Chef profile - Tom Lawson, chef patron of Rafters Restaurant

Tom was born in Pontefract and brought up in Sheffield. He started his career with an apprenticeship through Sheffield College, working at Michelin bib gourmand pub the Druid Inn in Derbyshire.
Tom Lawson has been preparing Rafters at Home dinner parties while the restaurant is closed.Tom Lawson has been preparing Rafters at Home dinner parties while the restaurant is closed.
Tom Lawson has been preparing Rafters at Home dinner parties while the restaurant is closed.

From there, he joined the team at Rowleys in Baslow, which is where he met his future business partner Alistair Myers. Then at the age of 22, Tom bought Rafters, one of Sheffield’s most iconic restaurants, with Alistair.

In the last seven years it has been awarded 2 AA rosettes every year and has featured in both the Michelin Guide and the Waitrose Good Food Guide.

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He describes his style as season-led: “I’ve got a kitchen garden just up the road on my in-law’s smallholding. It started out as a bit of a hobby – my granddad was a keen gardener so he taught me a lot – so I built some raised beds, and now we grow almost all our own leaves, herbs and edible flowers. We’ve got fruit too – and 36 chickens means we never have to buy eggs.”

Rafters is one of Sheffield's top restaurants.Rafters is one of Sheffield's top restaurants.
Rafters is one of Sheffield's top restaurants.

In 2020 they expanded their horizons by taking the Riverside House Hotel, in Ashford-in-the-water in Derbyshire’s Peak District. With business partners John and Alex Hill, Tom and Alistair have big plans for this boutique 14-bedroom country hotel when the pandemic allows.

What’s the first thing you remember cooking? Spag bol. I used to love it as a kid and it is still my go- to meal now. Some good quality mince, tinned tomatoes and plenty of time to let it do its thing.

Who is your culinary inspiration? My grandma. It’s a cliché I know, but my signature dish – Cauliflower Cheese “not like Grandma B’s” – is inspired by her. We always used to go to her house every other Sunday for lunch. She would always wait for me to get there to make the cheese sauce. I think these were the seeds that were sown to forge my path to becoming a chef.

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Who would be at your dream dinner party? My dad – he can literally talk to anyone and would get the conversations going – Heston Blumenthal and Gordon Ramsay. I went to their three Michelin starred restaurants with my dad for my 18th & 19th birthdays respectively. I would also invite the late godfather of French cookery, Paul Bocuse, and Diego Masciaga, general manager of the Waterside Inn in Bray. I have never felt more at home and comfortable in a restaurant as I did there.

What piece of kit could you not live without? A good set of weighing scales.

What’s the ingredient you couldn’t do without? Salt. It makes the biggest difference in cooking. Next time you cook some kale or asparagus, finish it with a little sea salt flakes and a squeeze of lemon juice right at the end once you have drained it and taste the difference.

Which is the first recipe book you owned? It was a health foods book my mum bought me when I was about 13. I used to cook lots of recipes from it and they are still marked out with scraps of paper. Now I own over 500 cookbooks.

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What are your guilty food pleasures? Pot Noodles. I’ve loved them since school. We used to sneak out at lunch to the local corner shop where they would sell them with a can of pop for a quid. They would also fill them with boiling water.

How are you handling Covid-19 restrictions? It was heartbreaking for us to close the restaurant back in March last year. Since then we have taken the bull by the horns. We launched our Rafters at Home dinner parties, a weekly changing three-course menu. We fully prepare every element so it requires minimal cooking and post out a “how to” video via our social media platforms. It’s proved hugely popular with our guests and we’ve managed to continue offering Rafters hospitality in the comfort of your own home. The last lockdown was devastating for our hotel opening. After a two month-long refurbishment we managed to open for just three days. Once restrictions allow, we are looking forward to welcoming guests to the Peak District.