Master Chef Tom Catherall of TC Brands: 5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Became a Chef
No one will cook for you. It’s true, people never offer to cook for me. My wife did once while we were dating. She made chicken and dumplings and in her haste, the salt shaker top came loose and…it was inedible. But she tried. (I haven’t eaten chicken and dumplings since)
As part of our series about the lessons from influential ‘TasteMakers’, I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Certified Master Chef Tom Catherall. He has been called one of the defining and influential forces of the Atlanta restaurant scene for over three decades.
His legacy can be measured by the impact he has had on chefs in Atlanta and around the country — many who credit him as being their “inspiration” for becoming a chef. Catherall, a certified master chef-one of only 67 in the country- has called Atlanta home since 1982 and Watercolor/Santa Rosa Beach home since 2008.
Catherall’s Here to Serve Restaurants group was the successful hospitality umbrella for 12 unique restaurant concepts, from steak, seafood and sushi to Spanish tapas, with 15 locations in the Atlanta area, which he operated from 1996 until he sold the group in October 2014. That same year he opened FlyBurger with partner Herman J. Russel of Concessions International.
After a brief retirement, Catherall re-entered the restaurant scene in February 2016 opening Taco Cowboy in the Virginia Highlands neighborhood. That same year, Catherall’s entrepreneurial spirit inspired him to establish TC Brands, a popular, innovative Atlanta hospitality company that established the chef’s reputation as a pace setter among the area’s restaurateurs. Now Catherall is bringing his unique touch to his second home in the Santa Rosa Beach community on 30A with LOLA COASTAL ITALIAN in Seacrest Beach, Florida. www.cheftomcatherall.com
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to ‘get to know’ you a bit. Can you share with our readers a story about what inspired you to become a restauranteur or chef?
That’s a funny story. Growing up in Newcastle, which is northeast of England, I wanted to be a motor mechanic but my mother would have none of it. She signed me up to be a chef apprentice. It was a four year program and I worked with some of the best European chefs. 50 some years later, I’m still cooking.
Do you have a specific type of food that you focus on? What was it that first drew you to cooking that type of food? Can you share a story about that with us?
Anything fresh. I have never cooked a frozen fish in my life. If you want good meat, you go to a butcher. It’s what I thought everyone did until I came to the states. That’s where I saw my first ‘meat in a box.’ I was not impressed.
Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that happened to you since you became a chef or restauranteur? What was the lesson or take away you took out of that story?
I once threw a couple out of my restaurant Azalea in Atlanta. They were on a date and kept sending their food back. At first I was accommodating, asking them what they would like instead. But they continued to send their entrees back. I knew the food was good. So I asked them to leave. I won’t tell you the exact words I used. Another time the police chef came to Azalea and asked for spicy seafood. It wasn’t on the menu but I used the ingredients I had on hand and Hot Chilli Seafood was born. It became an extremely popular item. The lesson learned was, when a customer asks for something, anything, I will do my best to make it happen.
Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey? How did you overcome this obstacle?
During my apprenticeship, working 40–50 hours a week, I made very little money. I was young but couldn’t afford to do anything. So I didn’t get into any trouble and the training was invaluable. It taught me everything I needed to know about cooking and I realized that one day I wouldn’t be working for someone else, I would be working for myself.
In your experience, what is the key to creating a dish that customers are crazy about?
I always say, “The answer is yes, what is the question?” Meaning, if a customer wants something different, something off the beaten path, I will prepare it. I was the first chef in America to put sushi and steak on the same menu. Now everyone does it.
Personally, what is the ‘perfect meal for you’?
A perfect meal for me would be at home, with my wife Lisa, on our patio. She would be drinking champagne and I would drink Chardonnay. I would serve chilled crab, oysters and maybe shrimp. Simple but perfect.
Where does your inspiration for creating come from? Is there something that you turn to for a daily creativity boost?
Whatever is fresh gets me excited. I call my fish guy daily to find out what he has. What inspires me are the cooking shows I’ve been watching on Netflix. I’m inspired to recreate what I’ve seen. It drives my wife crazy.
Are you working on any new or exciting projects now? What impact do you think this will have?
As a restaurateur and chef, I am always looking for a way to make things easier on myself and my staff. I’ve implemented a new app called SkilletWorks. Being able to streamline food and beverage inventories will go a long way towards freeing up my managers so they concentrate on the customers and not on paperwork. The technology is amazing.
What advice would you give to other chefs or restauranteurs to thrive and avoid burnout?
Don’t take yourself too seriously. I once prepared a meal for Princess Diana and Prince Charles at the Polo Club in Palm Beach. I treated them like all of my customers, with great service and respect. Never take a customer for granted.
Thank you for all that. Now we are ready for the main question of the interview. What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me When I First Started as a Restauranteur or Chef” and why? Please share a story or an example for each.
- Don’t do it. It’s not an easy life and it’s hard to maintain relationships. I’ve missed a lot of family events because I am always working.
- No one will cook for you. It’s true, people never offer to cook for me. My wife did once while we were dating. She made chicken and dumplings and in her haste, the salt shaker top came loose and…it was inedible. But she tried. (I haven’t eaten chicken and dumplings since)
- Relationships are hard. Ask any chef today, the work is difficult. And there are lots of women who gather at the bar area. When you are a handsome chef…trouble is inevitable.
- Expand your menu. I believe you need to travel to be a good chef. You need to see know other countries are cooking. It’s important to immerse yourself in another culture to better understand the significance of the cooking and make that perfect delectable dish.
- Don’t watch too many cooking shows. (don’t tell Emeril, he’s a good friend) After watching a food show claiming the best lobster rolls were made at the Clam Shack in Kennebunkport, Maine, I booked tickets to find out for myself. It was an impulsive trip but you know what. They were right. The lobster rolls were the best.
What’s the one dish people have to try if they visit your establishment?
Come to Lola, try the pizza. Everything is fresh. We make the dough with Italian flour, all the toppings are fresh. If you don’t like pizza, tell me what you want, and I’ll make it for you,
You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
Nutrition starts at home. Since the pandemic, most of us have been cooking more than ever at home. My hope is that we learn to forgo processed foods and make good choices like buying fresh fruits and vegetables. Visit local farmer’s markets and butcher shops. Let’s get America cooking healthy. If you look back to the 50’s and 60’s people ate a lot of TV dinners and canned foods. They had no idea what arugula was. I’m happy to say younger consumers today eat with a sustainable focus.