Leeds’ only all vegan establishment isn’t just for herbivores, Cantina is here to thrill everyone. With bright flavours and complex combinations, Cantina takes inspiration for across the globe and brings everything to create more-ish, hearty dishes. When you look at the menu, you’re unlikely to notice the lack of meat, and this is part of what makes Cantina so unique. Its plant based menu keeps you full of flavours and brings you new choices that you might never have considered before. With all of this excitement, it’s natural to want to know more. Unfortunately, with a busy kitchen to look after, it’s not possible for customers to sit down with the chef each day to ask questions.So, to bring you closer to the action, we sat down with Head Chef Sam Thomas and asked him all those questions you were dying to know the answers to. Here’s what he had to say… Meet Sam – Cantina at the Old Red Bus Station Q – Where are you originally from? A – I was born and raised in the suburbs of Nottingham, the home of Robin Hood, teenage pregnancy and knife crime… Q – When did you first become interested in cooking? A – I used to bake and cook lots when I was a little’un, really my passion for it comes from my mum. We used to spend all afternoon baking bread and making cakes and soup in our kitchen at home. My mums working class ‘waste not want not’ upbringing meant she was always coming up with creative meals for us to enjoy from leftovers and making us nutritious, hearty packed lunches for school. I think my initial interest sparked from that, and grew as I travelled around the world as a young man, visiting 5 continents before I was 16. I was blessed to be introduced to cuisines from around the world on my travels; from European classics to rural African and South East Asian dishes. As I grew up I had plenty of opportunities to cook for my friends and family, and developed my skills in the kitchen with the guidance of my amazing mum. Q – Who was your biggest inspiration? A – Growing up I fell in love with the TV chefs of the day, Gordon Ramsey, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, Jamie Oliver and Marco Pierre-White and Anthony Bourdain. Their passion and flair inspired me but it was Heston Blumenthal’s experimental eccentric exploration of food that captured my attention. It made me realise that food and the theatre of it was something far beyond what I had previously realised. As my pallet developed and my love for food grew, it was really the incredible creativity, imagination and drive of people like Massimo Bottura, Francis Mallmann, Ben Shewry, Gaggan Anand, Ivan Orkin, Virgilio Martinez and particularly Alex Atala who captured my attention. And then my dreams of one day reaching the heights of these fascinating chefs started… I began my journey and haven’t looked back since. Q – What changes have you seen, if any, in the way the restaurant world has changed? ie have peoples tastes changed, do people expect more nowadays etc..? A – A clear move towards people being more conscious of what they eat both for health reasons and in general, as the education and information surrounding food has exploded with the growth of the internet and the ingenuity of chefs and food lovers globally. A shift towards plant based diets has also been clear to me, even long-time and die hard meat eaters are deciding to try vegetarian and vegan cuisines. They’re becoming more open to moving away from the traditional “meat and two veg” meal structure. Pop-up restaurants and street food inspired eateries also become more and more popular as the landscape of food changes. Globalised communication and diversifying culture has seen fusion cuisine become more popular and I feel as though then next few years will see some massive shifts in the way people eat and engage with restaurants and food. Q – What has been your biggest success to date? A – To date, I feel as though its a toss up between successfully cooking for a camp of 300 people (with a great team) or pulling off a 4 course Vegan fine dining menu for the Valentine’s just gone for 45 people. That was a really tough challenge but my team and rose to it and produced some stunning dishes. My first menu was also a milestone for me, planning, creating and delivering it was tough when I had so many ideas of what I could do and how it would look and taste. The finished product has got some rave reviews and some of the dishes have become classics that have stood the test of time, like the Portobello 5-bean Burger with Kale and Walnut Pesto. Q – What’s the must try dish on your menu? A – The hidden gem has got to be the Winter Beetroot Borscht, it’s an Eastern European classic with a twist and I have even had Polish mothers tell me it is better that their grandmothers… humbled! Another must is the Buffalo Seitan and Zucchini Skewers with Smokey Maple Glaze; a real taste explosion and not one to miss, even for a hardcore carnivore. Q – What would be your tip for upcoming chefs? A – I would say experience is invaluable, start at a really good restaurant, learn from the best, be keen and ready to work hard and learn, develop your own ideas and style and cook and experiment constantly. Don’t settle for good, strive for excellence. Solid knife skills come with time but learn how to observe chefs, ask them questions. Chefs are keen to help you learn but you have to be ready to do some hard, repetitive work and graft. A good, diverse food knowledge is also an asset. Taste, try and visit places restaurants, try EVERYTHING and explore food whenever you can. Q – What are the 3 main components to running a successful restaurant? A – 1. Staff – people are the backbone of any business but getting the right people with the right skills in the right place is a skill and its what will make you go from a nice, working restaurant to a successful, renowned eatery. 2. Sourcing Ingredients – any good chef worth his salt will tell you that having quality ingredients and buying the best you can afford is essential to making amazing food. Let the ingredients speak for themselves, just give them an opportunity to shine and they will. Good supplier relationships and building a network of trusted, high-quality suppliers and vendors will serve you in good stead for longevity and consistency. 3. Diverse Skill Sets – knowing how to fix dishwashers, build things, innovate and think on your feet are invaluable skills. Having multiple skills within a team means you will always be prepared for the inevitable in the restaurant game — equipment breaks down, people get ill, suppliers don’t show up. Things go wrong, it’s just a fact of life. If you have a cool head and a good set of skills on hand, you can usually fix or resolve any problem. Q – What do you hope people think when they’ve dined with you? A – I hoped people would appreciate the diverse, multicultural menu, maybe even the creativity of the dishes. But really, all you can hope for is that people find the food tasty and want to eat more/come again. I am humbled by people’s compliments and really listen and absorb criticism so that I can try to work on what I’m not also good at. I am still young and have a lot to learn. My journey has just begun and I have big dreams for what I want to achieve with food. Q – Finally, If you could summarise, what do you believe good cooking is all about? A – Fresh, seasonal and locally sourced food, creative, inspired dishes, playfulness with cuisine and a good around ambience and environment to dine in. Passion and creativity have to come from the heart, do what you love and cook what you love. That is my advice for what it is worth.