He’s developed a string of award-winning fine dining combinations, now tom van zeller is marrying his cuisine with dance music. the chef explains all to Rod McPhee.
When the top Yorkshire chef returned to Leeds in 2005 after years spent cooking around the world, it served as a launchpad to establishing his eponymous restaurant in his home town of Harrogate.
Tom Van Zeller had spent most of his late teens and 20s working under legends like Raymond Blanc, Damien Hirst and Terence Conran, everywhere from London to Australia and New York City.
Now he’s coming back to the city once more, joining forces with top Leeds DJ Ralph Lawson for Beat, an evening of fine dining with some equally fine dance music serving as a soundtrack. The duo call it “a pop-up restaurant, loft party and rooftop bar”.
As exciting as it sounds, it also sounds unlikely...
“The best thing about Leeds is the fact that it is such a cosmopolitan, metropolitan happening city. Far more so than other cities in Yorkshire like Sheffield or York for example, it has a really great music scene and a good restaurant scene too.
The one thing that might surprise people is that I love house music - I’m a total product of the era I was brought up in. I listen to it in the car and in the kitchen at home when I am cooking.
“For me music and food are very similar in general. Whether it’s meat, veg and sauce, or bass, beat and riff, it’s all about putting together different elements in different ways to produce something special. That’s why Beat has come into being. Both Ralph and I appreciate each other’s craft and we want to deliver an event which is a little more sophisticated for a slightly older crowd. It’s also a way for me to get a foothold back in the Leeds market, but we’ll see how this event goes before making any firm plans to make it a regular fixture - but it’s something we’d definitely like to consider.
“I had a great childhood, growing up in Harrogate was pretty sheltered and pleasant. My parents didn’t have bucketloads of cash but we were always comfortable. We had a holiday every year and always ate good food. When I was in my teens we used to travel through to Leeds going to clubs like Back to Basics back in the early 90s. I used to go out with mates from Betty’s tea room in Harrogate - yes, it was a tea room, but we were still a group of young people who wanted to have good time.
“My first job was in Betty’s. It was a good grounding for working in the catering trade even though it was just an after-school job . The level of training you got there, and still get there, is really impressive. I still go in and I’ll hear people talking about tea as if it were fine wine, and I think that’s great. It’s still a really well-grounded business, and a family business too.
“The one thing I couldn’t live without would be my family. I’m 36 now, and they are simply my raison d’être. I work to make sure they are provided for and we have a nice home. I have always wanted to have a family. I’ve been married to my wife, Ruth, for five years and we have a daughter, Maria, who is three-and-a-quarter years old.
“To relax I spend time with my family usually. The last Sunday I had was perfect - Maria and I went swimming in the morning then we all went to The Mustard Pot in Chapel Allerton for a great Sunday lunch, then I watched a bit of TV – it’s sport usually.
If I could meet anyone I would love to meet the Ferrari team, particularly the president of Ferrari.
“My philosophy on life is to live every day to the full and take every good opportunity that comes your way. My grandfather was very much of the “everything in moderation” mindset and he lived to a ripe old age but in the end he suffered from dementia, which, in my mind, only serves to show we only have one shot at things and life is actually much shorter than we think.
That’s why I work six days a week, go to bed late and wake up early.
That’s what I put a lot of the success of the Van Zeller restaurant down to, as well.
“The last time I cried was probably when my daughter was born, though I probably shed a tear or two when I got home because I’m not the sort of bloke who shows his emotions publicly. In my mind it’s not for me to cry, it’s for me to be strong for my family, not to get emotional in situations where I need to keep it together.
I had lots of crushes as kid in primary school, but I actually met my wife when we were both teenagers at Harrogate Grammar School, though she was a couple of years younger than me and we never really spoke. Despite that, I can still vividly recall the day I saw her wearing her school uniform, standing on a street corner in Harrogate chatting to her mates.
“The best advice I ever received probably came from when I worked with chef Tom Aikens at Pied à Terre in London and it was simply: fresh is always best.
Always use the freshest ingredients you can find and make up anything as fresh as possible - sometimes make up two or three new batches of food every day, that way it will always look and taste as good as it possibly can.”
* Beat takes place at Munro House, Duke Street, Leeds on March 23. The bar opens at 7pm and dinner is served at 8pm. The loft party takes place from 10pm until 2am. Tickets are £30. Loft party entry only is £10.
Visit: www.residentadvisor.net or www.ticketarena.co.uk/events