Sustainable Chef Tom Burney Retraces The Path That Led Him To The Future Of Food
This month sees the launch of our exclusive collaboration with Hong Kong’s top sustainable chef, Tom Burney, as he hosts a series of private fine dining experiences at Banyan Workspace. Recently, I sat down with Tom to chart his rebellious journey from dreadlock-sporting snow-boarder to one of the city’s most in-demand private caterers.
For someone who has earned the moniker “Chef to the Stars”, Tom Burney has a decidedly un-Hollywood demeanor. Perhaps it’s the result of his Manchester upbringing, but one would never guess that he has prepared meals for such luminaries as Keanu Reeves, Kylie Minogue and Chris Hemsworth. “Ah, Chris Hemsworth,” he sighs when I bring up the name. “Yes, that name follows me about. Whenever there is an article about me or my food in the press, it always seems to be accompanied by a photograph of Chris Hemsworth!” Well, any excuse really, I manage to avoid saying out loud.
But since arriving in the city in 2010, it’s Tom’s own personal star that has been steadily ascending. Today, his passion for sustainability within the food industry has brought him to the forefront of the plant-based food revolution in Hong Kong’s fine dining scene, leading to his being named Foodie magazine’s 2019 “Food Hero”. Not bad for a guy who once got rejected from a kitchen job in McDonalds. “I was a student at Manchester University,” Tom laughs, “and McDonalds rejected me! But I got a job in the kitchen at Pizza Hut instead, so that was okay.”
Perhaps it’s this very unconventionality that led him on the road to where he is today. Instead of the catering school background one might expect, Tom’s skills seem entirely the result of hands-on experience, having been thrown in at the deep end of some of Europe’s top kitchens in his early 20s. Each winter, he would support his avid snowboarding habit by working in various French hotel kitchens. When the snow disappeared each spring, he would return to the UK and find another kitchen job. Gradually his twin passions of snowboarding and food began to swap in importance in his mind, and his natural talent saw him move up the ranks very quickly, being offered his first Head Chef position within just four years.
By this time, however, Tom had realised that he didn’t just want to feed people; he wanted to excel as a chef, creating top-quality dishes from the freshest ingredients at accessible prices. Thanks to his early years sourcing from and chatting to the Whitby fishermen hauling in their daily catch, he had already learned the importance of sustainable seafood and was dedicated to applying these principles to all his ingredients. He knew that in order to get where he wanted to be, he would have to expand his knowledge and train under the best chefs he could.
So he walked away from the well-paid Head Chef position and wrote application letters to the top ten best restaurants in Manchester in the hope that one of them would take him on. He struck lucky with Michelin-starred chef Paul Heathcote, who was looking to bring together a team of chefs to develop a new restaurant with the specific aim of becoming the first Michelin-starred restaurant in Manchester. Tom’s youthful enthusiasm and determination impressed him enough to include him in the team. Through Heathcote’s extensive contacts and training regimen, Tom was given the opportunity to work in some of the best restaurants in the UK, from “The Square” in London’s Mayfair to Heston Blumental’s renowned “The Fat Duck”.
“This was a hugely eye-opening period for me. Not only was I able to learn from some of the top chefs in the country, I became part of the Chefs Circle. This provided an incredibly nurturing community for new chefs coming through, coming together every month to visit suppliers, getting to know every stage of food’s journey between farm and table. It really encouraged me to be produce-driven, something I continue to focus on to this day.”
But just before the final stages of the launch, the financial recession hit and the Manchester restaurant plans collapsed. All the talent, training, knowledge and experience he had acquired was suddenly at risk of going to waste. With nothing to tie them down, Tom and his new wife made their decision to move to Hong Kong, the city where his wife had lived as a child and had always hankered to return to.
They finally made the move in 2010, and his wife soon settled into a teaching job at an international school. Working as a chef in a restaurant would have meant a schedule that was diametrically opposed to a teacher’s schedule, something that wasn’t acceptable to a young couple living far away from family and friends. Tom explored the idea of becoming a personal chef to supplement their income, but soon found it wasn’t a sustainable model in a city with high numbers of foreign domestic helpers. It was a frustrating period.
But fate intervened again, this time in the unexpected shape of Keanu Reeves. A few months after Tom’s arrival in Hong Kong, he was contacted by the actor’s representatives to provide him with all meals over a six-week period while he was filming in the city. The brief was highly specific; 5-6 meals a day, every day, with all menu plans to be cleared by his lifecoach and dieticians back in LA.
