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Tom Hamblet at The Pass, South Lodge Hotel (©AAH/Alan Wright)

Tom Hamblet from Horsham has been awarded the prestigious title of MasterChef: The Professionals champion 2023. AAH caught up with Tom, 24, at South Lodge Hotel as he prepares for an exciting three-month residency at The Camellia Restaurant… 

So, cooking is in the genes…

Both my parents are chefs. My dad is Executive Chef at South Lodge Hotel and my mum works in the kitchen at Botanica Restaurant, specialising in pastries. Our family meals were never fancy, but they always tasted great! Although both my parents love cooking, they never pushed me to have the same career. In fact, they did just the opposite sometimes! However, cooking was always something I loved; I suppose it was in my blood. Even when I was at Tanbridge House School, Food Tech was one of my favourite subjects and I won the Rotary Young Chef Competition too, making the front cover of AAH! 

You’ve been working at South Lodge since you were a teenager…

I started an apprenticeship with Westminster Kingsway College when I was 17. As part of the apprenticeship, I worked at South Lodge, initially focusing on pastries. I then spent three years in Michelin-starred kitchens at Latymer at Pennyhill Park Hotel and Restaurant Interlude at Leonardslee Lakes and Gardens. Both were great experiences and taught me a lot about fine dining. I then returned to South Lodge and have been Sous Chef at The Camellia for two and a half years. Being a chef isn’t an easy occupation. There are times when it’s tough and days can be very long. But at the same time, you have good days too and are always learning and improving. 

Why did you decide to enter Masterchef: The Professionals?

To be honest, my dad and my partner Megan – who also works at the hotel – pushed me to do it. I was quite reluctant, as you’re putting a lot on the line when you go on such a popular TV show. If you do well, the rewards are great. But there’s no guarantee of success, as 31 other very good chefs want to win just as badly. So, I needed some persuading. When I heard my application had been accepted, my initial thought was, ‘Oh no! What have I done?’ I sat on a chair in the porch at home and had a mini meltdown! 

Was there added pressure because of the success of previous South Lodge chefs?

Of course, Steven Edwards won MasterChef: The Professionals in 2013 and has been successful with his Brighton restaurant, etch. However, that was a decade ago and I was still at school, so it didn’t really enter my mind. What worried me was my parents. I thought it would be embarrassing for them if I was eliminated early in the competition. They never implied anything to that effect, but I put that pressure on myself.   

Did that hamper your enjoyment?

I was so focused on making it through each round of the competition that I didn’t really take a moment to reflect or enjoy the success of making it through each round. That is why I’ve enjoyed watching the episodes back on TV, as I can appreciate my journey. Also, when you’re in the kitchen, your entire focus is on the food, so it has been interesting to see how other chefs approached each task. The only thing I don’t like is hearing my voice on TV. You don’t really know what you sound like until you hear it on screen!

Tom Hamblet in the MasterChef kitchen


You had to overcome a major setback…

In the semi-finals, I was heating a chocolate tarte filling in a glass bowl when it exploded. It put me in a difficult position, as it happened halfway through the cook. Initially, I panicked and when Marcus Wareing asked me to clear up the mess, I was clearly in a bit of a frenzy. I actually asked him if I could prepare another mousse first! However, I’m used to working under pressure and leaned on this experience. I went back to my workstation and took a moment to compose myself. I knew I still had time to complete everything if I didn’t make any more mistakes and the rest of the day went exactly as planned. The chocolate mousse ended up being one of my best dishes of the entire series. 

You had the chance to work under several renowned chefs at prestigious restaurants. Did you enjoy those experiences?

We went to Jeremy Chan’s two-star restaurant, Ikoyi, during the semi-finals and for the Chef’s Table challenge we cooked four courses for 24 guests at the Midland Grand Dining Room in King’s Cross. I think I have a good approach when working under other chefs and took to the challenges well. I tried to show respect to the chefs, as they have earned their reputations and gave up time to pass their knowledge on to us. When they were teaching me, I stayed calm, didn’t talk too much and absorbed as much information as possible.  

