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Ones to watch: Tom Anglesea

Ones to watch: Tom Anglesea

by Pete Dreyer 01 February 2019

Tom Anglesea brings together a melting pot of Asian and European influences at The Laughing Heart – an East London wine bar and restaurant that provides one of the most surprising and delightful food experiences in London.

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London’s restaurant scene has, for years, been centred around its most affluent areas. The illustrious hotels that have traditionally housed the city’s best restaurants – Claridge’s, The Connaught, The Dorchester, The Ritz and so forth – all sit in that moneyed hourglass between Belgravia and Mayfair, and over the course of time they formed the foundation of London’s glitzy, glamorous dining scene. But in recent years, the winds of change have blustered from west to east across the capital. The white tablecloths, dress codes and stuffy service of the wealthy West End are out, in favour of ripped jeans, biodynamic wines, reclaimed furniture and shelves full of dusty old vinyl. East London is taking over.

A few years ago, you could have dismissed this as a brief dalliance with London’s younger, cooler district, but it’s pretty clear now that East London’s food scene is here to stay. Shoreditch institutions Lyle’s and The Clove Club remain the UK’s sole representatives in the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list. Tom Brown’s debut restaurant Cornerstone was arguably the restaurant of the year in 2018 – an oasis in the gastronomic wasteland of Hackney Wick. Last year, two more Shoreditch restaurants – Tomos Parry’s Brat and Leroy – scooped Michelin stars too.

Right in amongst that list is The Laughing Heart in Hoxton. Tom Anglesea has been head chef at the restaurant-cum-wine bar since it opened two years ago and, despite it being a little off the beaten path, he has built a steady reputation for the restaurant as a place for inventive, seasonal cooking. If your eyelids feel heavy at the mention of ‘seasonal cooking’, I totally empathise, but The Laughing Heart is not your average seasonal British restaurant. Tom takes inspiration from Europe and Asia to create dishes full of unexpected twists and turns. Classic European dishes like Dorset crab, peas and avocado or mutton tortellini with broad beans sit very happily alongside pak choi with shaoxing broth, and the ever-popular Sichuan crème brûlée.

The Laughing Heart is all clean brick and wood grain, with a long open kitchen where you can see the chefs at work
The Sichuan crème brûlée is a big favourite with diners – combining creamy, soothing crème brûlée and numbing Sichuan peppercorns

The surprises don’t stop there. Instead of having cutlery delivered to you as usual, you’ll find them tucked neatly into a little drawer built into your table. Rock up from 11pm onwards and the usual à la carte is gone, with Tom and his small team banging out fantastic Chinese food instead. Once you’re full of lemon wings and fried rice, you can nip downstairs to the cellar and browse their wonderful selection of organic wines – the restaurant also has a license to sell, so you can disappear into the night with a couple of bottles.

The Laughing Heart is warm, quirky and thoroughly 'East London'. One senses that the food and atmosphere stems back to Tom, who himself is a bundle of affable energy and extremely well travelled. He’s worked at Per Se – Thomas Keller’s three-Michelin-starred New York outpost – and spent years in Australia too. It’s quite a resume for a lad from Durham who started washing dishes at a local bistro in his teens. ‘I might not look it now, but I had a real baby face,’ he grins. ‘I looked about twelve, so when all my mates were trying to get into pubs and going out on a weekend, I just decided to get a job!’

As so often happens, Tom’s dishwashing job soon became a kitchen role, and he found himself fitting lunch and dinner services around his college commitments. He would start his day in class in the morning, then dash to the restaurant to do lunch service, run back to college in the afternoon, then return to the stoves for the evening. ‘I remember sitting in an exam and I just didn't have a clue what the questions were,’ he laughs. ‘I knew something had to give, so I told my parents I was going to be a chef and that was that really.’

A stage at Gordon Ramsay’s Boxwood Cafe soon followed, where Tom worked under Stuart Gillies, who would later become CEO of the Ramsay empire. Boxwood provided a foundation for Tom’s cooking, and it was Stuart that pulled the strings two years later to get Tom a job in New York. ‘I remember he pulled me in the office and said, 'I’ve got you a job at Soho House'. I was like, 'Fantastic, never heard of Soho House, that sounds great'.’ A month later, Soho House had fallen through, and Tom was going to Per Se instead. ‘I dodged a bullet there,’ he grins.

