London’s Venerable Grill Room At The Dorchester Has A New Look And A Very Young Chef From Essex

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Since the opening of London’s Dorchester Hotel’ in 1931, its Grill has, along with historic places like Rules and Wilton’s, been totemic as a standard of British cuisine, from its cock-a-leekie soup to its Sunday roast with Yorkshire pudding. Over the decades changes have been both decorous and gustatory, and for many years now it has co-existed across the hotel’s foyer from Alain Ducasse’s French restaurant and China Tang downstairs.

Once nicknamed The Spanish Grill, it emerged in 2006 with a Scottish motif, complete with murals of lairds a-leaping. In 2014 it changed again to a sleek, glittering room of leather banquettes, Murano glass chandelier and open rotisserie. (Sadly they removed the tablecloths.)

Its newest —and, at 31—youngest chef is a fellow named Tom Booton, whose name has now been attached to the Grill. Essex born, beginning at the age of 15, Booton’s trajectory took him to Iceland and Denmark before his appointment to the prestigious Grill when he was 26 as London’s restaurant scene was evolving to international status.

I spoke with Booton about that evolution and his own, and what he believes the future of London and world dining will be.

Describe what you meant at El Talbooth in Essex“going from the bottom up.”

By “going from the bottom up,” I was describing my journey starting from basic roles and gradually progressing through different positions, transitioning from being kitchen porter, where I handled dishwashing and kitchen cleanliness, then, over time, expanding into preparing canapés and assisting in various tasks. This experience taught me resilience and the value of hard work, shaping my passion for the culinary arts and setting the foundation for my career in the culinary space.

You worked at Alyn Williams at his self-titled restaurant within The Westbury hotel and other restaurants in London. How was that different from El Talbouth?

Working at Alyn Williams marked a significant shift in my culinary journey. While El Talbooth boasted three rosettes and offered a fantastic experience, the move to London introduced me to a whole new level of professionalism and culinary excellence. In London, working alongside Michelin-starred chefs and talented individuals, there was a palpable emphasis on precision, technique, and innovation. Cooking in such a competitive environment demanded not only skill but also a deep sense of passion and dedication. In London, there was a heightened focus on infusing every dish with emotion and care and paralleled the transition to any major city where the culinary scene is vibrant and fiercely competitive. It required relentless commitment to staying at the forefront of the industry, a challenge I embraced wholeheartedly.

You left L’Autre Pied to travel. Had you arranged for stages?

Yeah, I left L’Autre Pied for a travel stint that lasted about six months. It was a bit of a much-needed break after not having a holiday in three years, so David Moore, the owner, generously allowed me to finish up and then go explore. My head chef at the time, Andy, helped organize it all. We looked into different options, and while my colleagues went to Paris, I was drawn to something more off the beaten path. That’s how I ended up in Iceland, inspired by a book I about the new Nordic food movement. I spent two eye-opening, transformative months at Dill in Reykjavik, soaking up everything I could from Gunnar [Karl Gislasson] and his team. It was transformative. After that, I did a stint in New York for two months, working in various kitchens, though the city didn’t quite capture my heart like Iceland did. Then it was off to Copenhagen for another two months, diving deeper into the Nordic culinary scene. The pace of life and approach to food in Scandinavia just resonated with me in a way that London and New York hadn’t. So, yeah, it was an incredible journey of exploration and learning.

Back in London you returned to the Westbury as head chef and received a Michelin star. What was the pressure?

Back in London, I didn’t return directly to the Westbury. Instead, I joined Ollie Dabbous at his restaurant HIDE for about a year as a sous chef. Ollie was not only a fantastic chef but also a savvy entrepreneur, teaching us valuable lessons beyond the kitchen. However, Alyn at the Westbury reached out to me, seeking a head chef. It was a tremendous honor to be asked back as head chef. Alyn’s trust in me to lead the kitchen and execute my vision both culinarily and managerially was pivotal.

Now at the Dorchester, what is the hotel looking for at The Grill? Do people expect something of the old Grill’s menus to remain there? What have you added in terms of your own style?

