'I think that's my key, I'm nothing without the team'

Tanwen Dawn-Hiscox

Tanwen Dawn-Hiscox

Deputy Editor

Having a young chef at the helm of one of the most well-regarded establishments in the capital makes for an easy introduction. but in Tom Booton's case, the youthful energy he has brought to The Grill at The Dorchester is worth mentioning. 

Joining from his previous role as the head chef of what was then Alyn Williams' Michelin-starred outpost at The Westbury, prior to which he worked at Le Talbooth, L’Autre Pied and Dabbous, to name a few, he was given plenty of agency as to where to take The Grill. 

"They never questioned me about my age," he said, joining us for the final episode of The Grilled podcast co-hosted by The Wilderness chef owner Alex Claridge.

"It's just everyone else. Inside the hotel, they were like, 'what do you want to do?' They always said to me, 'it's your restaurant, do what you want to do with it.'" 

'They must have thought I was mad'

Tom arrived with most of his brigade in tow, and gave the Collection more than it bargained for.

"They just wanted to bring a chef in, keep the same yellow tablecloths, keep the old branding," he explained, and in the kitchen, "to just bring someone in and make them cook the same menu." 

Then, they asked for his input. "So we just put it all together, we redesigned the restaurant, brought my team in, put the pudding bar in," the latter being his first idea to be put into practice. 

"They must have thought I was mad," he laughed, "I remember saying 'on this section here we can put a pudding bar and we can put an ice cream machine,' and they were like, 'an ice cream machine? We're in The Dorchester!'"

To this, he retorted, "tell me what your favourite ice cream is," stumping the general manager, who confessed that his frozen dessert of choice was a McFlurry.

"And I said: 'well, that's your answer.'" 

Being given so much authority on everything to do with the restaurant has been an incredible opportunity for Tom, but he did have to be wary of staying on brand, as The Dorchester Collection has nine hotels in four countries, with everything that that entails. 

But even with that in mind, he has put his stamp on The Grill by doing things like creating an Instagram page for the restaurant, making it the only one in the group to have one, as well as fearlessly reappropriating the menu.

The food

When it comes to the calibre of the food, the chef hasn't turned everything on its head, as, he explained, he and his team are all classically trained. "We just put a modern touch on it." 

The issue was more of creating an identity for the restaurant, as when he started, "I asked them what they thought The Grill was. No-one knew the answer."

Speaking to The Dorchester general manager Robert Whitfield, Tom realised that "people were almost scared to come into the hotel because people perceive that they can't afford it, or it's not for them or we're going to judge them." 

And so, "one of my big USPs I wanted for the restaurant was to cook for normal people," hence introducing a £30 lunch menu, three courses for £30 and an a la carte of 4-courses for £75. 

The dishes on the menu were designed with input from the whole team, as Tom explained, "I've never worked at a two-star or a three-star, they've got so much to give and to work on together." 

One great example of this is sous-chef Adam Nevin's initiative to learn about fermentation, the results of which are making an appearance on the menu.

"So now we're got a garam cupboard," Tom chuckled, "We've got misos growing everywhere."

"Obviously we're going to keep our DNA of being British food," but now, "we just season our beef tartare with beef garam or put a little drop of chicken garam into our chicken sauce right at the end, just for that umami punch." 


The crew

Tom brought in all but one member of his kitchen team from The Westbury and The Hand and Flowers, where Adam worked for a period after leaving The Westbury. 

"The team for me is everything," he said, and this includes the front of house. "They're amazing." 

Describing his team as "just like a dysfunctional family," he said, "I'm hoping they stay for a long time."

With staffing being an issue for almost every restaurant in the country, you might ask, what is his secret? One might be that for everything the chef gleaned from his previous workplaces, he learned lessons about how not to manage his team, too.

"Do you remember, when you were a CDP and you used to watch your head chef and just think, 'ugh, what a k***head, I'm definitely not going to be like that.'" 

"I'm really trying to remember that and put it into operation." 

Open communication allows him to lead a cohesive team, another marked shift from some of his predecessors.

"Ten years ago, you weren't really allowed to talk about what you were thinking or doing or what was going on in your life," it was more a case of "leave your troubles at the door." 

At The Grill, "everyone in the team knows each other's business and they're all there for each other, it's really nice to see." 

"It's super important to have that culture," he said, because "these guys work so much harder than me. I'm not afraid to admit it." 

The chef remembers being told by one of his ex-chefs about a so-called 'circle of life,' whereby "you get a chef, they're rubbish, you make them half decent, then they make them good, and then they leave. Then you start again." 

"I remember thinking, 'I don't think that's true,' if you give them more opportunities to grow," through promotions, giving them creative input on the menu, "you give them something which is theirs, you let them run the pass, then they feel a part of it."  

"I really want to give them the opportunity to grow as well and I think that's why they've all stuck with me."

"I think that's my key, I'm nothing without the team." 

And the star? 

To have scooped the Chef of the Year award at the National Restaurant Awards was as joyous at it was a surprise to Tom, having only been open for eleven and a half months in the two years since he took on the role.

If nothing else, he said, the recognition helps see you through difficult times.

"You have good days and bad days, but Jesus, some days are hard."

"To realise it is for something and you are on the right path - it doesn't matter what path it is - it's just nice. It just gives you a little pat on the back."

As for the much-coveted star, he said: "It's definitely the dream, I'm not going to sit here and say I don't want it, because I'd be lying and be a d**k, but that's my background and all the team's background as well.

"The major reason I'd want it is for the team because they all come from two stars and one stars and hopefully if we did win it, they wouldn't leave." 

But as always, the customer comes first.

"We have regulars all the time, every single service we have a regular, that's the most important. It doesn't matter about accolades. Your customers coming in, keep coming in, returning business, paying their full bill, being happy, being on that journey with us.

"Then it's the team, keeping the team happy, front of house, back of house" - not a small feat, with a total of forty people to manage.

"If the accolades come, they come, but I'm not going to lose sleep over it." 

"I know they've been in a few times, I spot them when they come in, they know that I know that they're there. So, whatever. If they think it's not good enough, then it's not good enough, there's nothing else I can do."

"It is a legendary guide and what they've done for the industry is great, but I think since Covid, there's a lot more to life isn't there. Looking after each other and being human is more important." 

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Tanwen Dawn-Hiscox

Tanwen Dawn-Hiscox

Deputy Editor 8th September 2021

'I think that's my key, I'm nothing without the team'