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Restaurant industry News interviews Tom Heywood, Chef Owner of Pignut restaurant in Helmsley, North Yorkshire

  1. Can you tell us about your journey from growing up in Church Fenton to becoming the chef-owner of Pignut restaurant in Helmsley?

My first food memory is picking damsons and blackberries down the road from where we lived. We used to bring them back and make blackberry and damson pies. I started working in the local pub when I was 14, just doing pot washing. I had no idea what I wanted to do after school, so that was a bit of pocket money and something to do while I was trying to think of what I wanted to do. My dad’s a chef and I used to go into the restaurant which was in Leeds, when I was really young, and I used to love it.

As soon as I left school, I went to York catering college and when I finished, I moved down to Cambridge. I worked down there at Midsummer House for a little bit, then came back up to York to work.

I did a little bit of travelling, I went to different parts of Asia eating in different restaurants, I went to a couple of cookery schools when I was out there as well, just to see some things that they did – you can see that influence in some of the dishes on the menu at Pignut.

When I came back, I went to work for Chris Archer at Cottage in the Wood and at the time he only had two rosettes, but he’s since won a Michelin star – he was really good. I worked up there for a couple of years, came back down to York, and worked at The Pheasant Hotel in Harome with Pete Neville. I took a bit of time off, decided to do a bit of agency work while I was looking for a head chef job. It was a nightmare getting a job, everyone was saying I was too young to be a head chef and they wanted more experience – The Rattle Owl gave me a chance and I was there for four years before I opened Pignut with my partner, Laurissa.

I’ve come full circle, Helmsley where the restaurant is based, is near where I grew up in Church Fenton. It was a small village, but it had three pubs for some reason! But there was just nothing there and I just wanted to get out of there when I was young. Now I’ve realised I like being a part of a small community, I’ve never really been a big city person.

  1. What inspired your interest in sustainable practices within the restaurant industry, and how do you incorporate this ethos into your restaurant, Pignut?

I was introduced to foraging by Pete (Neville) and I got really into it – the more you go out, the more you learn and if it’s done in the right way it can enhance any menu. Then I went to eat at Dan Barber’s Blue Hill and everything about the experience blew my mind.

Ever since then my goal has been to follow that ethos of what he does. We don’t have a farm, but we have got a network of farmers that we can go to and work with very closely. They can sometimes say to us ‘I’ve got tons of this, can you come take it off me’, it helps them, and it means it’s not just being thrown in the bin or in the compost bin. Sometimes I’ve got no idea what to do with it so it can be a challenge but it’s fun.

Sustainability flows through all aspects of the restaurant and we want to keep ingredients as close to the restaurant as possible. We still forage and Laurissa has been known to find foraging spots while out on her horse. We use Sustainable Wine Solutions, they pick up empty glass bottles and refill them, and we use Refood for our food waste which recycles the waste into bioenergy. We recycle all plastic and cardboard, there’s no single use plastic and the tables in the restaurant are made from old pub tables which have been upcycled.

  1. You’ve worked in several notable kitchens, including Michelin-starred establishments. How have these experiences shaped your approach to cooking and running a restaurant?

I’ve worked in a lot of restaurants where they’re not necessarily thinking about using the whole ingredient. There is a lot of wastage in some top restaurants, and you sort of wonder why that is? I realised you have to use the best ingredients, which I do, but the best ingredients local to me rather than trying to source it miles away. I think a lot of places have shown me that you don’t need do too much to quality ingredients, don’t try too hard.

In terms of managing a team, my own experience has taught me you can’t do anything without them, they are important, and they should be supported and looked after. That’s why we’re doing a four-day week, we don’t want to overwork anybody because it’ll just show in the service. Communication between the kitchen and front of house is also key for both teams but also for the customer experience. If we’re not communicating properly and we’re not trying our best with each other, then it’ll also show in the service.  as well. We don’t expect the team to do anything we wouldn’t do, when you have your own business, you have to do every role where you are needed – Laurissa was doing pot wash last night at the end of the night and I help wipe tables down or hoover. We just have to muck in, do whatever’s required and there are no egos.

  1. Pignut has already achieved significant recognition, including two Rosettes and mentions in the Michelin Guide. What do you attribute to the success of your restaurant in such a short time?

I think past recognition has helped, we worked really hard in our last job and here we’ve been able to build on that and we’ve implemented what we really wanted to do, in terms of sustainability and working practises. Being able to do that without any restrictions, I think we’re just really happy. When you’re really happy with something, I think it shows when people come and eat or see it online. It’s not a job to us, it’s something that we just really love doing, and I think that really does translate when people come and eat here.