When considering The Grill, we embarked on a year-long conversation to redefine what a grill means to people. Traditionally, the term was often associated with overcooked meats and classic British fare like roast beef. However, we aimed to challenge these perceptions and introduce a new era of British grill cuisine. We wanted to retain elements of tradition while infusing them with innovation and modernity. For instance, one of our standout dishes, the Lobster Thermidor, underwent a transformation to elevate it to the next level, keeping the essence of the dish while presenting it in a fresh, contemporary way. We’ve also introduced a variety of shared dishes and snacks to encourage a more dynamic dining experience, where guests can sample a bit of everything. As for my own style, it permeates every aspect of The Grill, from the menu composition to the overall ambiance. I strive to create an atmosphere where guests feel welcomed, relaxed, and ultimately delighted by their culinary journey. Hospitality, for me, is about putting a smile on people’s faces and ensuring they have a memorable and enjoyable time. So, while we’ve introduced new elements to The Grill, we’ve also retained classics like the Sunday roast, ensuring there’s something for everyone to enjoy, whether they’re seeking familiarity or culinary adventure.

I assume you have a large American clientele. Are they different from the Brits or the French, Chinese, or Japanese clients?

We do have a sizable American clientele, and they’re always a pleasure to serve. One thing I’ve noticed is their infectious enthusiasm and positivity and a vibrant energy to the dining experience, which is refreshing. In contrast, us Brits can sometimes be a bit more reserved or even sarcastic. Regarding specific experiences, I remember a group of American customers who were in town for the NFL event. It’s moments like these that really highlight the camaraderie and excitement that events like the NFL bring to London. Additionally, we also receive a significant number of Japanese clients, who I believe have a deep appreciation for British cuisine, viewing it as something unique and different from their own meticulously crafted culinary traditions.

What changes have you seen in London’s dining scene in the last five years? It seems many chefs are now doing BBQ, hamburgers, steakhouses and Italian.

The culinary landscape in London has undergone significant changes over the past five years, driven in part by a more interconnected global food community. With the rise of social media, chefs and restaurateurs now have unprecedented access to each other’s creations and innovations from around the world. Unlike in the past, where allegiances to specific culinary camps were more rigid, today’s industry is characterized by collaboration and knowledge sharing. We’re constantly inspired by trends and techniques emerging not only from the U.S. but from culinary hotspots across the globe. For instance, the Nordic food scene has had a profound influence on many chefs, myself included, encouraging experimentation with new ingredients and approaches.

Is there a point where restaurants in London will just price themselves out of the market?

Navigating price points is top of mind for any restaurant in the industry. At The Dorchester our approach has always been rooted in bringing our diners an exceptional experience, as well as ensuring they feel comfortable and welcome. Our focus remains on transparent pricing that covers the costs of quality ingredients, skilled labor and operational expenses. Ultimately, we aim to educate our patrons about the value behind the culinary experience we provide, fostering a deeper appreciation for the dining journey.

Does the ever-wavering British economy affect restaurant-going in London?

One notable effect is the fluctuation in tourist numbers, particularly from the United States, where currency exchange rates make Londonvmore affordable. As someone entrenched in the hospitality scene, I appreciate the delicate balance between enjoying the vibrant dining culture and being mindful of escalating prices. It’s a reminder of the importance of offering value and quality in our establishments while navigating the economic landscape.

Will the historic old places like Rules and Wilton’s survive?

Rules, the oldest restaurant in London, holds a special place in the city’s culinary heritage with its classic French cuisine and rich history, immortalized in popular culture like James Bond films. It’s a British institution that has weathered many storms. As for Wilton’s, its reputation precedes it as a bastion of traditional British dining. While the landscape may evolve, these iconic establishments have a resilience and timeless appeal that may help them endure the changing times.

What do you see the dining scene will be like in two or three years?

Looking ahead, I believe London’s dining scene continue to flourish. There’s a growing appreciation for food, coupled with an understanding of its intricacies among the populace. In the next two to three years, I foresee a continued emphasis on authenticity and quality in dining establishments. As for trends, the concept of sharing plates has already taken root and is likely to become even more prevalent. However, there will always be space for tasting menus and diverse culinary experiences, ensuring that the industry remains dynamic and exciting. The beauty of the dining scene lies in its diversity, and I believe this diversity will only continue to thrive in the coming years.

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