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Fire and famiglia

He made it all the way to the final of BBC MasterChef, finishing runner-up. Inspired by his Italian roots and his love of BBQ cooking, MIKE TOMKINS now dreams of opening a live-fire restaurant

 BBQ Mag   Spring 2022

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I was brought up in what I can only describe as a very Italian household where life revolved around food every day. Sunday wouldn’t be Sunday without a five-course meal at my Nonna’s with my Nonno at the head of the table.

We’d have a starter of antipasta, followed by pasta or lasagne and meat and salads. Then came desserts. There was always an apple crumble lurking around somewhere and finally cheese, crackers and coffee. 

When my Nonno Guy and Nonna Tina came over from Naples in Italy, they didn’t have much. But what they did have they made sure they spent it on good food. My mother Carmela is the best cook I know and used to do some catering as well as cookery teaching.

I learnt a lot watching her in the kitchen and arguing with my Nonna about how something should or should not be done. 

It was always hugely important and symbolic for us all to be sat around the table as a family every day and have a good meal. I remember going to school with a packed lunch of home baked ciabatta and breaded chicken in contrast to my friends with their jam sandwiches!

My mum and Nonna really are my inspiration and I don’t think I had any choice regarding food. I was born obsessed and cooking still dominates

my thoughts.

I worked in my uncle John’s cafe in Woking, Surrey, from the age of 14 and he didn’t really let me near the grill to cook breakfasts. But when he was out or busy on sandwiches, I loved making the breakfasts and, even then, I was determined that everything I cooked was the best possible. 

Growing up, I found myself experimenting more and more with food and trying out what I did and didn’t like.  Why didn’t this work or why did this work out better?

I think that’s one of the main reasons I am drawn to BBQ and live-fire cooking. Fine margins make such a big difference and while traditional cooking methods are largely down to consistency, BBQ and live-fire cooking are much more about instinct and finesse, which really appeals to me.

I struggle with following a recipe and I like the trial and error of coming up with something new. Even from a young age I was always trying to get involved in the kitchen. I first realised that I could cook when I went to my fiancée Megan’s parents’ house and cooked for them.

 

 

They suggested I applied for MasterChef and the ball was rolling.

It was Megan who really pushed me into entering the competition and she was my guinea pig for a lot of recipes. MasterChef was a rollercoaster journey but one that I would recommend to anyone who loves cooking.

The BBC MasterChef experience is difficult to put into words. There is a lot of late nights and waking up in a sweat dreaming of food and recipes, wondering why something didn’t work and what I needed to improve.

The competition pushes you to your limits and you feel convinced you’re underprepared every time you go through the doors. But I loved the process and after the first episode totally relaxed and just enjoyed it for what it was; a one off shot to enjoy and savour. I was all about getting through the next round and soaking up as much of the experience as possible. 

I am still currently juggling the day job. But would love to one day open up my own gastro-style pub based around live-fire cooking and BBQ food. I think my Kamado Joe and the grill’s diversity has really helped drive this passion.

For so long, even as a keen, aspiring cook, I believed barbecues were just burnt sausages and raw chicken – I blame my dad, Pete! But using the Kamado Joe has got me thinking about creating a restaurant based around fire and really great local produce cooked well.

We have such wonderful produce here in the UK and yet we seem to be obsessed with cuts like kobe or wagyu, which baffles me. We have amazing seasonal food here and Dexter beef, for example, is an incredible cut of meat.

When I open my own place, it will be a celebration of that local, seasonal, British produce – ethically reared and sourced, with sustainability and provenance absolute.

I also love the way that live-fire cooking lends itself to the hospitality sector. There’s something theatrical about this style of cooking which makes everything that comes off the grill so special.

I also believe in the adage that once something is gone, it’s gone. You can’t just whip up another brisket for a customer if it is going to take eight hours to cook.

I can really see a shift in the way BBQ is perceived. Yes lockdowns, with more people cooking at home and outside, played its part, but it is inspiring to see top chefs like James Martin using tabletop barbecues to finish dishes.

I really want to be part of the movement that refines this style of cooking and I think a restaurant based around fire is a brilliant way of doing that.

Life since MasterChef has been a bit of a blur; Megan and I live in the Surrey village of Chilworth, near Guildford, and the local support has been absolutely fantastic.

I’ve hosted a number of supper clubs at a local restaurant, The Dabbling Duck in Shere, with two top chefs Jack Simmonds and Simon Hess, which have been a huge success and I’ve loved being behind the pass again, coming up with ideas around menus and we’ve incorporated barbecue food into pretty much every supper club so far.

Much to Megan’s dismay, our little garden is quickly becoming full of barbecues and other live-fire equipment. I love the versatility of the Kamado Joe and the fact that we can bake on it, cook a nice rib of beef roast on it or do my favourite, Risotto alla Milanese, which is a saffron risotto made with bone marrow, and the smoke from the KJ massively elevates the dish.

Cooking, indoors and out, is such a richly rewarding experience, no matter your level of cooking. Live-fire food has limitless invention, drawing on the twin forces of fire and imagination. You can tap into and explore amazing cultures, foods and techniques from around the world, understanding place and people as well as produce.

Our wedding is in Italy next year. I am so excited about the food planned – and, of course, getting married to Megan!

 


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