Chris Wood talks ‘nose to tail’ eating and keeping it local with Surrey celebrity chef Tony Tobin ahead of the Food and Drink Awards
When I caught up with Tony Tobin at his Reigate restaurant he was, well… doing the hoovering. It may seem a tad below a TV celebrity chef – star of Ready Steady Cook and Can’t Cook, Won’t Cook, among many other shows, to be doing the cleaning, but Tony is more than happy to be back where it all began, tirelessly nurturing his beloved home base, The Dining Room, in Reigate High Street and greeting his guests with the kind of welcome he feels they are entitled to.
Yes, not only does Tony do the cleaning, he has, for the last 18 months, also been taking on the role of front of house – a job he particularly relishes as it brings him into routine contact with his clients. ‘People want to feel special,’ he says. ‘It’s easy to smile. I don’t get grumpy faces. It’s just as easy to make people who walk in through your door feel wanted.’
But how and why did Tony make the transition from kitchen to front door? ‘I used to have two managers who, unbeknown to each other, decided to leave at the same time. You just cannot get that collective experience easily, so I thought I would do it myself. I started out wearing a suit, but I hated it so much. I told my wife and she said: “Why not just wear your chef’s jacket?”’ Now he meets and greets in more familiar garb and his own comfort zone.
Does this mean that Tony has forsaken the kitchen? Not a bit of it. ‘I still write all the menus with Lewis, my head chef of the last 14 years and we test them together,’ he says. Nothing is compromised in Tony’s world.
The phone rings; he apologises for the interruption and takes the call. It’s a booking for Sunday lunch. Tony suggests the options for a couple, including Chateaubriand and the classic roasts, which are always on the menu. ‘I’ve got a very good core base of customers here,’ he says, putting the phone down. ‘They’re lovely people.’
We talk about fighting the recession as a restaurateur. It’s been a long, hard battle and one that seems to go on and on… ‘Whatever you do the fixed costs are still there,’ he reminds me. I mention the time, some seven or eight years ago when he attempted to spread his wings, opening The Post restaurant in the old Post Office buildings in Banstead High Street. ‘It didn’t work – not in a building that size,’ Tony reflects. ‘It was a stressful time,’ he recalls, as he returns to a more relaxed chat about present-day life and work in Reigate, where he is occasionally helped by his wife and daughter.
Tony is a member of Local Food Britain, an organisation dedicated to supporting the best of local food producers, suppliers, retailers and restaurants, which began as Local Food Surrey in 2012. He sources most of his produce from local suppliers, for example, Tony buys his lamb from butcher Robert Hewitt, a stone’s throw away in Reigate. Robert, in turn, is supplied by farmer Hugh Broom, of Sondes Place Farm, Dorking. A complete food chain – and one where the diner can be told of his or her food’s provenance, if they choose to ask. Minimal carbon footprint, freshest cuts – even the knowledge that his lamb has been fed on red clover (spot the Red Clover Lamb on the menu) all make for the shortest possible journey from farm to fork.
Tony favours ‘nose to tail’ eating.‘ The recession meant that less expensive cuts – such as pork belly – and cooking methods such as slow cooking and braising, became trendy.’ He also uses a Surrey supplier for his fish, buying straight from our shores.
‘They will call me regularly to let me know what they have, so that I can plan my menu accordingly.’
‘I’ve got a good knowledge of wines,’ he tells me. ‘And there are about 20 gins I can talk about – one new one worth singling out is Beckett’s London Dry Gin, produced in Kingston using juniper berries picked on Box Hill. They also use Box Hill sloe and mint in their gins.’
So, what does the future hold for Tony Tobin? Any more ventures into opening new restaurants? ‘Once bitten twice shy,’ comes the response, as he takes another booking for Sunday lunch over the phone.
And he seems hesitant to venture in to new television work, too. ‘The trouble with doing television is that it takes you away from your business,’ he points out and keeping the core business healthy is clearly where Tony’s heart lies at the moment.
‘2016 will be more of the same,’ he confides, ‘although I do love an audience,’ he admits and he still entertains his fans at his occasional gourmet evenings at The Dining Room when he demonstrates cooking selected dishes, matching each course with chosen wines. The proof of the pudding, of course, is then in the eating…