Jamie Thomas’ recipe for pub food success

Jamie’s twenty two years in the food business spans a stellar career in London working with such notables as Fergus Henderson, Dan Evans and Rowley Leigh – the guys who really changed the London dining scene in the ’90s. Ten years ago Jamie made the move to Sydney and for the last few years has overseen the food side of business at the eclectic hotel group Drink N’ Dine

The Drink N’ Dine Group includes The Carrington, The Forresters, The Norfolk and The Abercrombie.

If you haven’t visited these hotels I can assure you they are different – quite different. Each venue has a unique food offering that would be a challenge for any Executive Chef. While The Carrington does have a traditional pub bistro, out back it’s a different story with a restaurant that as is Spanish as you can get for Surry Hills. The menu standouts are the Pinxtos (Basque translating to tapas) that include paella, curry goat empanadas and chipotle meatballs. The wine list compliments and is every bit ‘espanol’
The Norfolk is ‘hip LA meets Mexico’ and takes you on a serious heat ride with soft shell tacos, Mexican chorizo dogs, San Jose Choy Bow, Chilli Fries, jalapenos, and the like. Cool down with tequila cocktails if you’re game.
The Abercrombie, located close to universities and colleges has a menu that is purpose built for carb hungry uni students on a budget
It’s only when I get to The Forresters that I feel like I’m in familiar pub territory with the standard (but great) spread of pizza, burgers and rotisserie meats.

With such individuality in mind BISTRO sits down with Jamie to find out what it takes to be head food honcho of this eclectic hotel group.

BISTRO: What is your assessment of the current food offering in most of Sydney’s pubs

Jamie Thomas: I think the food offering in most Sydney pubs is ok to be honest. I reckon it’s a hell of a lot better than what’s happening in most English pubs at the moment which is a little heart breaking for me. I don’t travel to a lot of rural boozers so I can’t really comment on what happens out there but city wise we seem to do ok. A lot better than say ten years ago anyway.

BISTRO: When you came on board at Drink ‘n’ Dine as Executive Chef – what were your riding instructions (if any)

Jamie Thomas: I was already working for the group before I became Exec Chef. Having opened the Carrington with the boys my brief was just keep doing what you’re doing, have fun, take some risks make us money!!

BISTRO: Can a ‘non foodie’ hotel owner have pub that serves great food? Can you leave it all in the hands of a trusted pro?

Jamie Thomas: You certainly could but I don’t recommend any owner really leaving that side of things to any one person, the last thing you need as a business owner is to be held to ransom by some chef with a bad attitude and an over inflated ego. If you’re going to sell a product.any product do your homework so if it all goes tits up you’re not left in the ditch and you have some idea on how it all works.

BISTRO: Each hotel in the group has a totally different persona. Most hotel groups tend to be homogenous in terms of food offerings. How difficult is it to run kitchens whose menus are so individual

Jamie Thomas: Yeah it’s tricky and I guess we certainly do things the hard way but it’s the reason I’m here, couldn’t think of anything worse than walking into all my pubs and seeing the same things happening inside… Kind of my worst nightmare.

BISTRO: With menus that are so different can you still create ‘scale’ in terms of buying produce and delivering profitability?

Jamie Thomas: I do obviously have decent buying power in some things …crinkle cut chips for instance!! There is a backbone of products that run through all of the pubs, which help with costs, but most of it is just wheeling and dealing and keeping an eye on the markets. I’ve been using some of my suppliers for ten years. They have seen me grow and equally me them. It’s great that we have all been able to help each other out.

BISTRO: Are some of the restaurants more profitable than others? Can you explain why?

Jamie Thomas: Every single one of my kitchens runs at a different profit margin. The portions at the Abercrombie are twice the size and half the price to please the students, the Carrington uses some of the best products in Australia to produce its menu, the Norfolk sells 1000’s of $10 meals a week and Queenies uses stuff I import directly from Jamaica. I adjust the costs accordingly and every head chef has a target he has to work towards. All achievable but still very challenging.

BISTRO: Do you change menus to take advantage of seasonal produce?

Jamie Thomas: I change the menu to reflect the seasons for sure. It’s the only way to maximize your profit and when your margins are as tight as mine I have to do all I can to help. Plus food always taste better when it’s seasonal. We use our specials boards a lot to help this along too.

BISTRO: Does Australia grow good chilli peppers? Where do you get yours?

Jamie Thomas: I buy mine directly from markets say for my habanero hot sauce recipe and yes I think the chillies are great over here. I have a guy who plants padron peppers for me every year for the Carrington too which is cool.

BISTRO: Is it difficult to find good staff? Is it hard to keep them?

Jamie Thomas: Ha-ha yeah this is it. My main headache!! Staffing my pubs will always be difficult here as there just is t enough passionate chefs who want to cook good pub food, once I have them though it’s pretty easy to keep the good ones as there isn’t many chefs who step into one of my kitchens for the first time and doesn’t walk out with a smile on their face as we have fun at Drink ‘n’ Dine. We take our food seriously but we try not to take ourselves as serious as others seem too.

BISTRO: Have these cooking shows made it easier or harder to find good apprentices?

Jamie Thomas: It may have made it easier to find a chef but the reality of kitchen life isn’t pretty. The flaky ones generally don’t last too long anyway.

BISTRO: Much has been written about the evolution of the Australian pub food scene. As an observer I see it as slow progress. Would you agree? Why is it taking so long for many hotels to embrace the renaissance that you and few others are leading?

Jamie Thomas: It is happening but it is slow. I’m not too sure why, there just isn’t enough people with the right vision who are willing to take risks. I Guess, it’s all too easy to use the company’s that basically do all the work for you – crumb your schnitzels, cut your squid, package your desserts etc combine this with the easy money these guys take on pokies and it’s a business model that’s hard to step away from. What I do takes hard work and a lot of stress; I guess most people want to take the easy route.

BISTRO: Where do you see the pub restaurant scene heading over the next few years?

Jamie Thomas: I’m personally hoping that we keep growing and showing people that you can walk into any of our pubs and get a well priced, filling and fresh cooked meal away from poker machines and gambling in general. A pub should be a place to hang with mates, sort out the world problems, find a new wife for the night, eat some food and basically have a bloody good time. The more of these sacred places that pop up has to be a good thing even if it’s not me that’s heading it up.