Meet the UK's youngest head chef
It’s a generalisation, but many would say that most 18-year-olds are a bit of a mess. To use myself as an example, I hadn’t much of a clue about anything at that age – what I wanted to do or who I was. To be honest I just wanted to have a good time. With bittersweet hindsight I wish I had been as focused and passionate as Luke Thomas, who knew exactly what he wanted to do from the age of 12.
Luke describes being given the head chef’s position at Mark Fuller’s Sanctum on the Green as “like winning the lottery”, but his success has nothing to do with luck. He’s been cooking since the age of three and working flat out since then. He describes his typical day as: “Get up at 7am, go for a run, have breakfast, get to the kitchen by 8am, check all the orders are in, sign off all the invoices, start the prep, get all the sauces on, then the team arrives, have a meeting with the general manager to go through the brief for the day, make the bar food for lunch, play around with some new dishes, in the evening service finishes about midnight to 1am, then it takes an hour/hour and a half to wind down, go to bed at 2.30am. Five days a week.”
This career is not for the faint-hearted. Fortunately Luke’s young so he can keep up the pace, which is one of the things he loves about his job: “I like the fact it moves very quickly, you’re always working on something new. I love the buzz and excitement of the industry, the people you work with and of course working with great food.”
A star is born
Born and raised in north Wales, Luke became interested in cooking at the age three when he used to help his grandmother in the kitchen. As time wore on he became addicted to Jamie Oliver’s The Naked Chef. “Jamie was revolutionary, his way with food was so different, it wasn’t add 30 grams, it was a pinch or dash or lug of olive oil, and I loved that freedom of creativity," says Luke. At school he refused to eat the “atrocious” school dinners and ended up being known as the cooking boy or chef boy to his classmates.
At 12 he worked part-time at the local butcher's where he developed his butchery skills. One day when they were delivering meat to Soughton Hall hotel, the restaurant team offered him a day’s work experience to see what a professional kitchen was like. He loved it so much that he stayed there for two and a half years. He says: “After that experience I just knew that this is what I wanted to do.”
Sanctum on the Green
Over the next five years Luke built up an impressive culinary CV, as well as earning eight GCSEs and an NVQ in professional catering. He also managed to carry out work placements at some of the best restaurants around the world including The Fat Duck, Barbecoa, Rhodes W1 and Rhodes in Dubai, Alinea in Chicago, La Pergola in Rome, Burj al Arab in Dubai, and The French Laundry pop-up with Thomas Keller at Harrods.
The big break
Just before he went to Chicago for his two-week work placement at Alinea, he had a meeting with restaurateur and hotelier Mark Fuller. “He told me that he had a master plan – ‘I’ve got a boutique hotel called Sanctum on the Green with a 50-cover restaurant, it’s had a million-pound refurb, why don’t you take it over?’ I thought: ‘This guy is just crazy’. It was actually when I was in Chicago, working at one of the best restaurants in the world, that it made me realise that to get to work in one let alone run a restaurant like that would take me years. That’s when I emailed him to say ‘Let’s go for it’.”
Facing his critics
He’s been described as the Tom Daley of the restaurant world, which is an accurate portrayal in a man-boy sense, because when you speak to Luke he talks about food and his business as if he were a man twice his age. It’s understandable when you consider that he has immersed himself in an adult environment for the past five years, and has worked in kitchens that would reduce most grown men to nervous wrecks.
However, some have sneered at Luke’s position, deeming his appointment a publicity stunt because of his age. Luke says that this is the hardest aspect of being a successful young chef: “People are always going to think 'can he really cook?' That’s the biggest thing, the pressure of people’s expectations. There’s never a moment where you can switch off, by Friday afternoon in most offices people are yawning and thinking, ‘I’ll be clocking off in a few hours’, but we can never, ever think like that, because the minute you do you might get an inspector in or Joe Bloggs might be sat on table 10 and the minute you switch off, they’re not happy and they’ll write a bad review, and that can destroy your reputation. That’s the hardest thing, every minute of every day you have to be 100% focused.” And so far Luke has proved his worth with fantastic reviews.
Sanctum on the Green
A bright future
One thing that you notice about Luke the moment you meet him is his focus. When I ask him what’s the best advice anyone has given him, his belief in his answer is unwavering: “It actually came from my stockbroker, he said to me: ‘Nothing is ever good enough, you have to want more every day and every day you have to be better than you were yesterday.' It’s true, you’ve got to want it because this industry is like fashion -
it changes weekly, the moment you get comfortable and just do the same thing day in, day out, is when you get overtaken and that’s it, you’re old news. Every single day you have to question, is it good enough? Is the restaurant busy enough? And that’s literally how I think every single day.” With such unnerving determination you understand why Mark Fuller has invested so much in him.
Luke also has a BBC TV show due in the autumn, a book deal and a London restaurant in the pipeline. So you won't be surprised to learn that we think he’s well on his way to fulfilling his dream of being the next Gordon Ramsay. It’s great seeing someone young doing so well.
Luke is working with Welsh Lamb, who currently have an on-pack promotion to win a luxury holiday.
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Go Luke, you're a credit to your parents and a testament to everyone in your young life who has
a) taken you seriously b) recognised your talent & c) given you the opportunity to excel in a dog eat dog industry. To get that kind of support is no easy task.........
To the begrudgers..........get off your arris and prove yourself as worthy as this young man has, and I'm sure, will continue to do.
Best of luck mate, if I ever win the lottery I'll book a table at your newest venture ! ! !
Well done to Luke. Its a lot of responsibility for a 18 year old though. My worry is he'll be all burned out by 30.
To be a good "proper" chef (not someone who goes on tele faffing) you have to be like a priest. You have to commit your life to the job, theres little room to have relationships due to the amount of working hours( 50+) so family life is off the cards. In the real world a chef is lucky to make £8 per hour even in the Lakes were I live.
Many chefs turn to alcohol to deal with the stress, many are divorced because of the long working hours, which are generally split shifts ( 8am til silly O'clock). In many busy restaurants you'd struggle to find a chef over 40, because its a young persons game, which is why Gordon Ramsey, Jamie oliver, Marcus Pierre White, and James Martin ect, choose to go into TV, and who could blame them. There is no money in chefing unless you are 110% commited to it and you are lucky enough for someone to give you the break you need - The job should come with a health warning.
Hope your happy with that kind of responsibility at that age young'un? me peronally if i was 18 again i'd be back out driving a new car or going clubbing
So nice to see a youngster with ambition and drive instead of just sitting on ones butty doin nout.
Wishing all the luck in the world for your future xx
I am niether a critic nor chef, my wife and I live in Marlow, which is very close to Santum on the green. My wife and I stayed at the Santum as part of the end of our wedding honeymoon celebrations and I must say we had the pleasure of meeting, tasting and being a part of the whole Luke dining experience. Hand on heart we express that the cool calm confidence and composure of the young Luke is impecable, this young man holds comendable confidence Unknowingly (until seeing his photo on this blog) Luke had served our main meals describing mouth watering sauces and infusing, pallet pleasing contents of what I can only descibe as one of the best meals myself and my wife have experienced for a long time. Every flavour married, wines complimented and all tastes and sensations where aroused and titilated, amazing this young lad will go far. Well done Luke and good luck with michelin starrs in your eyes lovely to meet you The Bennett family