Meet Chef Tom – Interview with Invisible Kitchen Executive Chef Tom Burney
1. To start off, Tom please can you let me know a little bit about yourself: Where are you from? How long have you been living in Hong Kong? Do you have any passions or interest outside of cuisine?
I have lived in Hong Kong for six years, and I moved here with my wife who grew up in Hong Kong. I am originally from Manchester, in the UK, but I actually started my cooking career in France at the age of 18.
After four years in France, I moved back to England where I gained experience in some of the top restaurants in the world. I wanted to own a catering company that would allow me to bring the quality and experience from those restaurants into people’s homes. Food is a central part of people’s lives, and it is nice to share the joy of good quality food in someone’s home.
In the limited time I spend outside of the kitchen, I, of course, love to eat and sample the delights of the many restaurants in Hong Kong. I love to travel, and I love snowboarding, but it’s something I do less of as I get older. I also like to be out and about enjoying the many hiking trails with my dogs.
2. What inspired you to be a chef? Where did you start your career?
I started my path to becoming a chef in a very casual manner with part time jobs in kitchens as a youngster. However, my real passion started after being in the kitchen and working alongside some inspiring chefs. I liked the discipline of a kitchen and the sense of achievement after a busy service. It is a truly creative job that allows you to make people happy. I also enjoy the constant challenges that are presented and the satisfaction of solving problems and pushing yourself.
3. How did you come to start Invisible Kitchen? In your eyes, what makes Invisible Kitchen so special? What makes it different from others?
I started Invisible Kitchen catering after working as a private chef in Hong Kong for a couple of years with my private chef company, ‘Hong Kong Personal Chef’, which still regularly looks after private dinner parties across Hong Kong. I had developed a number of clients who would ask me to cook for their special occasions/events. I realized there was a demand for a catering company that could deliver great quality food with a focus on taste and high-quality ingredients that were simply prepared by passionate chefs. In the past, catering had a slightly negative connotation with being second-rate compared to the food you could have in restaurants. As kitchen techniques have developed, it has allowed catering to result in high quality, well-produced food that can be delivered pretty much anywhere.
Invisible Kitchen only employs professionally trained chefs who care and are passionate about food. Our chefs enjoy spending their spare time researching and developing new flavours and dishes that can be designed for catering. We make everything in-house, from making our own stocks, to mincing our own meat, to dehydrating our own fruits, to smoking our own fish. This ensures the quality is high and flavours are great. Our packages are put together to ensure they include everything customers need so that they can focus on their guests and enjoying themselves, knowing every other little detail has been taken care of.
4. Who are Invisible Kitchen’s customers?
We have many private customers who come back to Invisible Kitchen year after year so we can help them celebrate their special occasions such as birthdays, anniversaries, children’s parties and such like. We also help people cater for casual parties, whether that involves cocktails at home or a picnic to share.
We also have a lot of corporate clients who want to make sure their staff are eating good quality, wholesome food or to impress their visiting clients. We have also helped cater for a number of sporting groups located in HK or visiting.
Essentially, our clients cover anyone who is looking for high quality, tasty food.
5. What do you think makes Hong Kong such a unique culinary hub?
I believe it is the strong local dishes and tastes that have developed with history, mixed with international influences. Having had different overseas influences throughout history; Hong Kong has attracted a diverse variety of cuisine types to cater to the local and international tastes. Local people are open to trying new cuisines, so the choices here are enormous.
Add to that the amount of top international businesses here and you get an equally enviable array of top-end fine dining offerings.
6. For people who order your catering service, do you have any advice for them?
Look at the packages we have to offer. We are experienced in organizing catered events and have designed our packages to take care of everything you need. There are often little things that can be easily forgotten when planning a party or event and our packages are designed to make your experience effortless. There is no need to worry about a bar tray or the number of platters you might need. Leave that to us.
Also, share with us as much information as you can, tell us what you like and how you imagine your event to be. That will give us the platform to best match your dream, as it ensures we are on the same page regarding style, budget and atmosphere.