You also went to The Alchemist in Copenhagen. What was that like? 

Crazy! When I walked in, I could tell immediately that it was unlike any restaurant I’d ever been too, combining art, science and food. I don’t think The Alchemist is for everybody, but you need places that are unique and exciting. When Heston Blumenthal burst on the scene it got people talking, as he was challenging convention. It’s the same with Rasmus Munk. Some of his techniques are so inventive that I don’t even know where they come from. As a finalist, I was invited back for a meal at The Alchemist and have since flown out to Denmark with my dad and two senior managers at Exclusive Hotels.

Tom’s main course include seared beef fillet and oyster side dish

How did you prepare for the Grand Final?

I only managed a couple of practice runs for my final menu as I didn’t feel well, which was probably down to a combination of nerves and stress. On one of the practice days, I didn’t cook at all as I thought it was better to rest. However, I was confident as earlier runs had gone well. Come the final day, I was completely focused for every second of the three hours. We had to incorporate all we had learned over the seven weeks into a starter, main course and dessert of our own creation, and all my dishes worked out perfectly. Even still, I was surprised by the positive response from Marcus, Monica (Galetti) and Gregg (Wallace).  

Tell us about your winning menu…

For starter, I made poached native lobster tail with blanched red and yellow cherry tomatoes, filled with lobster claw meat in a lobster and chilli oil, topped with a lemon verbena gel, courgette balls and a creamy lobster and tomato sauce. Main course was seared beef fillet with pan-fried oyster mushrooms, served with braised beef cheek wrapped in brick pastry, topped with a poached oyster, a lovage emulsion, salsify, beef and red wine sauce and a beef and oyster tartare. Dessert was an olive oil sponge filled with olive oil jam, topped with lemon curd, crème fraiche, fennel tops and a fennel pollen tuille, with fennel seed ice cream. I had saved lobster, beef and lemon dessert in case I made it to the Grand Final. It was a risky strategy, saving my favourites for the final, but they were dishes I believed in and I thought they would serve me well. I felt I did myself proud.  

Did you then have to keep quiet about the result? 

Filming was wrapped up at the end of July, but I couldn’t tell people about the show. Only very close family knew that I had won, so I focused on work as I didn’t want to be the person who leaked the result. I tried to forget about Masterchef entirely, as it was easier to handle that way, but when the series was finally broadcast, it was impossible not to talk about it! 

What was the reaction to your win? 

I use Instagram, as the comments are mostly positive. At the start of the competition, I had about 700 followers and now I have about 23,000, which is nuts! I have to rub my eyes sometimes, as the support has been incredible. I’ve been trying to reply to all the messages I’ve received, but at one point they were coming in every few seconds and it’s hard to keep on top of it.

Tom’s winning dishes have inspired a new menu at The Camellia


What is next for you?

I am taking up a residency at The Camellia for three months, working alongside Head Chef Josh Mann. Josh has been very kind and supportive. Many chefs would feel put out by having somebody else coming into their kitchen, but he has embraced the idea and I’m grateful for that. The residency runs from January until the end of March and the menu is inspired by dishes I made on the programme. I think it’s fair to say that my style suits The Camellia, as I like using simple ingredients to make food that looks and tastes great. Even at home, my favourite dish is tagliatelle with Boursin and tomato sauce! I will then be taking on a second residency at another Exclusive Hotels venue at Lainston House. Exclusive have given me great support, not just recently but throughout my career.

Would you like to run your own restaurant?

Maybe one day, but even after the residencies, I would like to develop my skills further in another kitchen, although I don’t know where yet. I’m only 24, which is very young for a chef to open their own place. I know I still have a lot to learn. 

Finally, where is the trophy?

Underneath our TV at home. It’s been fun glancing at it while watching the episodes back!

Further information: https://www.exclusive.co.uk/south-lodge/food/camellia/

Article published in the January 2024 edition of AAH Magazine. Report by Ben Morris, with photography by Alan Wright for AAH.