by Amy Bryant, The Telegraph, October 2, 2017
Through the revolving doors with a ‘How d’you do?’ to the doorman; across the chequerboard marble floor of the lobby; and into The Foyer – the dining room – where the glass ringlets of a Dale Chihuly chandelier glint above; then down, deep within the kitchens (‘the engine room’) of Claridge’s hotel, is where you will find its executive chef, Martyn Nail.
From his office, a modest space with large windows and walls lined with cookbooks, he can see the daily deliveries arrive. He can dart out to inspect the grouse, squeeze a peach, or check that a windfall of damsons is ripe. To his left is the hot kitchen, where a crack squad from his 72 staff sends out the last of the lunch orders; to his right is ‘pastry’, the cooler, calmer dominion of precision pipers and macaron makers.
Combined, the number of meals served (and mouths fed) by Nail’s teams is so vast that I feel moved to drop a few stats. Over the course of a year, 69,625 breakfasts, 57,792 loaves of bread and 43,983 champagne bottles are respectively served, sliced and poured in order to sate 87,711 guests. And that bread is just for afternoon tea, for which the hotel receives 22,000 annual requests. I’ve seen the towers of finger sandwiches being prepared, and salute their creator.
‘We operate 24 hours a day, 365 days a year,’ Nail tells me. For a 161-year-old hotel in Mayfair that was by the 1880s ‘the extension to Buckingham Palace’, and today counts Joan Collins, Carmen Dell’Orefice and Diane von Furstenberg as regular guests, one might assume that Nail’s culinary output would be exclusively classics – eggs Benedict, salmon en croute, chocolate fondant.
But remember summer 2012, when Olympic fever swept the country? At Claridge’s, one of the world’s best restaurants set up shop in the ballroom. The 10-day Noma residency wowed its £195-a-head guests – not least because of the live ants that trundled over the cabbage leaves.
‘We’re not old and dusty,’ Nail says. ‘We can be on-trend, with green juices and quinoa. We have to be.’ Indeed, there is bircher muesli on The Foyer’s menu, as well as an oozing cheeseburger, and last month the art-deco Claridge’s Bar was unrecognisable as an Irish pub serving cocktails by New York’s The Dead Rabbit, currently crowned the world’s best bar. Did the regulars throw down their petits fours in disgust? ‘Our guests are so well travelled that they like to challenge me on how many of the “50 Best” restaurants I’ve been to,’ Nail says in response.
Nail has been at Claridge’s for 30 years and is as likely to be seen greeting diners in The Foyer, where his toque is easily spotted among the mirrored pillars, as he is tasting the Severn & Wye smoked salmon before service. His executive sous chef, Adam Peirson, has been with him for 18 years. ‘We like to keep our apprentices, to train them well and move them up to be successful.’ Many leave to gain experience at other hotels, such as The Savoy, and return, while others have done stints abroad at Eleven Madison Park in New York and, since the pop-up, Noma in Copenhagen.
Further legacies of René Redzepi’s visit are a dish of goat’s-milk butter and roasted celeriac that Nail has kept on the menu (requiring ‘toothpicks and brushes’ to scrub up the celeriac skin just so) and a foreword for Claridge’s: The Cookbook, which is the hotel’s first.
In it, Nail has shared recipes for its croissants (a three-page project), its roast beef, and its eminently doable chocolate sandwich biscuits, which were favourites of the American couple Jack and Norma Melchor, whom many may remember from the 2012 BBC documentary Inside Claridge’s (the unflappable general manager Thomas Kochs has since left, but butler Michael Lynch still calls the hotel his ‘home from home’).
The kitchen ‘gets’ customer service. While one guest’s gun is stored upstairs, his shoot (grouse) hangs in the walk-in fridge to be served up for supper. Frequent visitors are greeted with bespoke treats or, if a trip to Goodwood or Glyndebourne is planned, sent off with strawberries and cream or pastries. Dishes are whisked away for room service via a separate stairwell. ‘This is all Victorian,’ Nail says, gesturing to the building’s structure. ‘The kitchen was built beneath the house and it was designed to work.’
In between a charcoal-fuelled Big Green Egg (the professional chef’s answer to an indoor barbecue) and a pair of ‘all-singing, all-dancing, all-steaming’ modern ovens is a veteran of the workforce – a 100-year-old bone-roasting oven in which a hind quarter or baron of beef can be hung. ‘Sadly,’ Nail says, ‘it’s out of action for repairs, but it will be reconnected to the gas soon.’
So traditions are upheld, with the burnished chicken pie never removed from the à la carte offering and the Christmas pudding mixed by hand by all the kitchen staff, while modern touches are also in evidence – such as a nasturtium leaf or two plucked from the LED-lit micro-herb fridge for afternoon tea. I bet the next envelope-pushing pop-up is in the planning, too.
‘We like to work with people who are at the top of their game,’ says Nail. ‘And we’re having fun.’
Claridge’s: The Cookbook, by Martyn Nail and Meredith Erickson (Mitchell Beazley, £30), is available from Telegraph Bookshop for £24.99 with free p&p (0844-871 1514)