Tom Booton: “There’s still a lot more I want to accomplish at The Grill”

September 7, 2021

Tom Booton was named Chef to Watch at this year’s Estrella Damm National Restaurant Awards, and there’s more to come from the ambitious young chef-patron at The Grill at The Dorchester.

Tell us about how you got your start as a chef

I just fell into it really. When I was 15, I got a work experience placement through school at Le Talbooth [in Essex], and I just never left. They started me on the pot wash, and eventually I moved through the different sections of the kitchen including garnishes, meat, larder and pastry. I was really drawn to the team camaraderie. There’s nothing else like it; it’s a real adrenaline rush.

Eventually you moved to London, what was the plan?

I was 19, and I really wanted to move to the capital and develop my career. I got a job working with Alyn Williams at his restaurant at The Westbury in Mayfair, and spent a year there initially. That was a massive wake up call. Le Talbooth was a great restaurant, but it only had a small brigade of around eight chefs, while The Westbury had nearly triple that. It was a massive kitchen and Alyn was brilliant; it was most probably my favourite restaurant I worked in. From there I went on to work at David Moore’s Pied à Terre in Fitzrovia, and I also spent time at Dabbous with Ollie Dabbous. It was around then that Alyn approached me and offered me the role of head chef at The Westbury. I was shocked; it was a really proud moment for me.

You were still very young when you took over the stoves at The Westbury. Did this make the role more challenging?

I’ve never really had a problem with my age in kitchens. I work on the same level as my team and try not to have an ego. I get there the same time as them; leave at the same time; help with the cleaning. If you show respect, you get it back.

How did the opportunity come about to join The Grill at The Dorchester?

Mirko Cattini, the hotel manager at The Dorchester, came in for dinner at The Westbury. He asked to speak to me afterwards and told me how much he enjoyed his meal, and the whole thing stemmed from there. I was invited in for meetings with the general manager and hotel directors, and together we began drawing up a plan of what we wanted to do with The Grill and how we wanted to evolve the restaurant.

What was that plan?

I said there was no way I was going to go in there and just cook for what I call the ‘Dover sole’ crowd. We wanted to broaden the restaurant’s appeal and open it out to a younger clientele. London is changing all the time and it’s important The Dorchester keeps up with that. The first decision I made was to create a pudding bar at the back of the dining room; it was a way of breaking down that formal perception guests can have of The Dorchester and an old-school restaurant like The Grill.

How did you approach the menu development?

Originally The Dorchester wanted me to create a traditional à la carte menu, with eight each of starters, mains and desserts, but I was keen to move away from that. I didn’t want to do a set tasting menu either, because I didn’t want to be constricted by the need to create the same dishes every day. So, I opted for a four-course menu, which has given me the space to put my own spin on some of the more classic dishes. Take the lobster thermidor, which we’ve given a smarter, more contemporary look, serving it as a cheddar cheese tart with thermidor foam, a lobster bisque base and roasted lobster tail on top.

Has your approach to cooking and dish development evolved since taking over The Grill?

As a team, we’re much more confident. We approach the dish development as a unit, rather than it just being me doing the recipe. At the start it was about keeping the food consistent, but now we have that self-assurance to be more experimental. I often set the team challenges to come up with dishes for the lunch menu, and then we try and discuss those plates as a team; talking about what works and what doesn’t. It’s still in line with what I want the food to be, but the dishes are completely their own.

Lockdown was a tough time for hospitality staff. How did you keep your team engaged and motivated during lockdown?

I spoke to every one of my team on a daily basis. We did group training with our suppliers over Zoom; on Fridays the master sommelier would do wine of the week, using bottles from Tesco; and we did a weekly pub quiz. I was also keen to maintain the momentum we’d built up before the pandemic – we launched in late 2019 and had put so much time into opening the restaurant and getting our name out there. That led to the Make It Yourself boxes. It took three months of planning and preparation but was worth it as it meant we didn’t lose traction.

Have you made any changes to the restaurant since reopening?

You can now come and have dessert at the pudding bar, without having a full meal beforehand, which we didn’t do before. But that’s a natural progression, it’s not because of the pandemic. People really like sitting at the bar, and we’ve had customers pre-book it in the past. It helps further break down that sense of formality. We’ve had guests from the hotel come in at the end of the evening just for dessert and a glass of champagne.

You’ve achieved so much in your career already. What advice do you have for aspiring chefs who might want to follow in your footsteps?

I’m not going to say it’s easy. You have to accept that being a chef is hard work, and the hours can be long. But I’ve been very lucky to always work with chefs who I’ve really respected and aspired to be like. My main thing has always been to surround myself with an amazing team, and that’s what anyone who wants to get into kitchens should do.

You were named the Chef to Watch, sponsored by Belazu, at this year’s Estrella Damm National Restaurant Awards. What’s next for you?

At the moment there’s still a lot more I want to accomplish at The Grill. I’ve been working on this project for close to three years, but we’ve only had 10 or 11 full months of trading. I want to focus on perfecting that restaurant, making it better and keeping the team happy. Beyond that I don’t know. I’d like to have a few restaurants one day. I’ve got an amazing team and I feel like they’ll stick with me for a long time. We’re very close knit and as I progress, I want them to progress too. If I had my own restaurant, I would want Adam [Nevin, The Grill at The Dorchester’s sous chef] to run the kitchen. And then maybe if I got a pub, I could give that to one of the others in the team to head that up. But at the moment I want to focus on my time at The Grill.

The Chef to Watch award is sponsored by Belazu.