food + drink people

Interview: Chef Tom Brown

From a humble kitchen hand growing up in Cornwall to a Michelin-starred chef, Tom Brown has made quite a splash in East London. After the successful run of his seafood restaurant, Cornerstone in Hackney Wick, Tom opened the glorious Pearly Queen in Shoreditch – we chat to Tom about his journey, challenges and his dream drinking buddy…

Chef Tom Brown
© Photo: James Crisp

Do you remember the first dish that you cooked? 

The first dish I ever cooked was fish, believe it or not. We used to go fishing with my dad a lot when we were kids, and I remember us catching mackerel in Cornwall. Then bringing them home and filleting, prepping and cooking them with my dad.

Did you originally plan cooking as a career?

No never, my family on my dad’s side were all in medicine and so I’d always wanted to do that. I got a little Sunday job working in a local kitchen and one day, when they were short on staff they asked me to help out some more. I just loved the buzz of of working in a kitchen and thought it was amazing.

When did your love of food start and why did you decide to become a chef?

To be honest, mostly from being in kitchens. I wouldn’t say I was big on food when I was young. Being from Cornwall, I used to love making pasties and bits with mum, but I think my real love of food has grown as the level of kitchen I’ve worked at has also grown.

What kinds of challenges did you face establishing yourself as a chef and how did you overcome those challenges? 

I actually don’t think I’ve had it as hard as a lot of people. I know that many have horror stories about how they grew up working in restaurants. I think with me, I was sort of conditioned to believe that kitchens needed to be shouty, and they need to be hard etc. I worked under a chef in Falmouth who was not a particularly nice guy and a bit of a bully. He then moved to work under Paul Ripley and fortunately took me with him, but Paul eventually fired the guy because of his behaviour. Paul then took me to one side and told me that he was going to keep me on, and explained how he didn’t agree with how my former boss treated people. It was a real eye-opener for me and I think a good lesson – it set a good example for me going forward.

What chef most influenced your style of cooking? 

My time with Nathan Outlaw was huge for me. He’s an unbelievable cook and an unbelievable human being. He’s everything I aspire to be in a chef, even now. We’ve obviously got a lot of cross-over of recipes through all of our time spent together. The biggest thing I remember him saying is that the worst comment anyone can say when they leave your restaurant, is that the food was bland or didn’t taste of anything. So for me, I’d rather someone walk away and say it’s too much rather than say that it didn’t taste of anything.

What’s something on your culinary bucket list you’d like to accomplish?

I don’t know, I think I’m very lucky that I get to travel around the world, and whenever I go to places there’s food that I want to eat and taste. For example I went to Rome and had a Cacio e pepe. I’ve been to Hong Kong and eaten XO. Wherever there’s local cuisine or produce – that’s what I like to enjoy. I’d actually really love to go to Iceland and taste the proper king crab. That stuff is important to me.

Pearly Queen chef Tom Brown

What do you most love about your job?

I think the instant gratification. I love making food and seeing how happy it makes people. To this day, watching people enjoy my food is still the biggest buzz I get from what I do.

What would you order from the menu at Cornerstone and Pearly Queen?

I’m not joking when I say… everything! I’m really happy with the entire menu, I think it’s really good. If I had to narrow it down and just order a couple of dishes – from Pearly Queen I’d definitely order the Buffalo Oysters. I can’t imagine how many of those I’ve eaten in the time we’ve been open. Then from Cornerstone, I think the O.G. pickled oysters that we do are unreal. The Bream Tartar is amazing as well.

What do you love most about the East London food scene?

I love the diversity and the creativity, but also the simplicity. I think you look at some places in East London that are well-renowned, like Lyles, BRAT, Behind, even Cornerstone, and I think it shows that there’s a real simplicity and reverence for produce that is so there in East London, which you don’t necessarily see in other places.

What advice would you give someone who wants to become a chef?

Just ask loads and loads of questions. The more you know about why you do things in a kitchen, the better chef you’ll be. It’s no good thinking for example, you should season like this or fish gets cooked in a particular way. Question why do you do that, what’s the point in it…? From there I think you can look to do things better and improve. Always be passionate about what you do. 

What is your favourite thing to cook at home?

I hate cooking at home, I never do it. Although the one thing that I’m unparalleled at is Yorkshire Puddings – so if I do cook at home I’m on Yorkshires duty. 

What could we normally expect to find in your refrigerator?

Not a lot, I am terrible! I just get Deliveroo or buy things and cook them straight away. I’d probably have beer, mayonnaise and cheese in my fridge. Which says a lot about me as a person.

© Photo: Nicky Acketts

Name the 3 kitchen tools you can’t do without?

A sharp knife, a knife sharpener and a good spoon. I hate trying to do things with a spoon that isn’t shaped right. Every chef knows that there’s certain spoons for certain jobs, so I’d say a good spoon.

Do you have a guilty pleasure food?

Hellmann’s Mayonnaise – I like an equal amount of Hellman’s to whatever I have it with, which is basically everything. 

Can you share any clever tips for home cooking?

So, if you’re cooking a big piece of fish at home, cod or hake, any type of fish really – the easiest way to know whether it’s cooked or not, is to get the back of a spoon and gently put it through and in between any of the flakes of the fish. If it goes through, it means it’s cooked. If you feel any resistance it means the fish isn’t cooked.

Person you’d most like to find seated next to you at the bar?

I would probably say Anthony Bourdain, one of the greatest chefs of our time – not necessarily for his cooking, but for his nuances as a person. Just one of the most beautiful souls to have graced this earth. If not him, I think Spanish football manager Mikel Arteta, but I don’t think I’d get a lot out of Arteta, he keeps his cards very close to his chest.

Restaurant you’d fly or drive to tomorrow, anywhere in the world?

St Peter in Sydney – owned by world-renowned pioneer of sustainable seafood, chef Josh Niland. Josh is obviously an absolute genius with fish. We look up to him a lot at the restaurant. So yeah, it would be there, but Sydney’s a long way.

Favourite foodie film? 

Probably The Menu, it’s so funny watching it as a chef and seeing all of those different characters. I love seeing the caricatures of those types of diners, because they’re so prevalent in restaurants all day, every day.

Guinness and oysters Pearly Queen
© Photo: Charlie Mackay

Favourite tipple?

Anything with whiskey. Cocktail-wise it’s an old fashioned, but my usual drink would be a beer and a whiskey. Or I do feel like I like a little Guinness now and then – a Guinness and Jameson’s let’s say. I’ve become a bit of a Guinness snob now, because I work with Paddy, who’s Irish, at Pearly Queen, and we use all Irish oysters. 

If you could cook and eat a meal with any person, dead or alive, who would you choose?

Probably again, Anthony Bourdain – as long as he picked where we ate because he’s a legend. If not him then I’d have to say Arsene Wenger because I’d love to chat about his years managing Arsenal.

What do you like to do to relax when you’re not cooking?

I wish I knew, I don’t think I really know how to relax, I’m forever looking at things to do with the restaurant. However, I do have a little bit of boxing training which is really good for me. And obviously I go to watch the football, Arsenal – in case you haven’t noticed, but I don’t know how relaxing that actually is.

Do you have any favourite local bars and restaurants? 

From Pearly Queen we all love going to the Discount Suit Company – and The Culpeper is a brilliant pub. 




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