Interview with an Innovator

Tommy Heaney: ‘Just because an ingredient is expensive doesn’t mean it’s the best’

Tom Gatehouse visits Heaneys in Cardiff to talk about cheap but tasty fish, designing small plates and why foraging may be the biggest fad of all.

4 October 2019
chefsingredientsrestaurantsseafood

Heaney on Paper – CV

  • Built up experience under the likes of Richard Corrigan, David Everitt-Matthias, Ollie Dabbous and Nacho Manzano, before joining The Great House in Bridgend, South Wales, in 2014, as head chef, winning Best Hotel Restaurant in Wales at the Food and Drink Awards 2016.
  • Rebranded the existing hotel restaurant as Restaurant Tommy Heaney in 2017 and appeared on Great British Menu that same year.
  • Opened Heaneys – his first solo venture – in October 2018 after a successful Kickstarter campaign, with his second restaurant, a tapas and wine bar named Uisce, debuting in April.

It’s not uncommon for a chef to play up in school. Instead, they often discover their kitchen calling at a young age and yearn to be in the middle of a busy service rather than sitting a dry history test. Tommy Heaney is one example.

“I was never any good at all that,” he says, referring to his time at school in Northern Ireland. “I didn’t enjoy school and I got into a fair amount of trouble. Eventually my mum, who was a nursery school teacher, sent me off to stay with my uncle in America and I started working in his restaurant as a KP [kitchen porter].”

An AWOL American head chef led to Heaney being thrown into a lunch service one day at the age of 14. The service, which was remarkably successful, heralded the start of his love for the craft.

The last few years have been nothing short of a whirlwind for Heaney. His appearance on Great British Menu in 2017 was quickly followed by the rebranding of the restaurant in Bridgend to Restaurant Tommy Heaney. A year later, he upped sticks and made for Cardiff, ready to go solo.

Now, his restaurant is approaching its one-year anniversary and its little sister tapas/wine bar Uisce has been up and running since April.

Here, Heaney chats about his inspiration when creating dishes, mainstream ideas he considers fads and why it’s hard for him to get Welsh lamb despite it being on his doorstep.

I’m not a heavy eater and small dishes is how I like to do things. I remember driving back from Birmingham with my partner around the time we were considering the menu for [Heaneys], and we stopped at The Hardwick in Abergavenny for some food. We ordered every single starter and I realised that that was what I wanted for Heaneys – a menu made up of small plates.

Cardiff is a little behind when compared to, say, the London or Bristol food scenes but it’s coming along. We did quite a lot of research in Bristol actually – it’s brilliant. It’s obviously really important to see and explore what other chefs are doing elsewhere – but never to copy. Sometimes, a dish might trigger an idea in your head and it could be something completely separate to the dish in front of you.

Our tasting menu at Heaneys is designed to be shared. Sure, we do have people who announce that they don’t want to share, but we have a number of different menus and structures in place to give people as much choice as possible. Tasting, eating, snacking, vegan options – we want to cater to all.

One of our most popular dishes is our homemade sourdough bread with Marmite butter. People just love it. Our BBQ lamb with sea vegetables and anchovy mayonnaise is also a hit, but I’m already trying to take it off.

I really just don’t get attached to dishes or have favourites. There are some I really like, but then I can get bored of them and want to change. Like with our hake dish with cauliflower, cider beurre noisette and herring roe. It’s great but I might want to go with a cod dish soon.

Even though it’s right round the corner, Welsh lamb is so much more expensive than ‘British’ lamb and it’s frustrating. The demand for it is so high. There are actually checks being made on the authenticity of restaurants’ Welsh lamb by governing bodies.

Just because an ingredient is expensive doesn’t mean it’s the best. Take the hake, for example. A nice piece of hake, cooked well, is just as good as turbot. Fish is always on my menu – I love it – and we always have either a cured or raw option. Right now it’s cured monkfish with an elderflower ajo blanco, with an elderflower vinegar that we made last year, muscat grapes, olive oil and almond slices for texture.

It might be a bit controversial, but I would consider foraging to be almost a fad. Everyone wants to do it because it’s such a popular concept, but you can only really do it, I think, if you’re actually around food to forage. Doesn’t it defeat the point if you have to travel to forage? It’s got to be local. If you’re in the sticks then you might well be surrounded by potential ingredients. But it’s hard to do in the city – there’s not much where we are, apart from wild garlic, which is just everywhere. Although, we are very happy with our bay tree in the garden. We use the leaves to make our own bay leaf oil, which currently goes on our grilled mackerel dish with dashi and lardo.

I’d also say that showing off is a bit of a fad in the chef world. Things like foams, gels and spheres do have their place, but they aren’t the only way to go if you want to wow the customer. As I said with making sure your food and restaurant sync up, if you’re going to do foams then your restaurant has to speak it. It has to be the right kind of place. We have herbs and flowers on dishes if they add something to it, not just for frills. Also, not knowing when to stop is a mistake that chefs constantly make.

I turned down Great British Menu twice before I said yes. They kept offering it to me when I just didn’t have the time. But the third time they came calling I thought that if I didn’t do it then, I probably never would. It was an amazing experience – almost like a kitchen stage as I was working with some amazing chefs and learning so much.

I met Ollie Dabbous while staging at Dabbous years ago and he really helped me with opening Heaneys. We became friends when I was there and he gave me loads of information on how he opened the restaurant. There’s so much to consider when opening up your own place, way beyond the kitchen, and I was so grateful that I had people to give me advice.

Knowing and forging relationships with suppliers is key when having your own business. And having a menu that not only syncs up with what you’re trying to do but also matches the personality of the dining room and of the restaurant as a whole. I wouldn’t say Heaneys is fine dining, in terms of the food or the feel of the place. We want people to relax and simply enjoy good food and wine and to have flexibility.

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