Cornerstone, chef Tom Brown’s first restaurant, is a deeply personal affair: funded by family, named after his favourite song and inspired by his mentor and friend Nathan Outlaw. Neil Gerrard meets him
Tom Brown can scarcely believe his luck. Most 30-year-old chefs can only dream of owning their own restaurant, let alone one in London’s edgy Hackney Wick. But that’s the exciting prospect facing Brown when The Caterer speaks to him, just a couple of weeks before the opening of Cornerstone on 24 April. And the pace is frenetic.
“Every time I go to the restaurant, there are more builders there, working. They’re like little elves – there are hundreds of them putting stuff up. It’s amazing,” he says.
It’s a stressful process, but one Brown is determined to enjoy, because he recognises how fortunate he is to be in this position at all. “There are probably better chefs out there who won’t be afforded the opportunities I have been given,” he acknowledges, rather modestly. “I’m just lucky that I have had that support network.” Brown is referring to, among others, his mentor Nathan Outlaw.
The young chef from Cornwall could hardly have enjoyed a more auspicious start to his career. An alumnus of Cornwall College, he spent six years under Outlaw’s wing, starting out at Outlaw’s at the St Enodoc hotel in Rock, Cornwall, before moving to the Big Smoke, where he took on the role of head chef at Outlaw’s at the Capital in 2016.
With Outlaw’s guidance, combined with his own grit and determination, Brown quickly made a name for himself. He retained the Michelin star held by Outlaw’s at the Capital, as well as winning an Acorn award last year, and had a very respectable showing on the 2017 edition of Great British Menu. The latter in particular has propelled him to wider public attention, and with his distinctive tattoos and reddish beard, Brown is a memorable figure.
“I was in a bar in London Bridge recently, and this lady said: ‘Are you that lad from Devon that’s on MasterChef? I was like, you are so close. Nearly right on both things,” he jokes.
But his achievements clearly got him thinking seriously about his future. “Following Great British Menu, I said to Nathan that I felt like I needed a new challenge from the Capital,” Brown explains. “We talked about me opening a new site with him and he said, ‘Look, if you want to do your own thing, I will help you achieve that’. I’m so fortunate to have that.”
Taking the plunge on his own after six years with Outlaw was an “emotional decision” and Brown is effusive in his praise for his mentor. “Nathan has always been more than just an employer. I can’t talk highly enough about the type of man he is,” Brown says. “He wants everyone who works for him to do well.”
Outlaw has been on the end of a phone or on WhatsApp for Brown whenever he has needed advice or help, but Cornerstone is very much Brown’s project. The restaurant is named after the chef’s favourite Arctic Monkeys song.
Why did he choose it? “I thought to myself, it’s my restaurant, I can call it what I want.”
But there is a significance. Brown did some research and found a bible passage (Psalm 118, for those of an ecclesiastical persuasion), which reads: ‘The stone which the builders rejected, this became the very corner stone’.
“I like the idea that this is the first restaurant; the one everything will be built upon,” he says.
The 46-seat Cornerstone is part of a new build on Prince Edward Road and Brown is pleased to have had a say in its design from the outset. The kitchen is intended as a central hub around which the diners sit. “I didn’t want there to be any bad tables,” Brown explains. “It’s a blank canvas, so I wanted to make sure that all the things I liked about dining we brought in, and all the things I didn’t like were eliminated.
“Everyone gets a good view of the kitchen. It’s good for the chefs, because they are usually stuck in a box underground or out the back, and if you are lucky a waiter might tell you a guest enjoyed their meal. When you can see people enjoying what you are doing, it’s motivational. Chefs are shallow – we like a bit of praise.”
The look of the restaurant, which is light and airy, thanks to three skylights that let natural light flood the space, has been designed by architect firm Holland Harvey. There’s plenty of whitewash, plants and a feature table, sourced by architect Richard Holland via a carpenter friend, made from 5,000-year-old bog oak, dredged from a swamp in Croatia.
“The wood is amazing,” Brown enthuses. “It’s a little bit gnarly and dark around the edges where it has aged so much. It has this really interesting grain that goes through it – almost like a fish skeleton.”
That’s fitting, considering the menu. But it’s worth noting that this isn’t simply a “designed” restaurant – there’s a personal touch, too, thanks to the financial involvement of Brown’s extended family. Interestingly, despite the touch of stardust that Michelin and Great British Menu have afforded Brown, he has financed the restaurant “on a shoestring”. The total cost has been about £140,000, which doesn’t go all that far for a new restaurant opening in London (he aimed for £100,000 but went £40,000 over budget). He is backed by his family, rather than private investors.
“It is partially funded by the sale of my grandmother’s house,” he says. “She died last year, and when the project came up, I asked my aunts and uncles if they’d be willing to back me and they said yes.” In recognition of his late grandmother’s contribution, Brown is installing a clock that sat in the hallway of her house in the restaurant, as well as making an old writing desk from her study into a waiters’ station. Some of the plants that once populated her conservatory will also live on in the restaurant.
