By Chelsea Rose Moore
Tom Whitaker believes food stirs memories the same way music does. Listen to a favorite song from high school and remember how it feels to be 16 again. Take a bite of a warm apple pie and find yourself 5 years old, sitting in your grandmother’s kitchen.
“Food will bring you to that warm place of comfort,” said Whitaker. “It’s a great breakaway from the monotony of life. [The table] is a place where people can come and forget about their troubles and just enjoy really good food.”
As the new executive chef at The Ashby Inn, Tom Whitaker hopes his food does just that. He has a single message he wants every guest to receive: “Welcome to our house. We are going to look after you and ensure you have the best experience possible.”
Whitaker is inspired by food itself. He loves trying new things, playing with textures and ingredients and figuring out how to use flavors to make a single ingredient sing. His lunch menu contains English classics: fish and chips, bangers and mash, sticky toffee pudding. It’s casual, reminiscent of a cozy British pub.
“We are all in it together, If I’m not open to learning from my team, how will I get better?”
As a child, Whitaker remembers taking trips to the local pub with his family. Over relaxed lunches, he began to learn what “food could do for you” and the way it could make a person feel “looked after.”
But his dinners are where his talent shines. “It’s everything I’ve learned; it’s me — it’s what I want to do.”
His food is inspired by every piece of his life. As a boy growing up in Hexham, England, he visited castle ruins on Sundays with his father (“Castles are completely mystical!”) and collected miniature soldier figurines from gift shops.
He was a picky eater, and a career in food was never something he planned to pursue. In high school, he experimented with a culinary program offered.
But his culinary dabbling was overshadowed by dreams of a musical career, and he decided to move to Manchester, England, with friends to see if they could make a go of their dreams. “We thought we were going to be the next Beatles.”
Eventually realizing a future in music was not going to happen, he packed up his new life in Manchester to return home. He arranged for his father to pick him up, but his father unexpectedly died from lung cancer on the same the day.
Before his death, he told his son he was disappointed he hadn’t continued cooking. Needing a place to channel his grief, Whitaker remembered his father’s words and turned to the kitchen.
He began working in a hotel before deciding to move to Newcastle, England, where he worked in the restaurant Charley’s Bar & Bistro. There, he studied under experienced French chef Jerome Cogne, who took him under his wing and helped shape him as a chef.
After two years, he moved on to work as a pastry chef before deciding he wanted to travel and cook in other countries. He set his sights on the United States.
He accepted a job at The Fearrington House Inn, a luxury resort near Chapel Hill, North Carolina, where he started as a line cook and worked his way up to executive sous chef. With his team, he helped The Fearrington House Inn earn awards and accolades, including its 5-star status.
After nearly 10 years, Whitaker felt ready to take the next step and relocated to Northern Virginia with his wife Samantha, 2-and-a-half-year-old son Ayden and second son on the way. He’s been at The Ashby Inn for two months, but has already made major transformations to the menu and the kitchen — and has many more changes to come.
He likes flow and structure, both on the menu and in the kitchen. He prioritizes communication and collaboration in his kitchen, which he finds both atypical and progressive.
He pointed to idol — and renowned chef — Marco Pierre White, who wears a butcher apron in his kitchen, a physical representation of being equal with his team. “We are all in it together,” said Whitaker. “If I’m not open to learning from my team, how will I get better?”
With his home in walking distance from the restaurant, he is excited to devote lots of time to the garden, which is located between the inn and his house. He plans to plant berry bushes around the property and grow an assortment of fruits, vegetables and herbs.
Although he is most comfortable with fine dining, he wants his restaurant to always maintain a level of casualness and friendliness — to make every diner feel at home. “With food, the experience is there for anyone who wants it,” he said. ML