Muddy meets Phil Thompson, Thompson St Albans
Phil Thompson grew up in Essex, and when he started working as a chef, he went straight to the top, working with Marco Pierre White and at some of London’s top restaurants. When he started working at Auberge du Lac in 2002 as a sous-chef with Jean-Christophe Novelli, he didn’t expect to become Head Chef at the age of 24. A Michelin star soon followed. Four years ago he felt it was time to open his own restaurant. At the end of last year, Phil garnered 3 AA Rosettes. I caught up with him during the holidays. Thompson St Albans opens again on Fri 12 Jan. On Weds 21 March, Phil is hosting a Drappier champagne evening with a tasting menu that sounds sublime.
What do you like about being a chef?
I don’t think I’ve ever woken up and thought that I don’t want to go to work! Yes, there have been hard days, but that’s why we do it; the challenge of pushing yourself to do better, to improve the guests dining experience, to learn when you are young and now to teach and pass on that knowledge to chefs in my team pushing them in the same way. I get to be creative, play, experiment or simply show someone a classic dish that makes me smile.
Can you describe the style of food and cooking at Thompson St Albans?
I try to deliver a menu using beautiful seasonal, local produce that’s full of flavour and tastes delicious.
I think the term fine dining scares some people. We do offer fine dining but it is genuinely warm, friendly and relaxed. We regularly have guests coming in the kitchen to say hi or thank you, and that means the world to us.
What made you want to become a chef (given the impossibly long hours?)
My family. I grew up in Dagenham, and my mum ran the canteens at Ford. My dad was a butcher. But above all, it was my uncle Mick. He had his own catering company and did weddings and christenings. When I was 13 and 14, my mates were out playing football and I was washing pots with my Uncle Mick. I learned so much for him. The key was that he made me taste everything he cooked. I suppose it was the adrenaline of working in the kitchen. You get this buzz, and I still get butterflies before a big service.
What’s the best thing about having your own restaurant?
The camaraderie. It’s not something you would necessarily be aware of as a guest, but it’s the best thing about being in the kitchen. We have a great brigade. I miss them when we shut down for 2 weeks in January and I look forward to going back to work. But don’t tell them I said that!
You believe in championing local food?
Absolutely. As much veg as possible comes from John, my father-in-law’s allotment. We don’t have straight carrots here. He’s even growing sorrel cress leaves for us in a polytunnel. It’s got the most amazing flavour that hits you with a kerpow! We also get a lot of veg from Sparshotts in St Albans. Our meat comes from Bridget B’s in Watton. I’ve recently discovered Carpenter’s Nursery in Sandridge, just down the road. I met them at the Herts Food and Drink Awards. I had no idea that they grow so many vegetables and I’m hoping to be able to buy some produce from them. We’re landlocked in Herts, so all of our fish comes from Cornwall.
Anything else we should know?
If you want to roll up your sleeves and get stuck in, you can join me for our Kitchen Experience. I think some people have been surprised by the amount of work we have to do. You arrive at 10am and work in the kitchen with me and the team until 1pm. People seem to love it. We’re not a shouty kitchen so there’s no need to be scared.
I’m so happy to now have 3 AA Rosettes but I always want to push myself more and more. We don’t want to do complicated food here. All I want is for people to enjoy themselves. And to come back.