What’s cooking? Tom Bennetts, The Driftwood Spars, St Agnes
In this Muddy regular, our favourite chefs spill all about their work, lives and top tips. Dishing it this week: Tom Bennetts, head chef at The Driftwood Spars.
With Cornwall’s many talented chefs stuck at home with time on their hands, we’ve been picking their brains for some top tips; stand by your chopping boards for local produce inspiration and home cooking hacks!
As St Agnes has been named the best place to live in Cornwall in our Best Places to Live vote, we’ve been speaking to some of the brilliant businesses that make this village on Cornwall’s north coast such a great place to live.
As you head down from the village itself towards the beach you’ll find The Driftwood Spars pub, where head chef Tom Bennetts tells us why you should never turn your nose up at pub food (as if we ever would!) and why he loves leftovers…
Your first job in a kitchen?
I worked at Sally’s Restaurant in St Agnes when I was still at school – I’d come home, change out of my school uniform, put on my chef whites and go straight to work! I wasn’t particularly academic but I was really motivated and I knew from a young age that I wanted a job in the food industry.
Butchery was the family trade and that was a really good grounding for becoming a chef. I perfected my knife skills early on, and also learnt the importance of provenance first-hand. Using meat from local farms, and making use of every part efficiently, is one of the cornerstones of my approach to cooking.
What is your career highlight?
I was really proud to make it to the semi-finals of the South West Chef Of The Year in 2018. About 500 chefs submitted their ideas but mine was one of those picked; we went to the Michael Caines Academy at Exeter College and I battled it out, narrowly missing out on a place in the final.
How would you sum up your food philosophy?
At The Driftwood Spars we cook tasty, unfussy food, executed with love and care. It’s British garden food which follows the seasons and is inspired by the coast and countryside. The flavours are fresh and clean and we use as much local produce as we can pack in!
I love working with Lou (Louise Treseder, Landlady of The Driftwood Spars, above) and we have a great team in place ready for what I’m sure will be a busy return to work. Although I trained in fine dining I’m really enjoying cooking great quality pub food; it’s rustic, hearty and unpretentious – food designed for pure enjoyment after a long walk or surf. Also the whole team get involved with coming up with ideas for our daily specials – this is where we get to be creative and really showcase the freshest, finest seasonal produce. The pub has its own microbrewery so we use a lot of beer in our cooking; in everything from steaming bowls of mussels to sticky cakes, it’s a really versatile addition to lots of dishes.
Most memorable moment at work?
A stand-out moment occurred when I was Head Chef at the Rose in Vale. I had already gained two AA Rosettes and the inspectors suggested that I go for three. You have to be nominated to try and attain your third so that was quite an achievement, especially as I had a whole new team in the kitchen at the time and we’d just launched a new menu – definitely a confidence boost!
Ever cooked for anyone famous?
Yes, I worked at Rick Stein’s for a while so as you can imagine plenty of famous people came through the doors. In fact in every place I’ve worked celebrities have visiting at times, I think it’s par for the course in Cornwall to be honest. But, I’d always treat everyone the same and also respect their privacy – most famous people wish they weren’t instantly recognisable when they’re on holiday!
You’re tired, starving and impatient: what do you cook for dinner?
The short answer is, I don’t! When I come home from work the last thing I feel like doing is cooking, so I just have leftovers from whatever the family has eaten. It’s not always glamourous, but honestly if you’ve been cooking for 12hrs I think anything tastes great when you haven’t made it yourself!
What would you cook to impress a date?
For Valentines Day my wife requested duck, which is something we both love. I’ll probably cook pan-fried duck breast with dauphinoise potatoes, duck jus and some seasonal veg. Then for dessert I’m going to make chocolate fondants with salted caramel – because everyone loves chocolate! We don’t eat rich and extravagant meals like this very often but it’s nice to make an effort on a special occasion.
I wanted to go for someone local, so I’ve gone for a friend of mine who’s cooking and approach I really admire – Bruce Rennie at The Shore in Penzance. What he can make from one or two ingredients is incredible, and he generally cooks by himself which is astonishing considering the complexity and precision he achieves. Everyone should experience his food at least once!
I like Tom Kerridge, The Hand and Flowers Cookbook, because it shows how great pub food can be. At The Driftwood Spars we cook pub classics (like Fish & Chips, Burgers etc) but done really well using the finest ingredients. We also take things up a gear with those daily specials I mentioned earlier, using the freshest seafood caught in the cove for example, and this is where we try to emulate the kind of food Tom Kerridge is so admired for.
Favourite type of cuisine?
Like most chefs I’m quite experimental when it comes to food and cooking. We have so many influences and sources of inspiration these days – from cooking shows to cookbooks, and Instagram of course – that I wouldn’t want to pigeonhole myself!
Favourite local hotspots?
For a special night out my wife and I would go to The Shore in Penzance (above) to enjoy Cornwall’s finest seafood. For family time we’d probably head to The Mariners in Rock, Paul Ainsworth’s pub, for great pub food in a relaxed atmosphere.
Favourite local markets and suppliers?
At The Driftwood Spars our ethos is to use local suppliers and the best ingredients – so even in the simplest of dishes the quality, flavour and goodness shines through. One of my school friends, Adam, lands seafood in Trevaunance Cove so that always goes straight on the specials board.
But, for the public looking to source great ingredients I’d recommend Truro Farmer’s Market where you’ll find everything from fresh organic veg, Cornish-grown chillies and mushrooms to local honey, handmade chocolate and spice rubs – as well as beer from The Driftwood Spars Brewery!
Favourite things to eat when you’re on holiday?
I would always try local specialities, especially seafood if we were by the coast. But we also tend to eat simple uncomplicated food when we’re away with the kids – pizza is a firm favourite!
Favourite ingredient and why?
As I mentioned before, we love eating duck as a treat. Always purchased from The Cornish Duck Company of course! The ducks are reared naturally, have lots of space and spend plenty of time roaming free outdoors. They grow slowly and as a result the texture and flavour is excellent, plus food miles are minimal.
Loads of us are really bored of our own cooking right now – any advice?
There are plenty of great concepts to try, many of which have been launched in response to lockdown. For example, you can get meal kits sent to your door and then join live cooking sessions with famous chefs. Some great local businesses are doing pop-ups with delicious food ready for collection, and many restaurants have switched to takeaway. Also, if you’ve run out of ideas for your homecooked meals have a look at your favourite chefs on Instagram, you’re bound to come across some new ideas!
The Driftwood Spars will reopen again as soon as restrictions allow. Tables can be booked online here.