When I was 19, I was an idiot.
A portentous, git-faced malcontent, bounding around the place honking like a bloated gander, drunk on the smell of its own farts.
I was an idiot and I bet you were too.
19-year-old Luke Thomas is not an idiot. Jellybean very recently worked with him on the Hospitality Show, where he made a great account of himself amongst much more seasoned players in a panel discussion on making the transition from kitchen to boardroom – the former being a place many of his detractors would like to see him remain to ply his trade for some years to come. In the press office Luke was courteous, quiet, and, in the lead up to the show, extremely accommodating with his time.
The fallout from his portrayal in BBC3’s recent ‘Britain’s Youngest Head Chef’ has seen some of the UK’s cheffing community positively reeling in his ‘demise’. The programme – a warts-and-all documentary following his rocky promotion to head chef at Berkshire’s ‘Luke’s Dining Room’, part of boutique hotel, Sanctum on the Green – has been described by many as veritable car crash television and a PR disaster. And, yes, in parts he did come across as overambitious and mildly arrogant, yet while not completely covering himself in glory, his indefectible drive and bloody-minded determination to succeed was laid bare for all to see.
The truth is many had been sharpening their not inconsiderable knives long before the documentary was aired, the consensus painting him as too young and too inexperienced to head up his own brigade. The miff and ire is, on one hand, understandable. Chefs are incredibly proud, hard working people and value time spent behind the pass plying and perfecting their trade. Anyone afforded the privilege of becoming chef patron of his or her own restaurant before 20 and with a only a modicum of experience under their whites is naturally going to be viewed in a dim and cynical hue, yet show me the chef at 19 who would turn down such a tantalising opportunity and I’ll show you a fibber in crocs.
There is a saying in football circles when a promising, young talent takes his eye off the ball (there’s another) and falls for the trappings of stardom, and all that it entails, that goes: “The boy’s had his head turned”. I can’t help thinking that this is perhaps what happened to Luke. By their own admissions both his backer and agent neglected to taste his food prior to signing him up, falling for the inevitable whiff of PR buy-in that this narrative would offer their respective coffers. If the initial huff and puff around his promotion is anything to go by, the strategy worked, but as a consequence could it be argued that they forgot about the inexperience of their most valuable asset and allowed him to believe his own not inconsiderable hype?
Despite the negativity, what remains in the wake of the documentary is a driven kid with something to prove.
Of course, Luke’s Dining Room has come a long way since the filming captured him, turning a decent profit and knocking out some great plates of food and favourable reviews to boot. When he spoke in February at the show it was evident that the first few months of business had not exactly been rosy, yet he seemed more mature (both mentally and physically) than his perception in the documentary, and therein lies the paradox. Could his very public coming-of-age story herald a new dawn and see him lend even more dedication to becoming the best?
One thing is certain, the boy has true, searing talent.
His main objective in life is to gain a coveted Michelin star and become the youngest head chef to achieve this (something else he was widely pilloried for from chefs criticising his lack of prioritisation and perceived failure to focus his mind on the craft and instead target only the commendation) yet could this be the catalyst for refocusing and a redoubling of efforts? The rumblings from his camp and his assured performance at the Hospitality Show certainly suggest this is the case.
One thing is for sure, to criticise him so roundly is to perhaps forget what we were like in our youth; The bluster, the underdeveloped sense of self and the inevitable shortcomings that are exposed because of this.
Luke has time on his hands and a winning ethic. While the Michelin guide may be written off for now, write him off at your peril.
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