Tom Kemble on swapping fine dining for a Neapolitan pizza van

By Joe Lutrario contact

- Last updated on GMT

The Pass chef Tom Kemble on his SOPI pizza van in West Sussex

Related tags: Ton Kemble, SOPI, Pizza, Ovens, Hedone, Fäviken, West sussex, Exclusive hotels, Fine dining, Chefs

The former Hedone, Fäviken and Bonhams chef has left The Pass restaurant near Horsham to launch high-reaching mobile pizzeria SOPI.

This is quite a change for you. How did SOPI come about?

I started making sourdough and playing around with a Gozney Roccbox (a portable pizza oven) when I was on furlough over the first lockdown. I just fell for it, I guess. It’s so simple yet so challenging to get exactly right. I did some pop-ups at my local pub in Cuckfield (near Haywards Heath in West Sussex) cooking on a couple of Roccboxs. That went well, so my wife Tessa and I decided to turn it into a proper business. 

Does that mean you’re no longer at The Pass?

That’s right. The restaurant has yet to re-open following the first lockdown. I continued working for the group (Exclusive Hotels) across a number of departments but the pizza project had taken off over lockdown so I decided to pursue that. The big appeal of a mobile pizza business is that it’s relatively low risk, especially as we can continue to trade during lockdown. It’s pretty much Covid-proof: we have a collection-only system with people ordering and pre-paying online.

Tell us about the van…

It arrived the other week. We looked at all sorts of different options but in the end I asked a company called Amobox to build me a prototype based on a builder’s van. What makes it different to most pizza van setups is that the pizza oven and counter is built into the vehicle, but I stand outside under a gazebo. The advantage of that is that I have a lot more space to move with my pizza peel than if I was working inside the van.

And what about the pizzas themselves?

I’m cooking on beechwood which creates this incredible sweet smell that you can taste in the pizza. The menu is quite short, and pizzas range from £8.50 to £12.50. Options include Napoletana (San Marzano tomatoes, Ortiz anchovies, burrata and oregano); and New Yorker (spicy pepperoni, candied jalapeños, San Marzano tomatoes and fior di latte). I’m applying the same rigour to the dough and the toppings as I did when I worked in restaurants.

Could SOPI eventually become a bricks and mortar business?

Yes. We want to grow the business but we’re in the very early stages. It could become a pizza restaurant, but we could also go down the events route when that becomes an option again. We’ve also got plans for a soft serve ice cream side to SOPI, which will see us team up with an organic dairy in the area. We want to create a small family business. My wife is a design journalist, but she’s really interested in food. We’ve always wanted to do something together. When I left Bonhams (the Mayfair restaurant where Kemble won a Michelin star) we were very close to taking over a restaurant in West London. In common with many other chefs, I had a lot of family time over lockdown and rethought my priorities a bit. It’s hard work at the moment but we will hopefully end up with a better work life balance.

Do you work in the van alone?

Most of the time. I want to see how far I can push it myself because I like a challenge. But having a second person to deal with the customers would make it more fluid. The most pizzas I did in one session was 75, but I did have another chef helping me. Tessa is handling the orders, the marketing and the business side of things.

Have you served many people that have eaten your food at The Pass?

Some people have sought SOPI out because of The Pass. But there have also been a lot of West Sussex locals (trading locations include Cuckfield, Lindfield and Ardingly) that don’t know who I am really. I’m not looking to create a chef-led business. I want the product to speak for itself.

Do you think you’ll end up missing fine dining?

I don’t know. I’ve already achieved things in my career, so I don’t feel like I’m missing out by doing this. Maybe I’ll feel differently in a couple of years. What I’ve found especially satisfying is feeling like I’m part of the community. Having cooked in top-end restaurants for many years it’s nice to be doing something that’s more democratic. The price point is accessible for far more people. It feels liberating.

Related topics: People, Restaurant, Chef

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