How did the opportunity first come about?
It started almost exactly a year ago when Robert Whitfield, The Dorchester’s general manager, came in to The Westbury in Mayfair for a meal while I was cooking there as head chef. He asked to speak to me afterwards and told me how much he liked the food, and the whole thing stemmed from there.
What was the brief?
They were looking for a fresh approach. This was an opportunity for me to create a restaurant I would want to eat in myself, somewhere a little less formal. I have a lot of respect for the more classic style of fine dining, but the whole aesthetic surrounding it – the immaculate white table clothes, and the stiff-upper-lip service – is more representative of the past. It’s funny, as you’d assume The Dorchester would be looking for a restaurant just like that, but they weren’t. When Robert and I first talked, we discussed how much we both loved going to a restaurant that does more than focus on looking the part, and makes sure you get fantastic front of house service too, and a menu that isn’t overly complex and offers well-cooked, ingredient-led dishes.
How would you describe your style?
I call it fine dining without the ‘fine’. It has the same sequence of service as you would see in a top Michelin-starred restaurant, but with some of the formality stripped away. We worked with the front of house team, helping them to communicate with customers in a way that isn’t always so prim. For me, this is what people are looking for more and more these days, whether it be fine dining or at a more casual level.
Tell us about the menu development
Originally The Dorchester wanted me to create a traditional à la carte menu, with eight each of starters, mains and desserts, but I was keen to move away from that. I didn’t want to do a set tasting menu either, because I didn’t want to be constricted by the need to create the same dishes every day. So I opted to create a four-course menu, which is accessible to diners and gave me the space to put my own spin on some of the more classic dishes. Take the lobster thermidor, which we’ve given a smarter, more contemporary look, serving it as a cheddar cheese tart with thermidor foam, with a lobster bisque base and a roasted lobster tail on top.
Is there a signature dish?
I wouldn’t call it a signature, but one dish I’m particularly proud of is the bread, butter and black pudding. I’ve been working on the recipe for this bread for over a year; I always wanted to make a dark stout bread that combined flavours of malt, treacle and honey. I worked with Chapel Down to make my own beer, and have used that in the bread, which is baked and served with homemade butter and black pudding, lightly fried so you’re able to spread it easily. It’s a dish that captures perfectly the sort of ideas and flavours I want to present across the menu.
Have there been challenges?
It was a bit tough at the beginning, because I was trying to get my vision across to a lot of people working within the hotel at a higher level, but it’s a testament to the managers that they’ve been very open to helping me realise my ideas. They’ve given me a lot of flexibility with both the restaurant design, and the menu.
What sort of energy do you look to create in the kitchen?
I want the environment and the mentality between team to be almost familial. It’s a great brigade, and we work well together. I tell them ‘it’s not my restaurant, it’s ours’, which creates a more inclusive energy. We work as a unit, and we all want to push ourselves; there’s a lot of drive, and a thirst to succeed.
The industry continues to struggle with training and recruitment; what needs to change?
We need more seasoned chefs to be inspiring the younger ones, and be willing to give them more of a chance. Some have a habit of jumping down the throats of trainees after they make one mistake and then getting rid of them, which is just a waste. Being a chef is a tough job, particularly in those early days. When I started out at the Le Talbooth I was 15, I made mistakes and people were hard on me for it, but they were also motivational. And that’s always been my main thing, to make sure I work both with and for people who inspire me. I don’t like to see people shouted at. In fact, in the moments when I get frustrated or angry with someone, I lower my voice; it’s about maintaining control of your emotions. A lot of chefs waste their time shouting at their staff needlessly, without wishing to confront the problem and make sure it doesn’t happen again. At the end of the day, the reason we do this job is to make people happy. And if you can communicate that to those you’re working with, it means any issues you have during the service are often easy to overcome.
This is a web version of an article that first appeared in the December issue of Restaurant magazine, the leading title for the UK's restaurant industry. For more features, comment, interviews and in-depth analysis of the restaurant sector subscribe to Restaurant magazine here.