7. What factors are most important in making excellent cuisine?
Firstly, well-sourced, quality, ingredients. Good cooking is about simplicity, messing with ingredients’ natural flavor as little as possible, and working with nature to create amazing tastes. For example, when we make a tomato soup, we don’t add water or stock to the vegetable, we just use the natural liquid from within a tomato. We boost that natural flavor with organic tomato powder, which we make by dehydrating organic, local tomatoes and powdering them, to give a really strong clean tomato flavor. Dehydrating and using powders may seem like a complicated way to make soup, but it is the most natural way to make a tasty tomato soup. Our chefs have the skills and knowledge to utilize modern cooking techniques to really focus on keeping things simple.
You also need care and attention to the small details. For example, you need plenty of seasoning and plenty of tasting and developing the dishes until they can be made perfect every time. Our whole team at Invisible Kitchen taste and test our products to ensure the quality and standards of our food. We only use sea salt for seasoning. The offers a better flavor because of the rich variety of natural minerals, and it is healthier because less salt is required, so less sodium intake.
We use three types of oil for cooking. Firstly, we use clarified butter and coconut oil for higher temperature cooking, and then olive oil for lower temperatures. Clarified butter and coconut oil, which are solid at lower temperatures, are the healthiest fats to use for cooking, and also enhance the natural flavor of the ingredient. We then use olive oil for lower temp cooking, which also has great health benefits but becomes harmful for high-temperature cooking.
8. What is your favorite thing to eat? And what is your favorite thing to cook?
I like something with bold complimenting flavors and contrasting textures. This could be a Thai salad with salty fish sauce, fiery chili, juicy prawns, zingy lime juice, crunchy bean sprouts and peanuts or the Classic French dish of confit duck leg with fall-apart succulent meat, crispy skin, creamy garlic and thyme dauphinoise potato, crunchy fresh green beans, and a rich red wine jus.
I also like good quality, well-cooked steak. An excellent quality steak needs little doing to it, apart from basic seasoning and a chef who knows what to do with it. I like it to be cooked rare, which can be quite difficult getting it cooked the way you like in a restaurant. I will often cook myself a simple steak at home on the BBQ with a simple salad and sweetcorn on the cob on the side.
My favorite things to ‘cook’ are either classic dishes done well, such as a Caesar salad, or a dish that is almost soul-warming, such as a Beef Bourguignon or a Moroccan lamb tagine.
I’ll give you an insight into my idea of a Caesar salad. It’s one that you would be lucky to get once if you ordered Caesar salad from 100 different restaurants.
I begin with a perfectly balanced dressing blending anchovy, Parmesan and garlic with rich mayonnaise and lemon juice. There is then the croutons, which have been sautéed in butter then cooked at a low temperature with garlic and herbs. Add the crunchy centre-most leaves of a young romaine lettuce heart (the older ones become greener and less crunchy) and thick-sliced unsmoked streaky bacon confit (slow-cooked in own fat), freshly shaved parmesan cheese topped with a well-sourced, hormone-free chicken breast which has been seared in clarified butter (for flavor and visual appearance) then oven cooked to perfection (centre to just 63C), so it’s perfectly juicy. It’s possible to cook chicken sous-vide/ slow-cook in a water bath, but for me this is not best suited to chicken; I like the variety of textures high-temperature oven-cooked chicken creates.
When it comes to the classics such as a Beef Bourguignon or a Moroccan lamb tagine, I like them to be cooked with the level of attention to detail that was described for the Caesar salad, after all, perfection is just a series of small things done very well. There is an almost magical alchemy-like quality to some dishes that I often think of when making chicken or beef stock. Taking elementary base ingredients such as bones, water, vegetables, a few herbs and pepper, and making something so complex and satisfying that is far, far more than a sum of it’s parts. Such as the jus we produce for some of our meat dinner party dishes.
Come to think of it, making stock is my favorite.