“I just want to make it feel like home and keep that connection with her going,” he says.
When it comes to the food, Brown aims to work with the best ingredients he can get his hands on at any given time. There will be an emphasis on smaller, independent growers and producers – whoever Brown feels is as passionate about their product as he is.
“Chefs are always so passionate about the food and where the ingredients come from that I want to go through everything and make sure it is peak quality and something the staff can get excited about,” he says.
“I could listen to someone tell me about paint drying if they love it and are passionate about it. That passion and storytelling are such a massive part of a great dining experience.”
Naturally, after working for Outlaw for several years, fish and seafood will play a major role, but Brown doesn’t want it to be exclusively a fish restaurant. Typical dishes are likely to include thinly sliced raw scallops with a roast chicken jus, tarragon oil and pickled shimeji mushrooms, or monkfish roasted on the bone, marinated in ras el hanout and served with an aubergine purée akin to baba ganoush. All of this will be cooked in a relatively basic kitchen in which Brown will work with two other chefs.
“I think a lot of chefs get carried away with gadgets and end up with kitchens that look like the Starship Enterprise,” he says. “The way my kitchen is set up is inspired by the old Casamia [in Bristol] before they moved. I did a guest chef night with Nathan and Tim [Barnes] from Outlaw’s Fish Kitchen and everything was done on those plug-in induction stoves instead of a full range. It worked really well for them so I have gone for that. We have a little turbo fan oven and a little plancha – it’s good.”
Brown’s cooking style is obviously heavily influenced by Outlaw, who honed his skills with the likes of Gary Rhodes and John Campbell. He is known for his simple, yet brilliantly executed cooking, with as few elements on the plate as possible.
Will Brown be changing his style as he launches his own venture? Not likely. “It’s like being a footballer and someone asking you if you’d like to move away from a style like Lionel Messi’s,” he says. “I love Nathan’s restraint as a chef. I love that confidence in the produce to say ‘look, all this needs is that touch there and that is it’. The balance, the flavour – it’s so special and so unique. It’s funny, but the simplest things are so hard to do well.”
Brown may have ambitions for Cornerstone to be the start of something bigger, but for the time being he is happy to see the restaurant stand on its own two feet. “As people always say, I just want a busy restaurant. I would like to do future sites on top of this one, if the opportunity was there.”
He remembers once again how grateful he is for the situation he finds himself in, revealing a disarmingly simple philosophy that perhaps has been key to his success at such a young age. “Growing up, my dad always said to me, if you can look back on a day’s work and be proud of what you have done, then you are doing alright. It sounds cheesy, but I just want the staff who work here to be proud of what they are doing.
“I have been very fortunate in my career to have worked in places that are like that. In Nathan’s kitchens we had a really nice family vibe and customers loved what we were doing. That’s how I want it to go. That’s the dream.”
Tom Brown on…
…respect for his mentors “I have always had that thing of ‘respect your elders’. When you look at what Nathan Outlaw or Pierre Koffmann or Fergus Henderson have achieved, they are legends. I think I am quite old-fashioned in a lot of ways and I believe in being humble when it comes to people like that. I think if you can achieve half of what people like that have achieved then you are doing alright.”
…giving back to the hospitality industry “This is a great industry and I love it. I did some work with Cornwall College, but once I moved to London I haven’t been able to do so much. We also did some work at the Capital with Bournemouth College and Springboard’s FutureChef. Working in hospitality is so often overlooked and painted in a bad light, so in the future I would love to be able to give back and maybe help people get to where I am.
…Hackney “When I moved to London, I always preferred east London to any other parts of the city. I feel like it’s a bit more me. I was working in Knightsbridge before and although I loved the restaurant, I didn’t exactly fit in that area, walking around with all these tattoos. But in Hackney Wick, there are so many artists and creative people and it is so vibey. There’s a huge feeling of community, which was a massive part of life in Cornwall, too.”
…Great British Menu “It’s a great bit of publicity and you can’t turn your nose up at it. Not only was it a great opportunity, but I have also made some great friends through that series, like Ellis Barry, Tommy Heaney, Pip Lacey and Selim Kiazim. If they want me to be on it again, then why not – it will be a good laugh.”
3 Prince Edward Road, Hackney Wick, London E9 5LX www.cornerstonehackney.com
Restaurant manager Holly O’Leary
Bar manager Rik Patel
Head chef Christian Sharp
From the menu
Pickled oyster, celery, dill, horseradish cream £5
Raw hand-dived scallops, green sauce, hazelnut £18
Cured brill, lime pickle, coconut yoghurt, coriander £14
Potted shrimp crumpet, kohlrabi, gherkin, parsley £12
Plaice, chicken, wild garlic, leek £14
Confit pork belly, chicory, orange, pistachio £15
New season peach crumble, clotted cream, lemon thyme £10
Dark chocolate mousse, banana, pecan, rum £10
British cheese, Saint Kew chutney, sourdough crackers £14