Sommelier and owner Charlie Mellor – one of London's top sommeliers – looks after the cellar, which is well curated with organic wines from all over the world
If you're wondering where your cutlery is, have a feel under your table – you'll find a little drawer with cutlery and a pair of chopsticks

The huge, ultra-disciplined brigade at Per Se was ‘the biggest learning curve I’ve ever experienced,’ says Tom, but it taught him a huge amount about the realities of cooking at the very highest level. Eighteen months later, he was on the move again, this time to Australia, where he travelled all over the country before settling into a role at Rockpool with Neil Perry. Undoubtedly one of Australia’s most recognisable chefs, Neil was at the forefront of Sydney’s world-renowned culinary scene, and his Asian-flecked cooking had a huge impact on Tom. ‘That’s where I started to learn how to cook with Asian ingredients,’ he explains. ‘The Asian food in Sydney is so good – I just used to eat Asian food all the time! I totally fell in love with it.’ Tom’s time at Rockpool was followed by another year and a half at Spice Temple, where he mastered the art of authentic Chinese cooking. He was hooked. ‘If I’m honest, I had no interest in working in a Chinese restaurant,’ he laughs, ‘but to learn how to cook in woks and how to season at that level, it was amazing.’

When Tom returned to the UK, he joined forces with a couple of old friends from Per Se – Guy and Brittany Manning – and the trio won a Michelin star, cooking outstanding British classics at The Red Lion in Pewsey. After years of international travel and long hours, Tom found himself living above the sleepy Wiltshire pub with nothing to do but cook, forage and look after vegetables in the garden. ‘It really helped me concentrate on my food,’ he explains. ‘That’s where I learned proper classical cookery, how to break down whole animals and that sort of thing.’

Tom had moved back to London and was working with Nuno Mendes at Chiltern Firehouse when the opportunity at The Laughing Heart came calling courtesy of owner and sommelier Charlie Mellor, who had also worked at Rockpool in years past. For all his travels, it’s the years at The Red Lion and in Sydney that really shine through in Tom’s food today. The Laughing Heart puts huge emphasis on quality of produce and provenance, but also on being fun and flexible when it comes to putting together dishes. Just before I stopped by, the restaurant hosted en vogue Parisian chef Esu Lee – a serious hot property in international food – for a supper club. ‘We’re basically a Korean restaurant today,’ Tom grins. ‘Esu left so much shit behind! But that’s the beauty of being flexible – often I just order loads of stuff that looks fantastic and we bring it all together in the morning.’ The team has a serious fermentation program going on in the back, and they cure their own meats too. ‘We always have a good bounty of things to pull from,’ he adds. ‘We make all our own miso. We got a beautiful wild boar in about six months ago – it had all this fat on it, so we made a whole load of lardo that is just getting good now.’

Brown butter waffles with Delica pumpkin, wild boar lardo and truffle honey
Fermented Thai sausage (Sai Kroc) with ginger, chilli and coriander
Terrines, like this slab of pork and apricot, are a real Laughing Heart speciality
Freshly made doughnuts filled with lemon curd

These are the little things that bring dishes together at The Laughing Heart. Homemade salami always features as part of the snacks and starters. A plate of brown butter waffles comes heaped with creamy Delica pumpkin and waves of pearlescent lardo. Visit the restaurant regularly and you’ll come across a whole heap of different misos – today it’s peanut, and it comes next to a shoulder of Gloucester Old Spot that has been treated like a Peking duck – blanched, air-dried then roasted until the skin becomes glass, and the meat underneath slides away from the bone. It’s extremely clever and typical of Tom – a welcome marriage of Chinese techniques and superb British produce.

Two years since the doors first opened, The Laughing Heart is still doing what it does best, whilst East London rises around it. There are new housing developments everywhere you turn now, and plenty of new restaurants also riding the wave. ‘Things are more competitive now for sure,’ he says, ‘It used to be so cutthroat back in the day – Gordon Ramsay nicking Marco Pierre White’s reservation book at Harvey’s and all that! But there’s such a good community of chefs in East London now. We’re all friends and we all collaborate together.’ The restaurant celebrated its second birthday a few months ago, and all the great and good of East London’s food scene came to celebrate. Tom realised last minute that they didn’t have enough plates for the evening – ‘we got Chase Lovecky from Two Lights to bring a load of plates with him,’ laughs Tom. ‘You’ve got to support each other haven’t you?’

Michelin has caught onto things happening east of Liverpool Street in recent years, awarding stars to the likes of Brat and Leroy. But Michelin doesn’t quite align with what makes restaurants like The Laughing Heart really special. It’s the joie de vivre of the place; the stop and chats with staff who actually want to talk to you about the food, or the fluid, effortless way that Tom brings his dishes together from the equivalent of a very well-sourced Ready Steady Cook quickie bag.

‘I don’t think we really fit their brief,’ says Tom of the Michelin Guide. ‘It’s all about consistency, and we’re so erratic in the way we work. I get bored of things so quickly; after two or three services I'll happily change a dish.’ If we can learn anything from the rise of food in East London, it’s that the Michelin Guide is just a subjective arbiter of quality. The Laughing Heart may never get a Michelin star, but there’s no questioning that it’s one of London’s most enjoyable food experiences, and that Tom’s star is firmly on the rise.

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Ones to watch: Tom Anglesea


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