9. Do you think sourcing the top ingredients is important for cooking the gourmet food? How does Invisible Kitchen usually source ingredients in Hong Kong?
Absolutely, if you do not have good quality ingredients, then you cannot produce food of a high standard. Top ingredients do not always mean the most expensive ingredients, except when it comes to meat.
The ingredients are the building blocks of cooking; everything starts with the ingredients. If you use lower quality ingredients they will have less flavor, then you either will have bland food or you will use loads of artificial but cheap ingredients to enhance the flavor… think chicken ‘powder’, msg, salt & sugar rich flavor-enhancers!
By good quality, we simply mean ‘fresh’ and ‘well-sourced’. Fresh means it has not taken a long time from harvesting/farming/slaughter/catching/picking/killing to being cooked, and that it has been stored correctly on the way, at the right temperature, not thrown around, etc.
By ‘well-sourced’ we mean the method it has been grown, caught or raised in is managed in such a way that takes into account the nutritional qualities of the ingredient, and treated in a way that boosts the natural flavor and health of the product, which in turn means our health. For example, you have battery farmed chickens that get no exercise or sunlight and are pumped full of antibiotics, growth hormones, and cheap feed when alive, and they are killed at a young age then pumped full of a salt solution after death. This will not result in the same ingredient that an outdoor-reared chicken allowed to grow at a natural pace will.
Tomatoes that are grown organically and locally may take a day or two to travel from being picked at the peak of natural goodness to being served on a plate, bursting with tomato flavor, antioxidants, and vitamins. A tomato currently on the supermarket shelf is still not ripe because it was deliberately picked more than two weeks before its best so it will give the shop a long time to transport it, store in their distribution warehouses, and then sit on their shelf for a long time and increase the profit margin overall. When you cook it, it tastes of nothing.
At its most basic, it means looking for fresh looking produce. Pick it up and feel it: Is it soft? Should it be soft? Is it hard? Should it be? Is it bruised? Is it unevenly colored? This is a sign it ripened on a shelf, not on a plant.
10. What do you find most rewarding about your job as Executive Chef at Invisible Kitchen?
The years spent finding a great team of chefs who are passionate about what they do and so hungry to learn.
I’ve spent 20 years working hard and seeking out innovative kitchens to work in and making sure I learn from great chefs on my journey of culinary education. To be in a position where I can influence chefs who are at the beginning of their careers is the most rewarding thing.
Many people will be able to relate to this; passing on something you know will have true value is one of the most fulfilling things. Everyone will still need their own variety of experiences to draw their lessons from, but I’m so grateful to the first head chef I had who really wanted to teach me that it is an honor to be in that position. It’s then up to them individually what they deem to be the most relevant to them, and in ten year’s time, they’ll be passing on culinary wisdom and insights to their own young chefs.
You may be surprised that I didn’t say that leaving an event with happy customers who have eaten the best meal of their lives was the most rewarding but, to be honest, that is the bar. I set my own bar such that I’m disappointed if that doesn’t happen.
11. What are the greatest challenges that Invisible Kitchen has ahead in 2016?
It’s been two years since we launched Invisible Kitchen and like any new business, we started out with a clear idea of where we wanted to go and what we wanted to be. Things change as you go along and learn from your experiences and your customers; you find out what works for you, your market and your customers, then you adjust your plans and goals in light of your newfound knowledge.
I am very clear on what Invisible Kitchen is and what we do. I have a clear understanding of what we can and can’t do, and of how we are going to develop and mature as a company.
The challenge is for us to continue to grow without losing focus on the small things and the quest for perfection that makes Invisible Kitchen unique. The challenge is for my chefs to experiment and innovate even more and never accept ‘good enough’ (‘good enough’ is not good enough), and for our customer service team to become more obsessive about making sure every detail is perfect.
It’s all too easy to just keep on doing what you’re doing, but I’ve always believed in continually making things better, and that’s my biggest challenge for 2016, for my team and me to make things better.