Despite having a stop-start existence since opening his first Cardiff restaurant in February 2020, Pembrokeshire-born Tom Simmons has firmly established himself as one of the biggest names cooking in Wales.
The high-end brasserie cooking at his eponymous Pontcanna restaurant, which combines the best of Welsh produce and French technique, has received acclaim from both celebrities and national restaurant critics.
And in June this year, alongside his partner Lois Thomas, he opened Ground, a bakery which regularly has queues outside its doors.
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Whenever Tom’s name is mentioned, it’s typically alongside the fact he reached the quarter-finals of MasterChef: The Professionals in 2011. However, there’s much more to his career than an appearance on a TV show. He’s worked for some of the biggest names in UK cooking and briefly packed it all in before rediscovering his food mojo.
Having grown up in Newport, Pembrokeshire, Tom’s earliest memories were of roaming farmers' markets, foraging and harvesting his mother's vegetable garden.
Even though he was passionate about food, it was only when he took a weekend job as a pot wash at the Golden Lion in Newport that he decided on a culinary career.
“I was washing-up just for some pocket money over the weekends. I think I got roped in to prepping some vegetables and I just absolutely loved it. As soon as I started doing that I couldn't get enough of it,” said Tom.
He decided to further his career by moving to London to work in some of the city’s top kitchens. He first worked at the Michelin-starred Gordon Ramsay at Claridge’s and it was a gruelling introduction to the life of a professional chef.
“That kind of really hit home that if I'm going to be cooking at the top level it's going to take some serious commitment,” said Tom.
“I was very young, I think I’d just turned 18 and I hadn't heard of 16 or 17 hour days when I moved up there. The first day I started at 7am and we were still doing a deep clean of the kitchen at 1.30am in the morning.
“It was a little bit too much for me to process. I remember walking out of the back of the hotel through the staff entrance and around to the front where there were Lamborghinis and Porsches and I broke down. But, I don't think I'd have the drive and passion that I do now if I hadn't done it.”
After becoming the youngest contestant ever to reach the quarter finals of Masterchef: The Professionals in 2011, Tom returned to Pembrokeshire where he took on the role of head chef at the Wolfscastle Country Hotel in Haverfordwest, bagging two AA rosettes during his tenure.
After three years in West Wales, Tom moved back to London and it wasn’t because he planned to open his debut restaurant; he wanted to get away from cooking altogether.
“I just needed to get away and to be honest I'd had a guts full of the industry. I didn't go straight into cheffing when we moved to London. Believe it or not I trained as a junior commodity broker. I lasted I think two months, it was horrendous! I guess the only good that came out of it was that I realised how much I missed being in a kitchen,” said Tom.
Tom took a job as the head chef of corporate hospitality for Compass and whilst the daytime hours were great, he missed the creativity of restaurant kitchens.
“I did three months there and then I was like “I can't work for anyone else anymore.” There was talk of us moving back to Cardiff to open a restaurant but I really wanted to put Welsh produce on the map in London so we decided to give it a go there,” said Tom.
Tom’s debut restaurant, Restaurant Tom Simmons, opened in Tower Bridge in 2017, and it’s currently closed following the pandemic with no-confirmed reopening date.
Tom and Lois’s decision to open Thomas by Tom Simmons in Pontcanna at the start of 2020 provided a staging post between London and Pembrokeshire for the couple.
“We weren’t ready to move back to Pembrokeshire; we moved away for a reason. We needed a little bit more of a city life but London was a little bit too much for us and I've got two kids in Pembrokeshire. When the London restaurant was open, Cardiff was a bit of a halfway house,” said Tom.
Tom also felt there was a gap in the market in Cardiff.
“Apart from a select few restaurants I couldn't believe how the capital of Wales had such a lack of decent food. It was a bit of a no-brainer,” said Tom.
Tom’s cooking style has certainly slotted in well alongside other big names in the affluent suburb of Pontcanna, including Heaney’s, Cafe Milkwood and Bully’s. Whilst technically accomplished, it’s the kind of unfussy comfort food which demands repeat visits.
“I cook the kind of food that I like eating. I think of what we're doing as refined high-end brasserie cooking. All of the main dishes are very clean and very flavour driven but very simple in their plating,” said Tom.
“I guess the easy thing would have been to open a standard fine dining restaurant where you've got splodges of this and foams. We wanted to stay true to what we're about, just stripping it back with nothing to hide behind and doing really good quality food.”
Just a month after the restaurant opened in February 2020, the pandemic struck. However, in many ways it was a blessing in disguise for the fledgling Cardiff restaurant.
“It was terrible timing but looking back at when it happened, we were so busy and everything was a blur. We had time to stop and look back and think what have we done, what do we need to do differently and what can we do moving forward when we do finally reopen?”
“I don’t think we’d be where we are now if we hadn’t been through the pandemic. I’d say that the food we’re cooking now is two or three times better.”
In June, the restaurant received a rave review from Times restaurant critic Giles Coren. Whilst a national review usually means a boom-time for reservations, Tom and Lois weren’t able to take advantage of the publicity as much as they would have liked.
“I’m sure we’re jinxed because we got that review and then three days later one of our staff got Covid at the bakery. We decided to close both places to make sure there wasn’t any kind of outbreak. So, we never really reaped the rewards from the review,” said Tom.
“But to be honest, up until now it’s been crazy, crazy busy and everyone I’ve spoken to has said the same. We needed this but the staffing crisis isn’t helping at the minute.”
Much like hospitality businesses across the city, Tom has been affected by the staffing crisis facing the sector and has been forced to condense his opening hours.
“Having to close one of the five days that you’re normally open isn’t ideal for business. But rather than affect our staff morale and business model we decided that the best thing was to close. So we’ve condensed our opening hours down into a four day week where everyone works those four days; it works fine for now,” said Tom.
Tom and Lois’s second Cardiff business Ground Bakery, which opened down the road from their restaurant in Pontcanna earlier this year, has proven to be another success. Whenever I’ve walked past on the weekend there’s always a queue out of the door.
Talking about the inspiration to open a more casual offering, Tom said: “I think you’d be mad to open another restaurant at the moment; I couldn’t think of anything worse.”
“It just seemed that everything was going that way anyway, especially after the lockdown, people were a lot more focused on bread and 'grab and go'. We thought that a bakery would still provide a chance for us to get our passion across by feeding people but be more manageable.”
Whilst Tom’s expertise isn’t baking, he’s put a team in place who he trusts to deliver his vision.
“I love baked goods but I’m not a baker by any stretch of the imagination,” said Tom.
“We’ve got a really good team and I think that one thing I’ve learnt from having a couple of places is how to pull things together using people’s strengths. I wouldn’t have dreamt of setting up something that I wasn’t able to do myself a few years ago but now I’ve got enough people around me that have plenty of other skills that I don’t have.”
Even though Tom and Lois already have a lot on their plate with their three existing businesses, and a newborn baby which arrived just nine weeks ago, they already have plans to open two more Ground outlets.
They’ve just signed on a site in Penarth, which will open in early New Year, and they’re currently at the legal stage for another undisclosed location.
In another exciting move, Tom and Lois plan to open Ground in Pontcanna as a pasta bar on Friday and Saturday evenings.
“The pasta will be made in front of everyone. It’ll just be really simple, a couple of starters like a burrata and bruschetta, and then maybe three different pastas with three different sauces and some great biodynamic wines,” said Tom.
“That’s going to be coming soon; as soon as I can find a chef!”
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