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Leisure Management
2014 issue 4

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Leisure Management - Back to basics


Back to basics

As restaurants move away from formal dining towards simpler ways of serving good food, Grahame Senior takes a look at a few operators getting it right

Grahame Senior
James Durrant previously worked at Gordon Ramsay in Chelsea and the Maze in Mayfair. He took over the Plough Inn in 2012

One of the interesting trends of recent times is the way in which first rate chefs in highly rated establishments have been moving away from the formality and splendours of ‘fine dining restaurants’ and taking up their sabatiers in simpler surroundings. The Plough at Longparish and the White Oak at Cookham are two testaments to the success of this strategy.

I might even suggest that the new ‘Marcus’ (previously ‘Marcus Wareing at the Berkeley’) at the Berkeley Hotel in Wilton Place also testifies to something of the same cultural trend.

Perhaps this change in the direction of the pendulum can be traced back to the legendary Bernard Loiseau in Burgundy. He was so caught up in the whole competitive thing that was the tune of the times that he committed suicide in anticipation of losing one of his Michelin stars. In the event this didn’t happen and he retained his status having lost his life. His elegant widow Dominique carries on the business today with splendid insouciance and another practitioner in perfection, Patrick Bertron. Hopefully they now feel the pressure less. They certainly continue to do what they do extremely well and I would recommend a visit.

Today I’m concentrating on the practical aspects of this trend exemplified by two excellent chefs, Clive Dixon of the White Oak and James Durrant of the Plough. Dixon previously worked as head chef under Pierre Koffmann at the Berkeley Hotel in London and Durrant has spent more than 10 years in Michelin starred establishments including Maze in Mayfair. Right now they’re to be found cooking in thoughtfully designed environments housed in old pubs in L’Angleterre Profonde. What marks them out as similar is not the decor, but the stunning quality of the food and the ingredients delivered on the plate – and the shared enthusiasm of the staff.

Teamwork gets it done
One of the things about good food is that it tastes better when well served and it tastes even better when a young and enthusiastic team understands and can explain every aspect of the food and wine. Molly at the Plough and Alison at the White Oak share that attribute. They may be young but they certainly care about what they’re doing and they clearly have a great rapport with the guys in the kitchen.

Great cooking starts with the food
Another defining characteristic of both these places is that while there are standard staples on the menu, there are very few of them and the whole essence of the approach is to cook what’s good on the day. The best fish, the most interesting local meat and, very importantly, properly fresh vegetables of the season. Like the traditional bourgeois French approach of starting each day at the market and designing the menu from there, there is a clear commitment to letting the ingredients do the talking and the role of the chef is to present their freshness fulfilled.

Some wise words
The change to more informality and less obsequious service does not mean that what arrives on the plate is any the less important. Rather the opposite. Along with greater informality, the presentation of the food on the plate has become simpler. There is less in the way of foam, smears and blobs in evidence and rather more focus on letting the ingredients speak for themselves. ‘Less is more’ means that with fewer ingredients – and certainly fewer embellishments – competing for attention, the inherent quality of the core ingredients and the cooking can sing out more clearly.

A piece of fine, fresh fish served with samphire is more likely to be just that these days, so that the two ingredients create their own harmony without any distractions from other sauces. In the case of both the White Oak and the Plough, this is clearly evidenced and fish is very much a speciality. ‘Let the food speak for itself’ seems very much the way forward.

Why it works better when it’s simpler
If you talk to the chefs who are leading this trend, they will tell you that relying less on presentation and focusing more on food quality and freshness is a more satisfying discipline. It is worth remembering that in Medieval times, the invention of many sauces was caused by the need to mask less than perfectly fresh food flavours.

The simplification that is occurring in many Michelin starred establishments is echoed throughout many less formal restaurants. It seems to me to be a satisfying trend both for the diner and for the team operating.

And it makes business sense
Anybody who’s in hospitality knows that the key cost factor and the key management stress is all to do with the staff. With the right team and everything working harmoniously, a restaurant positively beams with satisfaction and success. Too few staff and everything grinds to a halt. Too many for a particular meal occasion and everything gets cluttered and clumsy. By focusing on simpler service and more straightforward food, the need for extraneous staff and fussy activities is reduced.

In tune with the times
More and more restaurants in even the swankiest hotels have a very relaxed dress policy. Front-of-house staff tend to be more informally attired and an attitude of all being one community rather than ‘them and us’ is much more prevalent.

These are egalitarian times and food service and restaurant presentation is fitting in with the fashion.

Which brings me back to Marcus
As I said at the beginning, I think even Marcus at the Berkeley is reflecting this trend for a simpler way. The new restaurant features a very much simpler style of greeting and front-of-house service. The food is also served plated up in a much simpler way. What hasn’t changed is the quality on the plate.

Go there before they get bored and go back to being haughty!

"The emphasis is on working as a team"

Clive Dixon, chef patron of the White Oak at Cookham, has travelled a long and sometimes winding road through the higher echelons of modern British cooking. Having started out at Lords of the Manor and then Hunstrete House, which both achieved Michelin stars, he has had a number of lead chef positions, including working with the legendary Pierre Koffmann at his eponymous restaurant in the Berkeley Hotel.

He has been at the White Oak since 2012 and considers it one of the most satisfying businesses he has run. The emphasis is very much on working as a team. From the front of house to KP, everything is focused on the food and every member of the team is fully briefed on the ingredients and dishes of the day. Enthusiasm for what’s delivered on the plate is infectiously transferred to the guests and there’s a sense of excitement and anticipation that pervades the White Oak style of hospitality.

As Dixon says, “What gets me up in the morning is the search for the freshest and finest ingredients of the day.” He is also absolutely clear that while his skill and passion is cooking, the business he is in is hospitality. Having been to the White Oak several times this year, I can bear witness to the fact that his vision is delivered with passion by every member of his team.


PHOTO: Martin Wilson

The team in the kitchen at the White Oak in Cookham, including chef patron Clive Dixon (centre). Dixon has been there since 2012

Originally published in Leisure Management 2014 issue 4

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