  1. Can you describe the concept behind ‘Wastage,’ and how it reflects your commitment to sustainability and innovation in dining?

The reason why we use the word wastage is that it’s quite an ugly word. It’s the first thing you sit down and eat so you have this negative thought of it straight away. So many people are so surprised by it, and it is probably most people’s favourite course. Just because it appears ugly doesn’t mean we can’t serve something really tasty. It sort of changes your idea of it almost straight away. We want it to make an impact instantly.

We don’t have food waste here, and although the products in the dish are considered ‘waste products’, we want to show that they are tasty, and it surprises people.

  1. Sustainability is a key focus for Pignut, from sourcing ingredients locally to using sustainable wine solutions. How do you ensure that sustainability permeates every aspect of your restaurant’s operations?

Every time a new dish goes on, my first thought is what can we use for it? What have the suppliers got right now? Because I can’t just sit down and write any menu I want. I’ve got to look at what they have and then I decide from that point. The food can’t be more sustainable if we don’t have it, we can’t use it and we don’t get anything else.

It can be restrictive and the same for the front of house. All of the wines are biodynamic, organic, and Laurissa’s always trying to source some smaller vineyards which have a smaller impact on the environment. And every time we buy something, we’re not necessarily looking to go buy brand new, we’re looking to try and find it local and reused. We go to charity shops; we use natural décor – there’s a lot of rocks in the restaurant at the moment!

We do our own recycling, and we collect the vegetables in reusable plastic crates or in recyclable plastic bags and then we give the bags back.

In terms of the building, we’re restricted by the confines of it so we can’t actually do too much to it, but what we can do, we do. It can be a nightmare putting sustainable practises in place but it’s worth it.

  1. Pignut’s interior design, including the tables made from upcycled materials, reflects a commitment to sustainability. How important is environmental consciousness in your restaurant’s aesthetic choices?

It’s massively important. My dad made the bar with old wood, the shelves, we made them from old scaffolding boards. We’ve decorated the shelves by displaying our preserves and all our dry store. We’re doing more preserved stuff now so people when they come in, they can see the new things that might be on the menu later on.

We use a lot of dried flowers; we like to dry our own and use them in the vases over the winter rather than buying fresh plants. Now we’ve got a lot of foraged plants in the vases. It shows the restaurant changing through the seasons as well as we change them, which is quite interesting. Our plates and bowls are all handmade by potters in York – they use recycled clay or wastage clay from other sources and we’re working with somebody who is looking at using what’s called naturally occurring clay from the North Yorkshire Moors. She’s never used it before but she’s trying it out and we would love to have that in the restaurant.

  1. As supporters of Helmsley Walled Garden, how does your partnership with the charity influence your menu and sourcing practices?

We give a monthly donation to the Horticultural Therapeutic charity which is based at Helmsley Walled Garden which is run entirely by volunteers with the focus of using gardening to improve mental health and wellbeing.

It’s two minutes from my house and it’s five minutes from the restaurant, so in the morning I can go and ask the growers what they want me to use. It’s great for us, we can go pick it ourselves, there’s no air miles in it, there’s no carbon footprint – we take little bits so they can still use it themselves but it helps them so they have less wastage, they have quite a big plot and they can’t really use it all.

The garden has a special maze, and you take your shoes and socks off and walk around it. Apparently walking bare foot is really good for your mind!

It’s a good place for us as a restaurant, people will ask what we are doing, and we can point them in the direction of Pignut. And we send a lot of people there as well – when they’re eating the produce, and they ask where we get it from, we say the walled garden, but you wouldn’t always find it yourself.

We promote them and they promote us, it feels like a real community. It’s something we want to continue in the future, bringing suppliers and customers together to use and celebrate the amazing ingredients we have on our doorstep.

  1. Looking ahead, what are your future aspirations for Pignut, both in terms of culinary innovation and sustainability initiatives?

The ultimate goal is to have something where the produce is out the back of the restaurant, and we bring it forward and we serve it.

When I went to Blue Hill it wasn’t just a meal, it was an education – they didn’t just say ‘this is what we do, and you have to accept it’. It was ‘this is what we do and here’s why we do it’ and then they showed you.

I suppose what we’d like to do is not just be a restaurant where you come and eat, but a restaurant where you can come and maybe learn something, or you can see something you haven’t seen before.

We’d like to do some foraging courses for customers where we take them out with us one day and show them some bits and give them knowledge so they can use that for themselves. I’d also like to age my own meat but that would only be able to happen is we moved somewhere with more space; we just don’t have the space here.

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