“There were a lot of Skype calls and specific rules, such as zero salt to be used in order to maintain figure and face-shape. It was a martial arts movie, a very high-energy role, so he had to eat like an athlete.” Was it a challenge? “Of course! But I had already been learning a lot about nutritionally-specific cooking, so it was a fantastic opportunity to put what I had learned into practice. And it taught me a lot about cooking without salt! Maybe if I hadn’t had that experience, I wouldn’t have learned to use herbs and spices in the same way.”
It must be presumed that Keanu was happy with his food, as Tom suddenly found himself targeted by other stars and their entourages visiting the city, including the photogenic Mr Hemsworth. This in turn led to requests for other high-end catering jobs, culminating in a commission catering for a private yacht trip from Hong Kong to Vietnam. The trip did not go as planned.
“It was the first time I had been on a private yacht, and it was a huge five-story thing complete with a jacuzzi on the roof. We left the Gold Coast marina in style, but the moment we got into the South China Sea we were swept up in a typhoon. I genuinely thought I was going to die and that no-one would ever find us. The engines kept stopping, the yacht constantly dipping under water and losing power. My cabin was under the water level for most of the time that night.”
Despite his fear, Tom was determined to do his job, come hell or high water (or, in this case, both). He somehow managed to continue to produce meals from a kitchen where the pans kept sliding off the counters, amazing both client and crew. On his return to Hong Kong, with the boundless optimism of a guy who had stared death in the face and lived to tell the tale, he decided it was time to launch his own company, “Hong Kong Personal Chef“.
Being his own boss gave Tom the opportunity to devote himself to the sustainable principles of food sourcing that he believed in. At the time, it was a tricky thing to maintain. “When you are setting up a new company and every penny counts, it’s hard to remain loyal to sustainability. It simply costs more. I tried sticking to my principles as much as I could, such as sourcing from organic farms. But there just wasn’t enough demand in the market. In order to stay in business, I had to find a balance. The decision to go 100% on sustainable packaging was a big step, as there are a lot of costs incurred with that. But eventually I came to the conclusion that making a determined effort to be truly sustainable would give me a competitive advantage.”
So has he seen an increased demand for sustainability over the past few years? “Absolutely! Five years ago, I didn’t have a single client asking me about the origins of the food or recyclable packaging. Then suddenly, around 2017/18, I don’t know what caused it but there was a big cultural shift towards environmental awareness. People are now willing to choose a sustainable food option over a non-sustainable option with a similar cost. People are taking the trouble to ask, to care. Sadly, most people are still unwilling to pay more for sustainable food, which means the higher sourcing costs have to be absorbed by the chef. Nevertheless, I’m confident that we are headed in the right direction.”
A few years ago, Tom published his “Green Policy”, and the document became influential in the local industry. He was invited to sit on several expert panels discussing sustainability in the food industry, such as Green Is The New Black’s “Conscious Festival” and Foodie magazine’s “Food’s Future” summit. Today, he is at the forefront of Hong Kong’s alternative protein movement and has a reputation for being one of the most creative chefs in this field.
“It’s not just a matter of replicating traditional dishes with new ingredients,” says Tom. “I love to explore ways of making things more fun, playing with people’s preconceived ideas of what they expect to taste. Canapés, in particular, are a fantastic way of introducing people to alternative proteins, because their small size makes them fun and appealing. People are more willing to commit to taking a bite-sized sample than they are to ordering an entire course. And they love to be tricked by illusion!”
It is this sense of fun coupled with his incredible passion for detail that has brought Tom such renown. His tomato salad, for example, isn’t just sliced tomatoes – it’s a long, laborious process of powdering, dehydrating, fermenting and smoking. His creations are all about finding that perfect combination of textures and flavours that makes your tastebuds explode.
Perhaps surprisingly, considering his passion for plant-based alternatives, Tom isn’t a vegetarian himself. But he believes that a plant-based diet represents the future of food. “I think it is inevitable that more people will turn away from meat and dairy products over the next few decades, as our environment deteriorates. As for the pandemic, of course it has been devastating for restaurants around the world, and Hong Kong is no exception. But once it passes, there will be a new wave of chefs moving in to replace the ones who have gone.”
Perhaps the pandemic is what the world needs right now to push us to make the changes to our food industry that the planet so desperately needs. In any case, Tom is determinedly focused on the future, and confident that he will see this unsettling period through. This month, he is launching a new private dining collaboration with Banyan Workspace, with a selection of signature menus firmly based on sustainability. “When I first heard about Banyan, I immediately knew there was a future for us collaborating. As a private chef, it can sometimes be a challenge to find venues in Hong Kong that are suitable for intimate groups of 8-14 people, which is what my dinners are aimed at. To have found a venue which fits this number and which has style and sustainability built into it from the design stage, it’s a perfect fit for me.”