Tom Brockbank has a passion for producing quality ethically conscious dishes, revelling in local and seasonal produce and ensuring minimal food wastage. Tom has worked in London at Pollen Street Social and here, at No. 8 and Estelle. He is now running the beautifully renovated George on Collins and he will have you at the 12-hour lamb shoulder, aged for 14 days then slow-cooked and served with bacon and petits pois.
Hi Tom. We won’t start chronologically, but instead start with you coming to Melbourne fairly recently, about four years ago.
Yes 2012, the 27th December.
That’s very specific.
Yes, I remember it well. I landed in Sydney on the 28th. The main reason I went there first was to see Sydney at New Year. For us in the UK, it’s the best New Year’s Eve in the world. It’s something I had to go and do. So I did that and then I spent some time finding out about Sydney and Melbourne. I remember walking out onto the street at first and thinking, oh, this is meant to be my new home now. I’d only bought a one-way ticket so it was a bit daunting.
I had some work booked in Melbourne for the Australian Open. I knew a Head Chef here and so scored some work through the back door and I worked for two weeks in the tennis. It was more about getting my hand in the pie, speaking to people and networking. I hit the ground running and it unfolded from there really.
You’ve worked in a lot of fine dining places. Is that your preference in terms of cooking style?
I’ve stripped it back over time, especially in the last four years in Melbourne. I’ve learned that it doesn’t always have to be high end. Even though my background is Pollen Street Social on Mayfair and then No. 8 at Crown. I went from the tennis to Crown and then to Etihad when I was looking after the private members’ club. It has been a learning journey. John Lawson at No. 8 was all about simple good flavours done very elegantly on the plate. It was still very high end.
When I went to the private members’ club it was more about what I could do and embracing that. I was overseeing three places there. When I arrived, everything was brought in and that’s not my philosophy. I turned it around in the three years I was there and we made everything on site apart from the bread and the ice cream. It became a bigger process to manage. There was an à la carte restaurant there that I tried to nurture and push a little bit further and have my own No. 8 as such. I was able to express myself there and experiment.
I took a position with the Estelle group as Head Chef under Scott Pickett. My hours doubled two-fold and it was like going back to the London days. Scott is very passionate and driven and I’d like to be where he is one day. He has built the businesses from what he had and pushed and pushed. Now he has hats at Estelle and Saint Crispin and he has Domain Road and Pickett’s Deli. He works hard and it really proves that you can get there but it takes a lot of passion and drive and you need support behind you as well.
You were talking about your philosophy being to do everything from scratch and not to have things brought in. When did you develop that approach?
Probably in my London days. It gets driven into you.
You had that passion from early on then and wanted to take it as far as you could. Do you have to have that passion and creativity from the start or can you grow it, do you think?
I think you can grow personally. I’ll give you the perfect example. I wanted to be a barrister, a lawyer. My dad was a policeman in Scotland Yard and that was where I wanted to be. I dropped out of that in my final year in law school because I didn’t get the grades and I would have had to repeat the year. I decided I couldn’t do it; I couldn’t sit behind a desk. I’m a fidgety person and I need something to play with and get on with. I was 19 or 20 and I thought, right, I like cars, so I went along to a car dealership and I was there for two weeks and I thought no, that wasn’t what I wanted to do.
In my head, you get to 20 and you have to decide where you’re going because you’re becoming an adult. I’ve always been someone that wants to do more. Even though it sounds bad, my parents have always said, “you’re never going to achieve anything, you’re only going to get to a certain level. That drove me to do more to make them proud, to develop and grow and mature. The leap to Australia with a one-way ticket meant that I had to be driven. It’s also about luck; being in the right place at the right time, networking and talking, I’m a bit of a chatter.
I think the chef life can grow on people but I think you have to want it as well. If you’re not fully into it then I don’t think you’ll get there. We do 18 hours plus a day, morning to night, and it’s hard. We want to give all these people a wonderful experience when they come in to dine regardless of how long we have been working. If you have the right mindset then you’ll get there.
I’ve heard other chefs say you have to cook what the public want and you can’t cook entirely for yourself because chefs tend to have a more experimental or developed palate. What’s the balance?
The George is a perfect example. We have five menus and we want to meet all sorts of needs and we have to make sure that doesn’t get out of control. Most businesses fail in the first six months and if you try and grab hold of everything, it can get out of hand. It’s important to understand your identity and make sure you stick to that. Eventually people will grow around you, and as long as you educate people about what you’re doing, it will work. If you keep the food simple, seasonal, what people know, it will work and then you can make it a bit more complicated and bring in experience from elsewhere and make it a bit more about yourself, or a bit more personal.
In Melbourne they have certain staples they like and certain dishes they like so as soon as you put up something that’s a little bit out of the ordinary, you’ve really got to market it. Melburnians do really take to new ideas, whether that’s breakfast or brunch or some crazy milkshake, they run with it and then there’s queues; the best croissant or the best loaf of bread. You have to back yourself and know what you’re doing is great and then everyone else follows.
Where do you get your ideas and then how do you distil those to put together a first menu that will hook people in?
I try and pull in inspiration from other people. I looked at the heritage of the place and menus from restaurants and hotels and gastro pubs around here and then looking at the key staples people like.
I didn’t want to put on a toasted sandwich so I thought about what we could do instead and we put on our own Reuben. We make our own pastrami and even though it takes two weeks to make, it’s really tasty and hopefully that sets us above other people. It’s good sauerkraut and good cornichons and a Russian sauce to go with it. It’s pretty simple but if you put all that love in from the beginning, you get a great product.
Food doesn’t have to be complicated. You can let the flavours speak for themselves when you use good local, seasonal products.
The George on Collins
Basement, George’s Building
162–168 Collins St, Melbourne
Monday – Friday from 7am
Saturday – Sunday from 8am