tsukemono and they're an instant pickle using cucumber, seaweed, black fungus and they're very cleansing, fresh flavours.
Have you added this to your diet? Have you noticed any benefits from it?
Yes, I do and I've definitely seen a difference. I think it's about listening to your body, thinking about what you want to put into your body and what things you can get out of it.
What's the strangest or rarest ingredient on the menu?
There's a really lovely Japanese chilli powder called Nanami Togarashi, it's a blend of chilli, dried orange peel, seaweed and white sesame seeds. It's one of those seasonings that you can use on anything - it adds that little kick to things. We also use dukkah, which we make ourselves. It's a Middle-Eastern product that gets used in a lot of things and it works for breakfast lunch and dinner, so it's universal, rather than working for just one thing.
Rawduck prides itself on its bio-dynamic wine list. Can you confirm once and for all the rumours that it doesn't give you a hangover?
[Laughs] I think it depends on how much you drink! But I think there's probably less chance of a hangover, yes.
What's your current favourite wine from your cellars at the moment?
I'm really into chilled red at the moment, there's one called Les Pierres Noires by Domaine Maupertuis from Anvergine in France that's lovely, flavoursome and light. When the weather changes, I like more of a Tuscan wine.
Where do you like to eat when you're not working?
If it were your last day on earth, what would your last meal be?
Something raw - meat or fish.