Will the real Thomas Straker please stand up?


Will the real Thomas Straker please stand up?

After speaking to The Standard about a furious diversity row, Lara Olszowska discovers more about the man behind the butter

London chef Thomas Straker is used to going viral, usually for his butter videos that amass millions of views on TikTok. Last month, though, he was in the spotlight for an interview with the Standard’s David Ellis — the first one he’d granted since he posted a photo of his all-white, all-male chef team that sparked a diversity row back in July.

“Suddenly, I’m getting ripped in half by every paper – not because I’ve been bullying my staff or anything like that, just ‘cause I put a picture of them up,” he told The Standard. “In the world of, like, ‘everyone’s so worried about everyone’s mental health’, where was the worry for me when I’m just being lambasted by the press?”

Soon after, Straker was in the headlines for another scandal – a rumoured affair with Princess Maria-Olympia of Greece. Tricky, given he is married with two toddlers. The 27-year-old goddaughter of King Charles was photographed leaving her home with the dishevelled-looking chef early in November. The Daily Mail reported Straker’s wife, the Illusion actress Davina Pownall, kicked him out of the family home when she found out.

It places Straker in a complicated celebrity web. Olympia’s ex-boyfriend (as of September) is aristocrat and heir to a multi-million-pound fortune, Peregrine Pearson. He had moved on and was seen kissing Game of Thrones actor Sophie Turner in Paris after she split from American popstar Joe Jonas, who had filed for divorce in September. In Ellis’ interview Straker refused to comment publicly on the alleged affair. Friends of Olympia told the Daily Mail that she believed the marriage had ended before any relationship with Straker began.

It begs the questions: who is Thomas Straker; how did he get to the top of the capital’s food scene; and could this flurry of controversies take it all away?

Straker was raised on a smallholding in Herefordshire and often credits his rural upbringing for his love of local produce and motivation to work in food. “I didn’t come from a family of chefs,” Straker told the HUNGRY podcast in November. “There was no nepotism in this world. I made this work for myself because I was passionate about food.”

Perhaps. His mother Jane, a Cordon Bleu-trained chef, was “a culinary force growing up” writes Straker’s twin sister, Alice, on her art website. In the early noughties, Jane owned the award-winning pub The Bridge Inn at Michaelchurch Escley, which received national attention in 2015 when the Guardian named it one of the top 10 best pubs for a summer lunch. The riverside pub is near the Black Mountains where Straker went on walks as a child.

Thomas Straker
Elspeth Vincent

Later he attended Shrewsbury, an elite boarding school in neighbouring country Shropshire (current fees are £15,000 per term), in the same school year as England International cricketer James Taylor. Straker developed his hobbies: shooting, stalking, and fishing. Recently, he went on a shoot at Belvoir Castle, owned by David Manners, 11th Duke of Rutland.

“I didn’t know what I wanted to do after I left school because I f***ed around, obviously, cause I’m a bad boy,” Straker joked on The Gentleman’s Journal podcast in April.

His father, Matt Straker OBE, was the former second in command of the SAS and Deputy Director of NATO Special Forces operations in Afghanistan. So, aged 18, Straker tried to follow in his father’s footsteps, but failed to get into Sandhurst. “I preferred playing sport, causing trouble, chasing women and smoking cigarettes.”

From there, Straker realised he wanted to train as a chef, and chose the prestigious Ballymaloe Cookery School in Ireland. As he tells it, his parents packed him off to Cork saying, “this is the last thing we pay for!” The intensive course cost €12,000.

His first job? “My Dad had been for lunch and the executive chef of the Dorchester had been there. [Dad] was saying I wanted to get into food and he was like ‘oh well send him in for an interview,’” he said on The Gentleman’s Journal podcast. Two weeks’ work experience turned into three years as chef de partie at one of the most well-known hospitality brands in the world.

After the Dorchester, he had brief stint at Dinner by Heston Blumenthal, then was recruited by friend and restaurateur Tom Conran (son of designer Sir Terence Conran) to run his pop-up restaurant New Toms, where the likes of Sienna Miller dined. Now, Straker is a regular at Conran’s oyster-and-Guinness joint, The Cow in Notting Hill, where Kate Moss, the Beckhams, and the Delevingnes frequent. Stella McCartney also held her star-studded 40th bash there with Cameron Diaz and Gwen Stefani among the A-list attendees.

