As a boy living in rural Scotland, farmer’s son Thomas Helyer was more interested in his neighbours’ carrots and potatoes than school. The classroom failed to tame his energetic nature, its teachers to cater for his severe dyslexia, and a bored, frustrated Helyer found himself asking for trouble at every turn.
Chatting from the kitchens of Kinnaird Estate in Perthshire, just weeks after winning the Chaine des Rotisseurs Young Commis Chef of the Year award, a 20-year old Helyer told Becky Paskin how he ditched the chalkboard for the chopping block, and turned his life around.
“I found that cooking was the only class that settled me at school, and the only one I didn’t get into trouble in,” he said. “I realised I quite enjoyed it and my passion for food grew from there.”
At the age of 16, Helyer secured a part-time job at local gastropub The Drovers, working alongside just two other chefs on the sweets and starters section, but as soon as his GCSE’s were over, Helyer left to pursue his now flaming passion.
“Everything at The Drovers was freshly made, which was really good for me to start off with, but I wanted to develop myself. I could have gone to catering college at that point but it never appealed to me. Because I’m dyslexic I thought it would be too hard.”
“There’s something about being in the kitchen with food that really channels my energy and helps me focus. This is my career now, my life, and if I want something, I'll achieve it” - Thomas Helyer.
Despite having less than a year’s catering experience, Helyer was offered a commis chef position at the two-rosetted Kinloch House Hotel in Blairgowrie, where he found kitchen life a lot tougher than at the local gastropub.
“I found it a big shock to begin with because everything had to be perfect, but I had a very good head chef, Andy May, and he just kept encouraging me and pushing me. I’m left handed, so it’s hard enough to teach me at the best of times, but they kept pushing me along. I got all the training I needed from the chefs there – watching a person cook something is much more beneficial than someone talking about it.”
After a year at Kinloch House, Helyer decided to ‘widen his horizons’ and moved onto the busier, three-rosetted Balathie House Hotel in Kinclaven, again as a commis chef. The increased standards meant Helyer was busy catering for weddings and functions, and learning how to cook for large numbers of people. But before long he moved to the hotel’s sister site, Balathie Country Kitchen, a small country restaurant where Helyer was able to hone his knowledge of ingredients, as well as make use of his father’s position in the farming community.
“Because my dads a farmer I know a lot of the farming community around Angus and Perthshire, which means I can easily get a bag of potatoes or leafy asparagus fresh off the field, often with mates rates. I’m really into supporting local farmers, and it’s so nice to work with such fresh and amazing ingredients.”
La vie en France?
Although he had built a solid reputation with farmers in the area, Helyer believed that to develop his skills as a chef he would need to leave Scotland at some point. With a view to travel and ultimately take a placement in France, Helyer embarked upon a day release course at Perth College to attain the qualifications that would make him more employable abroad.
“Although I thoroughly enjoyed college, there wasn’t a day I woke up and hated it, I found it quite frustrating because I had to stay at the same pace as the class. My dyslexia was a bit of a problem too, but I found college were willing to help me a lot. I’m open with what I am with my dyslexia; I don’t make an excuse of it. I see myself as a normal student and I will push myself, but as soon as I find something difficult I’ll just say. It didn’t hold me back in any way, I wouldn’t let it.”
But Helyer’s plan to travel took a backseat as his the chance to work alongside the 2009 Scottish Head Chef of the Year, Jean-Baptiste Bady at the three AA-Rosette Kinnaird Estate in Dunkeld was one he wasn’t prepared to pass up.
“It’s been really fantastic working alongside Jean and seeing some of his ideas. He’s just a young chef himself and it’s inspirational to see that I could be at his level if I stick with him and watch him. Jean’s a very good role model, though he might be a bit hard sometimes, but he’s fair and will always explain why I did something wrong and how the dish didn’t work.
“His support was also amazing during my Chaine des Rotisseures competition, and he even came down to London for the final to cheer me on.”
Going for gold
In June this year, Helyer was named the Chaine des Rotisseurs Young Commis Chef of the Year at a live cook-off at Le Cordon Bleu cookery School in London. Judged by the Hilton on Park Lane’s executive chef Anthony Marshall, The Langham hotel’s head chef Andrew Turner and the two Antons, Mossimann and Edelmann, Helyer beat four other contestants aged under 27 to the prestigious title, and a place in the international final held in New York in October.
“It was my first competition,” he gloated. “I fancied testing myself and decided to really go for it. I’d come into work in the morning and Jean would put a mystery basket in my section and give me three hours to see what I could come up with. I fancied the challenge and to see if I could actually do it and I guess the hard work paid off.”
To prepare him in good stead to represent the UK at the finals in October, Helyer plans to take a couple of stages at the Anton’s kitchens in September, as well as receive more training from his mentor, Bady. The once troublesome schoolboy has left his mischief in the classroom and brought nothing but ambition and skill with him into the kitchen.
With a future plan to attain Michelin level experience (and finally move up from a commis chef position, one he has so far held for four years), Helyer is doing all he can to succeed as a chef. He channels his excess energy into sport, which he fits in between split shifts and days off, continues to work toward building better relationships with the local farming community, is an enthusiastic ambassador for fresh, local and seasonal food, and at just 20 years old is determined to become the World’s Young Commis Chef of the Year.
“There’s something about being in the kitchen with food that really channels my energy and helps me focus,” he said. “I’ve grown up a lot since I was a schoolboy when I just wanted to look good, but now this is my career, my life. I have to knuckle down and make a living out of this. I have a lot of ambition; I want to go somewhere, and if I see something and aim for something, I will achieve it.”