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Service, please! What it’s like to cook in The Grill by Tom Booton at The Dorchester

Fly on the wall: Mike Daw joined the hard-working team for a night  (Mike Daw)
Fly on the wall: Mike Daw joined the hard-working team for a night (Mike Daw)

It’s been 14 years since my last kitchen job. In a past life, I was a pair of hands in a failing, bourgeois country pub outside a bridge-and-tunnel town. I was 16, gesturing at a dull pseudo-British pub menu of bread boards and burgers and goujons and gloom.

The menu at The Grill by Tom Booton couldn’t be a more elevated antithesis of that. Booton has had an impact here, and it’s the first time The Dorchester has put a named chef above the door of the Grill. It’s now my home for the next six and a half hours; I’m heading in to do a shift in the kitchen, and see what makes the place tick.

My trepidation accumulates on the Victoria line as I make my way there. I attempt to assuage this by opening some of my scrawled menu notes. What goes with the lobster tart? The skate wing is served with shrimp and brown butter — or was that brown shrimp and capers? A young, bounding, ebullient chef, Booton’s menu swerves displays of ego in favour of lustre, or to put it another way: he gives people what they want.

I arrive to find the menu has been changed. All that homework for nothing.

Tom Booton
Tom Booton

Perhaps surprisingly, professional kitchens share surprisingly few attributes. Some clatter with the sound of oval-shaped silver trays in the hot throes of service, others are museum-quiet, silent houses of culinary talent eking out excellence in hurried shifts. They all, however, smell the same. It’s uncanny. It’s a smell of heat, of charging ovens and screaming hot solid-tops. It’s an oleaginous mix of oils, sauces, resting meats and human bodies. Tom Booton at the Dorchester smells just as I remember every kitchen smelling. It smells like service.

Donning chef whites, I leave the changing room and view the Dorch’s hall of fame, where just some of its 92 years of history is documented. Booton points out the black and white nostalgia, noting in particular a young, smirking Prince Phillip on his stag do. I’m swept upstairs to pick coriander and meet Woody, a new 18-year-old recruit who just six months ago moved from Felpham. He’s living with two other chefs at the restaurant, a commonplace camaraderie which, in young hopefuls, inures a special covenant, a sense of brotherhood. It is one found in few other trades.

The layered brioche (Mike Daw)
The layered brioche (Mike Daw)

There’s Josh, the sous on a week of breakfasts. He’s celebrated for his brioche, a work of art that took years to get right. Close by is Jack on the meat section. Will’s on fish, with Alice on pastry (the new fig tart sells well). James is on snacks, while Frankie does the garnishes. Young Frankie is sporting some rather under-developed upper-lip hair, that earns him rightful ribbing. Booton is warm, affable and accommodating; his team are young and hungry and talented.

We eat a fast, light, pre-service meal at the respectable canteen. All of the Dorchester’s hospitality team accumulate here; porters eat with chefs, receptionists mingle with marketing. It’s jovial, convivial, genial and it’s where stories are swapped. I hear tales of holidays, bathroom refits, nights out, dodgy knees. I hear of one pair with a recently deceased tropical fish that they’d killed by accident.

Back upstairs and Booton’s focussed. Kasabian plays on the radio. Sauces are finished and meat rests. Booton and the Grill are famed for a lobster tart. Now, in its summer iteration, a light cheese tart is created with impossibly flaky pastry, topped with tomato chutney, fresh tomatoes, slices of butter-cooked lobster, barbequed courgette dressed with lemon, raw courgette, white balsamic gel, a light pesto, basil and sea purslane. Served with a warm bisque, it is a triumph.

The Grill’s dining room (Press handout)
The Grill’s dining room (Press handout)

During the hot throngs of service, Booton is aware of everything. I’m agog, astonished at his capacity, his sharpness. It juxtaposes his jovial pre-service temperament but never jars. He’s consistent in what he wants, but his mood never drops. There’s a cheerful rhythm as tickets come through and the kitchen starts to hum. Creations come together in practiced quiet, deftly making their way from the drawers of the prep fridges to the plate.

The main kitchen isn’t a place for shouting. Unlike my long-departed country pub, where every order brought with it anxiety, raised voices and raised heat rates, here there’s a resolved steadiness. The feeling here is one of confidence.

The monkfish is dressed with pickled chilli, pressed watermelon, tiger’s milk-style sauce, hazelnuts and fermented grapefruit; the pig head comprises soft slow-cooked ragu, a bed for a crisp brawn, a devilishly light slaw and house-made ‘nduja. The bresaola is house-made too, a cocoon for tender beetroot with house-made ricotta.

During the hot throngs of service, Booton is aware of everything. I’m agog, astonished at his capacity, his sharpness

These dishes are subtle evidence of a new legacy. The multitude of house-made cures and the ceviche leanings in the monkfish starter ensure Booton’s team can experience (and in time, master) these techniques and flavours. The chef’s own story comes through with dishes like the squid bolognaise, an homage to Pierre Koffman. These are dishes emblematic of the shared tradition of chefs handing down the breadth of their expertise.

Tickets continue and the tempo increases. Booton enquires after absent padrón peppers for the beef, as the skate — a huge, shared wing — hits the hot skillet. The Big Green Egg indoor barbecue bellows smoke upwards as the red mullet skin crisps. Will describes turning the mullet as giving it a “kiss” of heat. Fish and meats rest and tickets, plates, sides, sauces, proteins, dressings each reach a harmonious conclusion at the pass.

Calm after the storm (Mike Daw)
Calm after the storm (Mike Daw)

This is a kitchen firing on all cylinders. The engine room a slick operation of cool heads that revel in serving this kind of elevated British cooking. As fine as the dining room it serves, the kitchen’s essence is one of assured skill. Yes, Tom is a talent, but this menu deserves its plaudits not only for how it’s executed out front, but for how this endearing team put themselves second and the food first.

The kitchen, neither small nor large, sends its final plate — fare for a walk-in only seeking a side of mash — at 9.40pm. Hot soapy water follows, and the rush is over, but the adrenaline flows like ichor. The merry crew head to the Audley for a pint and an unofficial debrief.

In truth, I was a fly on the wall, touching only a handful of plates. Still, on the way home, I beamed. On a packed tube, only I knew of all the tiny dramas and occasions which unfolded that evening, of Tom’s calm, of the jollity of his brigade. Only I knew of the umami-rich fried shimeji mushrooms and the decadently-creamy banana cheesecake, and that fabulous squid bolognaise. Of the heat and the sweat. And only I knew the story of the dead tropical fish.

The night in numbers

  • Lobster salads served: five

  • Total covers: 29 (including Mr Mash Potato)

  • Years taken to perfect the brioche: three

  • Size of tonight’s brigade: eight

  • Price of a one-off Châteaubriand, served with sweetbreads: £120