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Meet Tom Adams: the pioneer of barbecue joint Pitt Cue

The co-founder of top London barbecue joint Pitt Cue has taken his love of meat to the next level — by rearing his own pigs. Now, at his Cornish nose-to-tail operation, Coombeshead Farm, Tom Adams’ next goal is total self-sufficiency

Published 8 Apr 2019, 23:59 BST, Updated 5 Nov 2020, 05:27 GMT
Charlie McKay
Charlie McKay

In 2011, Tom Adams was serving some of the best barbecue in the capital from a food truck under Hungerford Bridge. It was called Pitt Cue, and queues of hungry Londoners waiting to tuck into his pork ribs were a regular sight each night. The venture then moved to a bricks-and-mortar home, first in Soho and then the City, where it’s still going strong.

The setting for Adam’s latest project couldn’t be more different. Set in 66 acres of meadows, woodland and oak-lined streams in Cornwall, Coombeshead Farm is a far cry from the concrete and crowds of the South Bank, where it all started.

In recent years, the UK’s dining scene has focused on sustainability, ethical sourcing, waste reduction and animal welfare — practices Tom has taken to heart. At Coombeshead Farm, which he opened with New York-based British chef April Bloomfield, much of what guests eat is produced on site. Not only does it have its own pigs, sheep, chickens and bees, it also grows its own fruit and veg and is home to a bakery. So why the change? “It was never a conscious decision to move,” says Tom. “It just gradually happened through working in my restaurant.”

In hindsight, the opening of Coombeshead Farm was inevitable. With Pitt Cue, Tom struck a chord with his customers, not just for his brilliant cooking but also for the care he took with ingredients. Born into a family of farmers in the small Hampshire town of Pitt, animal husbandry had always been part of Adam’s life, and eventually became something he couldn’t ignore.

While working in London, Tom would make regular trips to Cornwall to meet pork suppliers, and it was here, while tasting samples, that he had his epiphany. “It all seemed on another level to what I’d tried before,” Tom recalls. “It was an eye-opening experience. I suddenly felt that, by the pure fact of having a business, I’d been dealing more with admin and management … It made me realise my knowledge of food had stunted.”

Spurred on by this, Tom began splitting his time between London and Cornwall, before deciding to follow in his family’s farming footsteps. He bought some pigs — keeping them in the woodland by his family’s farms, until his mum told him to move them. He then found a farmer who agreed to rear them on his land, a 15-minute drive from Coombeshead Farm, which Tom discovered on a visit to his pigs.

It was while cooking dinner for his Cornish suppliers that the idea of merging his two passions — cookery and animal husbandry — began to take shape. “We cooked a leg of lamb and some vegetables and it was the most memorable meal I’d had in years,” he says. “It began to dawn on me that context was so important — all the work with the animal is done on the farm, but we were serving it in a basement in Soho, and that didn’t quite connect. It was satisfying seeing the fruits of my labour being used in the restaurant, but something wasn’t right. “Cooking is all about the product — that’s what excites me most. Not the restaurant bit but the process before it: what happens on the farm.”

Thus Coombeshead Farm was born, with Tom going into partnership with April Bloomfield, who’d made a name for herself at New York restaurants The Spotted Pig and The Breslin but was looking for a new project closer to home. “April used to eat at Pitt Cue when she was back from the States. She was looking for a farm in upstate New York to source products and she liked hanging with us on the farm in Cornwall whenever she could.”

Although still based in New York, April visits Coombeshead every couple of months (Tom is convinced their Cornish rural idyll will eventually lure her back for good). “She uses the farm as an escape from the daily stresses in the States,” he explains. “In time, she’ll come back and develop a cookery school and workshop here.”

In the nearly three years since it opened, Tom and April have edged the farm-restaurant ever-closer to self-sufficiency. Having begun life with just one table, seating 10, in the kitchen, and the food cooked on an Aga, Coombeshead has since expanded into an 18-cover dining room (also with communal table). Every meal starts with snacks and drinks in the farmhouse, before guests sit down to a bread course with butter and preserves, pickles, fresh cheese and terrine. The food is bountiful, with a spread of mains, followed by a couple of puddings and then cheese. “We like to roll people out,” jokes Tom.

The menu is based on what’s available at the farm that week, although meals can be duck-heavy; a typical menu might include duck sausage and elderberries; duck broth; and duck and faggots — ensuring every part of the animal gets used. It’s a nose-to-tail approach that’s very much en vogue, but when done at this level it’s clear this is far more than just a fleeting fad. “Farming is expensive, it’s a long-term endeavour. Progress is slow and you learn from your mistakes. It’s like winemaking,” says Tom.

He believes the effort the farm demands spurs him on to try even harder in the kitchen. “I’m excited by the process and the opportunity to learn,” Tom explains. “The more you do yourself, the more you feel responsibility and treat things better. If you’ve fed your pigs in sideways rain, it means once the meat is in your kitchen you’ll do your best with it.”

This isn’t a short-term project, either. For Tom, Coombeshead Farm is now a way of life. He hasn’t just put all his eggs in one basket, he’s corralled all his chickens together, too. “I struggle to do things halfheartedly,” he says. “I have grand ambitions, to try to be self-sufficient and to encourage people to think about how we eat, how to use whole animals, how to create no waste, how to reconnect with farmers and use what we have on our doorstep.

“I want to put all my energy into this, and then hand it to my children or the staff. That way you stand a better chance of doing something positive in the long term.”

Learn how to make Tom’s pork pie.

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As featured in Issue 4 of National Geographic Traveller Food

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