In 2015, Straker got married and started his biggest job yet as head chef at Notting Hill’s exclusive restaurant, Casa Cruz. He was 25. Within a year he was speedily promoted to executive chef across the Santa Cruz Co brand. The vibe-led restaurant is known for entertaining the Notting Hill set and the wider London elite. By day, Straker would meet people like photographer Harry Soames (great-grandson of Winston Churchill) and by night, he and Pownall were partying with socialites including actor Jazzy Delisser and filmmaker Gala Gordon.

Thomas Straker
Photo: Elspeth Vincent, Edits: Sarah Morley

But with Straker’s big promotion came great responsibility. “I ended up in a job where I was looking after about 50 chefs and I was still young,” he said on The Gentleman’s Journal podcast. The pressure led Straker to shout at chefs, he admitted – so often that he was nearly fired. “The consultant came in and was like, ‘you’ve got to get rid of Tom. He doesn’t know how to talk to chefs.’” The owner, Juan Santa Cruz, jumped to his defence and arranged weekly management coaching sessions for Straker to prevent the firing.

After receiving coaching, “I definitely switched my management style from that,” Straker reflected on the same podcast in April. Has he applied the lessons learned to running Straker’s? Hard to say. “Yesterday people were slacking so I went full Hitler…they probably think I’m bipolar!” he said, sniggering.

In 2017, Straker made a surprising move, dropping two chef ranks to join Elystan Street as sous chef. It would be his last full-time job in a kitchen before opening his eponymous restaurant, Straker’s, in January 2022. In the interim, he went freelance “working all over the world, on super yachts and in private houses,” according to his LinkedIn profile. His children were born in 2018 and 2020 while he travelled back and forth from jobs abroad.

During lockdown Straker was working as a private chef for a New York billionaire and his family when he made his first TikTok videos that would make him an online sensation. Three years on, Straker’s was open for business – and it was impossible to get a table. Behind the success, Straker’s personal life was turbulent.

By October that year, Pownall had resigned from her post as director at Thomas Straker Limited, with no public explanation, and rumours of his party animal behaviour were circulating.

Straker himself admitted the party atmosphere of his restaurant can lead him astray. “People come in, they have a great time and you’re in an open kitchen and you get taken away with their good time. Suddenly it’s 3am in the middle of Soho and you’re like f*** I’ve got work in the morning,” he told the HUNGRY podcast.

On hearing of his partying at work, Jane Straker was not pleased. “My mum was like ‘you’re a dick’,” Straker said on The Gentleman’s Journal Podcast. “She told one of my friends ‘I’m going to come into the restaurant, I’m going to drag him out by his collar and send him to rehab!’”

Then came that photo. On Saturday July 29, Straker posted a photo on his Instagram grid of his chefs outside his restaurant with the caption: “Chef team assembled.” He put the same image on his story with the line: “We’re hiring. Where the ladies at?” The photo – of an all-white, all-male roster – received an onslaught of criticism for appearing more like a rugby boys’ club than a representation of London’s diverse culinary talent.

Thomas Straker
Elspeth Vincent

“It doesn’t really say ‘we take women seriously’ does it,” one food industry insider told the Standard on the day. The comments on social media were far more attacking. In response to the backlash, Straker wrote: “People need to calm down… if you feel so passionately, please go and gather CVs of any chefs you think we’re missing in the team.”

The next day Straker cooled off at Lord’s cricket ground for the Ashes with controversial broadcaster Piers Morgan and former Goldman Sachs executive, Michael Daffey (who purchased the notorious Jeffrey Epstein’s mansion in 2021 for $51m). But people did not “calm down”. Straker dominated the headlines in almost every major newspaper that week.

His version of events? “Literally the night before, I thought: I should get some team shots because we haven’t put anything out. So I text a girl, my friend Lily Bertrand-Webb, mixed race girl from Ladbroke Grove, and she came and took the photo,” he told Ellis.

Lily Bertrand-Webb is a photographer whose subjects include Damien Hirst, Cara Delevingne, Paul McCartney and her work of John Keane hangs in The National Portrait Gallery’s permanent collection. “I thought if she, you know – we’re great friends and I thought if she had seen something like all ‘ooo, this could potentially be a bit...’ She sent that to me. It was a last-minute thing, we didn’t have the people who were actually working,” Straker explained.

Straker’s big dream is to open a restaurant in New York, he said in April, referring to his “great following in the US” and “great US investors”. That was before the end of year scandals. Since then, he seems to have gone quiet on the idea. For now, he’s sticking to what he knows: butter.