Interview with New York Rising Star Chef Thomas Allan of The Modern

by Mary Choi
February 2015

Mary Choi: How did you get your start in the industry?
Thomas Allan:
In south Texas before graduating high school. I started to work as a line cook just to make some cash. After enrolling in college, I found that I was skipping classes to work lunch service. I was drawn to the kitchen more than the classroom. Then I decided to drop out and leave Texas. I moved to New York when I was 19; my parents dropped me off with one month’s rent money, so I started scrambling for jobs. I walked into Blue Smoke in 2007 not knowing who Danny Meyer was or what I was getting myself into and asked for a busboy position or anything they could offer me. When I was talking about applying to culinary school, they suggested I trail in the kitchen instead of bussing tables. The sous chef greeted me at the back entrance on my first day and just threw me into the mix—a line cook was late and so I started prepping his station. It was so exciting—I loved it!

I got a second trail and was eventually hired as a line cook. I prepped and worked lunch service Monday to Friday until 4:00 p.m. then rushed to get to Soho to get to class at the French Culinary Institute on time by 5:45. I would get out of class by 11:30 and trek home to Sunnyside, Queens! Culinary school really opened my eyes to fine dining. I was wowed by The French Laundry Cookbook and learned about Eleven Madison Park. I had no internet at home at the time, so I used to sit by the lobby of the Apple flagship store on 59th street and use their wifi. I was working and hanging there with my laptop on a random afternoon when I decided to walk over to Eleven Madison Park. I did the same thing there as I did at Blue Smoke—I walked up and asked about a trail. When I walked in, I was in awe—everything was shiny and clean with copper pots and pans and chefs were all wearing toques. I was like, what am I doing here? It looked like what a kitchen was supposed to look like. That moment really opened the floodgates for me—I realized how much there was out there for me to learn. I met Chef Humm two weeks into the trail and I started learning the system and the set up of the restaurant—it was so beautiful. I was 20 years old and cranking out food for 170 covers and at that caliber of food it was intense!

During this time, a friend who was working in the pastry department at Per Se asked if I was looking for work. I trailed with their pastry chef and took the line cook position there. I realized that the higher the caliber, the more I wanted to push myself. I worked there for 11 months and only left because Danny Meyer reached out to me during my Christmas break and offered me a sous chef position at EMP. I was 21 at the time, how could I pass that up?

When I started as sous at EMP, I was simultaneously training for the Bocuse D’or competition with James Kent. We won the US round then had to get ready to go to Lyon, France in a year. We ended up placing tenth out of 24 countries. That was so exhilarating for me—3000 people cheering you on while you’re cooking this crazy food, there’s no feeling like it!

When I got back from France, Abram Bissel started planning The NoMad. He wanted me to help him open and it; he really twisted my arm to do it and during a meeting I came to the difficult decision to decline the offer because my heart wasn’t in it. I expressed my need to live and work in France. He understood and happily let me go. Since my family has British citizenship, I didn’t need a visa to go and work in France. I got married then to my wife and I made the move. We lived and worked in France for 19 months, just under 2 years at Le Meurice Hotel under Chef Yannick Alleno in Paris. I started as a chef de partie, I spoke no French, but I just worked hard and was promoted to sous chef after six months and stayed in the position for another year after. I worked, got home, and my brain was fried, not from the physical work itself but the mental toll that the language barrier took on me. Eventually I picked up on the French and really learned a lot.  When I got back to New York, I helped Bryce open Betony while reaching out to Abram about work. He connected me with Gabriel Kreuther at The Modern and that’s how I ended up here.

MC: Who would you say your most influential mentor is?
Abram Bissel. He was my sous chef and colleague. I’ve always been drawn to his personality, his food, and cooking. He’s always supported me and my career.

MC: How are you involved in the local culinary community?
Through Union Square Hospitality Group, we work with Share Our Strength and City Harvest. It’s been a year of transition for The Modern, but we try to help out as much as we can. We definitely take part, and think it’s important to help out.

MC: Where do you see yourself in five years?
Every opportunity with this group has been incredible. Danny is incredible and inspiring to me and with Shake Shack blowing up, there’s so much opportunity for growth. I see myself working closely with this group for the near future.