Winner for Queensland chef of the year 2023, Tom Hitchcock shares with us his worst day ever, how he was first inspired working by Peter Kuruvita and developed an early love of fermenting ingredients.
The Spirit House Head Chef is keen to continue coming up with new creations, Tom Hitchcock has come a long way in his career and is making his mark in the culinary world. He is Head Chef at Spirit House, in North Queensland, where they conjure up modern twists on south-east Asian food.
Tom began working at Spirit House in May 2018 as a Chef de Partie and, before that, a Chef de Partie at Ricky’s in Noosa.
He moved to the Spirit because one of his past mentors, Aaron Tucker, became the head chef and asked Tom to help him build up the restaurant. As Tom already had an interest in Asian fermenting, he saw it as a good opportunity.
Tom ended up working alongside Aaron for the next 2.5 years, working his way to Sous Chef. Building a solid reputation, Tom was later approached by Cameron Mathews about a pop-up restaurant for his Sous Chef, offering fine dining at the venue, Wasabi, in Noosa. The pop-up restaurant, Winstone, had a longer-than-expected lifespan of 5 months, before Tom then joined Cameron’s restaurant, The Long Apron.
A year later and Tom was headhunted again, by his previous mentor, Aaron Tucker, inviting him to take on the head chef role at the Spirit House. It was a no-brainer for Tom.
Tom started his journey at the age of 14 working as a kitchen hand at a bowls club in Weipa, North Queensland, working his way into roles assisting with the larder and pizza section.
“The chefs used to give us pizza to take home and I was amazed at how the flavours and ingredients were mounted onto the thin pizza bases,” he recalls.
“At my young age then, more was always better in my opinion!”
Tom’s next big step in his career was working at the Noosa Bach House for Peter Kuravita, where he learned about fermenting foods. After finding out that certain everyday products are fermented, it inspired Tom to make his own at home. This sparked an ongoing interest. Suddenly, Tom began to question what other foods from his local grocery store had been fermented and how they were created. Whether it was cheese, chocolate, yoghurt, sourdough or vinegar.
He started making some of these foods from scratch to teach himself and discover how ingredients work together, affecting the flavour, texture, smell, sight – even sounds!
In Tom’s view, apprentice chefs are generally completely unaware of the wider world and how much there is to learn about flavours, techniques and presentation. But, rather than get overwhelmed by how much there is to learn, he loves the never-ending cycle of learning that goes with cooking, which keeps him interested in his profession.
“Everyone needs to eat food,” he says. “It’s always being a passion of mine from a young age to have people eat my food is such a reward to me.”
Tom’s food philosophy centres around food education. He believes in educating people in different ways from what they’re eating, to how they cook and about kitchen culture. There are so many different ways of eating and cooking worldwide, and Tom believes that if you have an open mind and positive attitude, you can find inspiration in many ways.
“I’ll look at the skills of my chefs, what they can create together and what I can teach them, since we’re together most days, every day.
“Working for the needs of my chefs is the most sustainable way to keep moving forward in the industry,” says Tom. While still enabling his staff to have a work-life balance, Tom manages the daily operations by giving his staff enough to do so that they feel like they’ve achieved, without being overworked.
Tom’s last meal on Death Row would be brown butter and Kimchi fried rice, which he just loves.
Worst day in the kitchen
As many chefs know, a day doesn’t always go to plan, and Tom remembers such a time, braising beef short ribs in 2 home Electrolux ovens.
He started the day making soy sauce from some of the leftover egg whites so that they didn’t go to waste. The temperature spiked and ruined Tom’s egg white soy and Tom thought that someone had walked past and accidentally bumped into it or leaned on it. Tom had put the beef on a slow cook overnight. The next morning, he got into work and noticed the smell of burning. The oven had spiked overnight and cooked the beef dry. Black smoke was pouring out of the kitchen. What’s more, the smell of the smoke had stained the kitchen throughout, which Tom and his colleagues spent the next 2 days trying to clean up and get the smell out!
When Tom’s not at work, what’s his favourite food at home?
The weirdest combination he loves is a peanut butter and Vegemite wrap, which is his go-to snack. He places the peanut butter onto half the wrap and, for the second half adds a thin layer of vegemite, before folding them to make a semi-circle. At night, Tom sometimes replaces the vegemite with honey – this is in his thoughts for the beginnings of a new dish he would like to create, so watch this space!
The chefs Tom loves seeing at the moment includes ‘Ton’ Thitid Tassanakajohn, who has just won the number one spot out of the 50 best Asian restaurants. HIs restaurant, in the heart of Bangkok, Thailand, uses a lot of French techniques combined with traditional Thai. Tom has also been inspired by chef Rene Redzepi, who has just set up a pop-up restaurant in Japan, where Tom draws a lot of his ideas from.
On the fermenting side of food, Tom enjoys checking out Ben Devlin, who puts this technique at the centre of all of his dishes.
If he’s entertaining chefs, the top choices he would cook and share a rooftop satay bar with would be Marco Pierre White, Gordon Ramsay and Clare Smith. He’d be cooking satay over a coal pit with a range of dipping sauces and serving beer and whisky.
“Marco trained Gordon and Gordon trained Clare,” says Tom. “I’d love to hear about their stories and cooking throughout their generations, how they progressed and why they chose the path they chose.
Given the chance, Tom would like to be a fly on the wall at Peter Gilmore’s restaurant, Quay, or Clare Smith’s Core/On Core and this is because they work with such big teams.
“I’d love to see how both of these restaurants operate and how they produce the food they do.”
Final words of wisdom
Tom’s words of advice for anyone is to be natural, to be yourself and don’t try to imitate anyone else.
“If you like something enough and are good at it the people around you will start to see it and copy it. Imitation is the greatest form of flattery.”
This has paid off for Tom, with him winning his highest accolade so far.