*UPDATE: The Ritz Restaurant was, in 2016, awarded it's first Michelin star*
Why has The Ritz restaurant never had a Michelin star? This is the question I asked myself after my first hour with executive chef John Williams and his team in the world famous Ritz Hotel in St James’s.
In that first hour in the beautifully refurbished kitchen, completed in 2014 to commemorate John’s ten years there, I had already prepared canapes of goat’s cheese, squid ink, chicken liver touille and salmon meringue, and helped to plate a delicate slow cooked duck egg with English asparagus, pecorino and wild herbs.
Around me, everything was spotless, the chefs worked tirelessly, and every plate was a marvel.
This is old school fine dining, and Andy Hayler, the unofficial Mr Michelin himself, dines at The Ritz at least once every two weeks. But the problem facing a hotel restaurant such as The Ritz is quite clear upon reflection. There is a perception from the outside world of The Ritz that is hard to change. And it is this perception that may well be holding them back.
“I had a food critic come for lunch the other day,” said John Williams, watching his brigade continue with early afternoon food orders through the window in his office.
“This critic’s lunch guest didn’t turn up. And he told me that he got a bit of a shiver! Here he was at The Ritz Restaurant, and he didn’t have a partner! He said it actually made him nervous!”
I thought about this and realised that if a food critic can get nervous, other prospective guests could too. Now while this wouldn’t affect the quality of the food in any way, it would certainly go a long way in formulating a general perception even before entering.
One of the hardest things for a chef in a hotel is to get his message across. And there is a well-established expectation of old school quality and grace at The Ritz, which gives John and his team little manoeuvrability.
"It's about gently, slow, correct change," continued John.
"An evolution from the perception of old fashioned, from a thick, heavy style. More finesse and sharpness in what we do.
"Little tweaks of evolution while keeping the correct style. The Ritz must remain The Ritz."
John is making great strides with this slow evolution, but the team are not focussed on accolades, and neither is John. Their focus remains on using the best quality British ingredients to create a wonderful, altogether classic dining experience for their guests.
And what makes this all so special is John’s own passion for nurturing young and ambitious chefs in his kitchen.
“I’m a cook, not a chef,” continued John.
“I come from a very humble background – one of six children – and my father was a fisherman. I know how fortunate I am for my lot in life, and I have always been a huge one for helping the next generation.”
Normally in kitchens, finding that apprentice or stagiaire is like finding Wally. But in The Ritz kitchen, they’re absolutely everywhere.
During a mid-service lull, I started peeling white asparagus on one of the many counters across the kitchen. The asparagus was to be made into a gel for the halibut de jour. I was working next to a chef called Lauren, who was sorting garnish. She was on an apprentice scheme from Dorset and worked from 8am to 5pm three days a week.
Next to her was a commis called Spencer who was soon to be promoted to a CDP. He had started life as an apprentice just like Lauren.
Two of the sous chefs around me had also graduated and worked their way up, and they told me that there were six other graduates around and about. Two stagiaires had also joined me in the kitchen that day.
As I moved from the asparagus to popping peas for the lamb dish, I thought to myself how amazing it was that the kitchen could work so smoothly despite the different levels of chefs littered around, but I realised that this is the essence of home grown.
They may have started as apprentices, but the graduated chefs know the place inside out, and are perfectly placed to guide the new apprentices coming in.
“I don’t like rock and roll chefs!” John told me as he put on his wonderfully tall chef’s hat and joined the fray.
Prep was winding down now and chefs were preparing for dinner service. As well as the white asparagus and peas, I had helped with the cauliflower puree for the scallop starter, the sorting of bean flowers for the lobster and the purple watercress for the pomme maxim, and I had also trimmed trompette mushrooms.
Now, with dinner service ready to go, I stood with John at the pass and was shown how to plate the quail dish with truffle, roast onion and mushroom.
It was an all action day and I felt very lucky to have been allowed this stage. The other two stagiaires were much quieter than I, so I felt it right to take them under my wing and have them enjoy some of the experiences I had. I always say how important it is to be confident in a kitchen, regardless of station, as you never know what you’ll be allowed to do.
John recommended I take a look in pastry before I left and introduced me to Lewis, pastry chef at The Ritz for the last eight years. He welcomed me in and had me start on a mango mousse for the mango mousseline.
I had to warm a little mango puree with one vanilla pod and 30g of light brown sugar. Then I added three leaves of gelatine, passed the mixture onto the remaining puree and fold in semi whipped UHT milk.
The resulting dessert, a long way down the line from my making of the mousse, was extraordinary. I just hope that, some way down the line, John and his marvellous brigade receive the recognition they so richly deserve.