Tom Sykes’ first Sydney restaurant job, back in 1996, was at a little place called Rockpool. Fast-forward almost 15 years and Sykes has not only climbed the ranks from waiter to headwaiter to assistant manager to general manager in time for the Sydney Olympics in 2000 in the crucible of the city’s most talked-about restaurant, he has made his way to the forefront of the profession. Understated and unflappable without being aloof, and ever-watchful without losing his affability, he has put a face of professional good humour on one of the most polished service teams in the country.
“Tom is very even-handed,” says Neil Perry. “He has completely taken on board our philosophy of care, making sure that the staff are in a position to look after the guests, and that the guests themselves are relaxed and ready for a great dining experience.
It’s easy to think that Sykes came into this world fully dressed in a crisp suit and perfectly knotted tie, but it was deep in thongs-and-sarongs territory, working with Sunshine Coast restaurant veteran Leonie Palmer in Noosa, that he first became hooked on the buzz of service. “Tom worked with us during his university holidays at Palmer’s here in Noosa,” says Palmer, now at Noosa’s Coconut Grove. “Of course, he decided to defer because he was enjoying it. He was getting some classical training from my husband, Steph Fisher, and he was always an apt and very good learner.” Palmer remembers being very, ahem, popular with Skyes’ parents when he pretty much decided to defer his studies full time, but the decision proved to be the right one. “Tom always had a lovely manner and good people sense, so it’s no surprise to us that he’s done so well.”
As fascinating as it was to see him working the floor at Spice Temple in the months leading up to the opening of Rockpool Bar & Grill, it’s at the latter, in one of the most demanding rooms in the country, that he finds a challenge worthy of all that training and experience. Sykes credits his success in this business to the sense of loyalty, dedication and family Rockpool’s Perry and Trish Richards instil in their staff, and they’re qualities we’re going to see enriching this industry as the people who have come up under him go out into their own roles. Short of cloning him, holding Tom Sykes up as an example of how good home-grown Australian service can be seems like a pretty good idea to us.
WORDS PAT NOURSE PHOTOGRAPHY JASON LOUCAS
This article is from the September 2009 issue of Australian Gourmet Traveller.