What Now For Putney's Tom Whitaker?
Master Chef runner up 2011 shares his plans an thoughts

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Tom Whitaker

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2011 has been a memorable year for Tom and it has changed the direction of his life forever. 

If you pass Tom in Putney you may think you know Tom from somewhere - you will have seen his face on your TV every week in the BBC's MasterChef programme. Tom proved to be an exceptional amateur cook in this series of culinary battles

and became one of the three finalists to become one of the runners-ups.

Judged by John Torode and Gregg Wallace he and 19 other cooks battled their way through the series completing various challenges including travelling 10,000 miles to Australia to cook lunch in a pre-historic rainforest; cater their own food for a wedding in the 35C heat and also a very special three-course lunch designed by John Torode for a select group of his most important mentors; cooking at three of New York's finest restaurants and serving an exquisite three-course menu designed by two Michelin-starred chef John Campbell to other high profile chefs.

So what now for the advertising director of a major pharmaceutical company? We met up last week to find out more.

SW15: What inspired your passion for food & cooking?
Tom: My parents have instilled a love of food and eating with great home cooking - my mum taught herself. We moved to Italy in my early twenties for three years and it was then that my love of food was confirmed. The raw materials are fabulous there - you shop in individual shops not supermarkets.  Once our Italian was up to scratch we could talk to the shop owners who are passionate about their products and quite rightly so!  I was astounded when I heard that the average Italian family spend about 40% of their income on food whereas in the UK it is around 20%.

When I returned back to the UK I became disheartened with my job in Manchester and applied to MasterChef 2010 - I was offered a place but at that time Lucie and I had decided to relocate to London and on the same day I had just accepted a new job so it didn't feel right to then be taking time off for the recordings, so I turned it down despite them not being able to hold a place for the 2011 series.

SW15: A big risk then - but you obviously impressed them as they offered you a place on MasterChef 2011.

Tom: I saw MasterChef as a means to getting here I want - it is a fabulous cookery school - the experience is intense. Starting off with 3 hours filming twice a week but by the end it was nearly full time.  There is a lot of sitting around between takes and so I managed to do a lot of work on my laptop.  Filming was in a warehouse in the Ram Brewery in Wandsworth (an easy 5 minute commute for me!).  It was amazing just like a professional kitchen BUT freezing cold!

SW15: So Tom is cooking just a hobby and it is back to your real job now?
Tom: No! I have handed in my notice and leave in two weeks' time to go to Italy where I am getting married to Lucie. Then it all starts with various projects.

SW15:So what does that mean?
Tom: To keep a steady income I am focusing on Private Dining offering people the quality of restaurant food but in the privacy and comfort of their own homes, getting involved in Food Festivals. I want to use great raw materials - I don't like labels but "Modern British" is probably the closest I can find.  My food is about seasonality, provenance and most of all character.  I'm proud to represent the food of the UK and I take great pride in creating plates that utilise our amazing produce in new and innovative waysI love using unusual cuts & breeds of meat such as 'hogget' - this is a sheep that is older than lamb but younger than mutton - so it is tender like lamb but has a more intense flavour.

SW15: So not rushing in to opening your own restaurant?
Tom: No, I plan to in the future but I need to gain more experience in kitchens and running them so I am establishing periods of 'staging' - (you work for free to gain experience). So far I have got slots at High Timber in EC4, Le Gavroche in W1, and Coworth Park near Ascot owned by John Campbell for whom I worked in one of the MasterChef challenges.

SW15: Where do you like to eat around Putney? 
Tom: I really like the food from the Cochin Brasserie on Lower Richmond Road, it's really different from normal Indian fare and the quality is really good, the Syrian Lamb is my favourite. In terms of 'posh' food Enoteca Turi is really good. I also like the food from Hare & Tortoise on the Upper Richmond Road, the quality of their sushi is good and its really reasonable. I tend to eat non british food when I go out as I am almost always disappointed with what I get otherwise!

SW15: If you could have any chef cook you a meal who would it be?
Tom: That's a difficult one - I am torn between going for someone who has cooked for me so I know it is good or go for someone I have only dreamed of?

SW15: OK - two meals it is then!

Tom:   .... Marcus Wareing, which works well as I'll be going to work for him very soon! the ultimate chef would probably be Marco Pierre in his pomp, Michel Roux Snr said he was one of the most talented chef's he'd ever seen so he can't be bad...

SW15: Well-thumbed cook books in your kitchen?
Tom:  Nose to tail by Fergus Henderson, I think a lot of people see it as 'the offal' book but its actually a really clever book about using an animal to its best and is really adaptable as a source of techniques.  For me he really defines what is great about British food and whilst it may not be the most beautiful of food, it carries flavour incredibly and is a real inspiration to me.

Second, probably 'Leiths Cookery Bible'.  I use it less these days but it really taught me the basics of food and how to make pastry, sauces, stocks etc.  Last but not least Jason Atherton's Maize book is also an inspiration to me, I love the simplicity of his food but also the stylish way in which it is created and delivered

SW15: Does Lucie get a look-in in the kitchen at home?

Tom: Not really as I tend to hover and offer advice! It gets annoying, but if we are eating Asian then that is her forte!

Tom is a very personable young man who deserves every success and we should watch for his name in the future.  If you are tempted by the concept of a MasterChef finalist cooking in yor kitchen call drop him an email tom@tomwhitaker.co.uk.

May 23, 2011