What was the foundation of your cooking experience and what influenced you as a chef?
“My main influences as a chef started at a very young age when I was cooking at home with my mum and my grandparents. We’d always have sharing platters around the table, and my mum gave me my own allotment to grow my own vegetables in, and I would always have to milk the goats each morning before school which was a serious chore. It taught me a lot about where our food comes from.”
“My inspiration to become a professional chef came from working with a friend and colleague called Ben Hodges.”
“He invited me to work with him at the music festivals, so we toured around with this roaming restaurant serving organic food made from scratch. 18 years on, I still believe that was some of the best food I’ve ever cooked”.
When did you first start cooking professionally?
“I’ve been cooking professionally for 18 years. My first serious job started at a restaurant in Bristol, and through default I became head chef within six months. At 21 it was quite a crazy experience, and a really fast learning curve! I learnt some really strong skills that I still have today like preparation/mise en place and how to delegate to a team.”
“It is rare to become a head chef so quickly, but I have a really strong drive to learn. I approached my seniors with a real honest and keen interest in what they had to teach me, and they realised that I could step up and take that role on board.”
How did you come to own your first restaurant?
“After starting a serious job and becoming a head chef, I decided to take some time off to travel. I spent a year in Central America where I worked in an Argentinian grill, and I learnt about grilling meat and how to properly manage a barbeque.”
“On my return, after doing festivals for so long with Ben, I decided to open up my own festival café, Poco Loco. That ran for a number of years and began to run itself. At that point I realised it was time to expand, so we opened our own restaurant Poco in Bristol, which was seven years ago.”
Were there any financial challenges you faced when setting up your first restaurant?
“The festival café was set up on a shoestring budget – I saved and scraped together £15,000. It meant building everything ourselves, and doing everything from scratch. It was very scary owning my first business at 24, as it was a big step for me. In the first year we made all the money back that I’d put in which gave us all confidence to move it all forward.”
“I managed to create more of my own savings through running several businesses, but I didn’t want to take on a huge loan. I invited two partners, Ben and Jen to help me set up the restaurant. We all put in an equal amount of money, and again built the restaurant up on a shoestring with all of the skills we’d learnt over the years, and it worked. Miraculously we set up a restaurant on less than £50,000. A further seven years on we decided to open a restaurant in London. This was a much bigger step. We again created a lot of savings through running the restaurant. We paid ourselves a very low wage for a long time, and we managed to save enough to match an investment from a bank and we opened Poco Broadway.”
What’s your secret to running multiple successful businesses?
“I’m based in London, and my time is split between my various businesses -the festival café, the restaurants, the wedding business and food writing, so I keep myself at a more senior manager level so I can work remotely on them. The restaurant co-owners, Ben and Jen, are key to the success of Poco. Having co-owners on the ground that really care about everything that happens is essential.”
What advice would you give to anyone considering starting their own restaurant business?
“If you’re interested in starting your own restaurant or catering company, I would recommend beginning with events because you can start on a really small budget. You can sell your services before you deliver them. For example, if we do a wedding we take an enquiry, design a menu then invoice for payment. We receive that payment before the event, and we therefore have a budget to run the event. Just ensure that you set yourself up well to keep your customers and clients happy. You can start small - do a dinner party for 10 people, then work your way up from there.”
How do you come up with fresh ideas for menus at Poco?
“I look at what’s in season and gain inspiration for what I might want to cook using those ingredients.”
“I find as a seasonal chef there’s a lot more diversity of ingredients out there throughout the year than people realise – even in winter! There are endless ingredients like celeriac, kohlrabi, cauliflower and if you get a little bit creative, you can come up with amazing and original dishes.”
What does being an Eco-Chef entail?
“An eco-chef is a chef that puts the ethical procurement of their ingredients first. It’s prioritising the sustainability of your actions in the kitchen. So zero waste ‘root-to-fruit eating’ as I call it. Making sure that you value all food, cook with thrift, recycle, compost any leftovers and make sure that where your ingredients come from has had a positive impact on the environment where it was produced.”
“Seasonality cuts a lot of waste. Buying produce that’s meant to grow at that particular time of year means it’s grown by the sun instead of using electricity.”
What’s next for Tom Hunt?
“Nowadays, what I really enjoy is writing about food and the food system. I learn about it through writing. I’m able to develop my own ideas and philosophy, and improve the vision and concept of the restaurant and the businesses. So for me, my next steps are focussing on the next book and, sustainably developing my businesses and restaurants at their own pace.”
Lovely to talk with you, Tom. Good luck with the businesses!!
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Money Means is a news and information series written by independent financial and consumer journalists and experts. FSCS launched Money Means in 2016 to help give people clear and useful information about personal finance, to increase their understanding and confidence when dealing with money.