OFM Awards 2017: Young Chef of the Year – Tom Adams
He was only 22 when he co-founded Pitt Cue. Then came serious illness and the idea for a Cornish hideaway … with a lot of pigs
“I’m not sure I merit one of these,” says Tom Adams of his OFM Young Chef of the Year gong. “I’m very flattered, but what constitutes ‘young’, exactly?”
That’s a bit rich, coming from a 29-year-old who, with his mop of blond hair, huge specs and checked shirt, bears more than a passing resemblance to an unkempt Milky Bar Kid. Mind you, in his defence, Adams has worked in kitchens for almost half his life.
He’s probably best known for Pitt Cue Co, which he co-founded in 2011, when he was all of 22. It was only meant to be temporary summer thing in a food truck on London’s South Bank, but the clamour for Adams’ inspired take on barbecue soon led to a bricks-and-mortar incarnation, first in Soho and later in the City. “I hadn’t a clue how to run a professional kitchen,” Adams admits now, “so I just winged it.”
As if that wasn’t enough to be going on with, in summer 2016 he opened Coombeshead Farm in east Cornwall, and a little over a year later, this idyllic spot in a lush valley between Bodmin and Dartmoor is top of the to-do list of any British food obsessive worth their salt. That’s mainly because Adams has taken the now semi-compulsory farm-to-fork trope and turned up the dial, with just about everything they serve grown, reared and made on site. But it’s also because Coombeshead is a joint venture with April Bloomfield, the Brummie-born restaurant queen of the Big Apple. Rumours of a Bloomfield project on these shores have circulated on and off for years, but no one in a million years expected it to wind up in the deepest, darkest west country sticks.
Adams, for his part, says it was kind of inevitable that he’d end up working in food: he was raised on a farm near Winchester where “eating was at the forefront of everything. You get a far broader knowledge of what you eat when you grow up in the countryside. Nothing mind-blowing, just proper seasonal cooking.” For his 16th birthday, as if to mark her son’s epiphany, Adams’s mother gave Tom his first pig.
The next step was logical, to Adams’s mind at least, and he spent two school summer holidays working at Neal’s Yard Dairy, before enrolling at Westminster catering college as soon as he could at the age of 17. But then he met Jeremy Lee – at the time head chef at Terence Conran’s Blueprint Cafe, now at Quo Vadis – and decided the best way to learn wasn’t to go to college, but to start cooking for real. As Lee remembers it: “His thoughtful approach and intellect already suggested he was a cook apart. When he left for Pitt Cue – and to start his affair with mangalitza pigs – I could only applaud.”
Ah, yes, pigs – they’re a bit of a theme, aren’t they? Adams blushes. “Er, you could say that,” he says with a faraway look that suggests this is no mere fling. His passion for porkers wasn’t consummated in the happiest of circumstances. A year after opening Pitt Cue Co, Adams took his first days off in six months to go on a research trip to the US, where he started feeling “a bit strange”. He put this down to stress and overwork, but the night he flew home, he took a turn for the worse – “I couldn’t actually breathe” – and his girlfriend, Lottie Mew (also a partner in Coombeshead), rushed him to A&E. There, they whisked him straight to the cardiac ward, but he passed out before he even got there. “Turned out I had a virus that caused a swelling of the heart. It was touch and go for a bit, but it all turned out fine.”
The ensuing enforced six-month lay-off was when the idea for Coombeshead – and its pigs – began forming in Adams’s mind. “Well, there’s only so much sport on telly you can watch.” So he bought four mangalitzas, as you do. “It was just to keep me entertained.” (During this “time off”, he also wrote the acclaimed Pitt Cue Co Cookbook.)
Those pigs taught Adams “a new perspective on what I’d been doing with my life, so when I finally did go back to work, I began spending half the week with our suppliers in Cornwall. Three, four years later, I knew this was what I wanted to do, and where I wanted to do it.” coombesheadfarm.co.uk