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Ones to watch: Tom Booton

Ones to watch: Tom Booton

by Pete Dreyer 02 December 2019

Twenty-six-year-old Tom Booton is the youngest chef in The Dorchester’s illustrious history; alongside an ambitious new team, he’s looking to turn the page on a new chapter at the Park Lane institution with his own take on British food.

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Much has been made of Tom Booton becoming the youngest chef to ever take charge of The Grill at The Dorchester. This is, after all, one of London’s grandest hotels, with a rich restaurant tradition that includes legendary chefs like Alain Ducasse and Anton Mosimann. Hotel restaurants have always been home to London’s more stately, old-fashioned dining scene – Tom’s appointment, at just twenty-six years old, is a sign that The Dorchester plans on shaking things up. One might think the pressure of that mission might weigh heavily on his young shoulders, but Tom is remarkably calm amidst preparations to reopen The Grill. ‘It doesn't come into my head really,’ he says, simply. ‘The thing is, I think I've worked in good places so I know what to do.’ There have been a few ‘trolls’, he says, that think he’s too young to be running the show in a heavyweight kitchen, but he shrugs it off: ‘They should have met me three years ago when Alyn [Williams, at The Westbury] made me his head chef!’

Truth is, there aren’t many twenty-six-year-old chefs in the country with Tom’s wealth of experience. Tom has been cooking for nearly half his life – he started as a fourteen-year-old work experience at Le Talbooth near Colchester, then embarked on a career that took him to some of the best restaurants in the country, as well as Iceland and Denmark.

Le Talbooth is somewhat of an institution in Essex – a stunning restaurant in the heart of Constable country, on the banks of the River Stour. Tom had no pretensions to cook as a teenager – his parents packed him off to Le Talbooth for work experience, and he fell in love with the atmosphere of the kitchen. ‘They gave me a weekend job,’ says Tom. ‘I was working Friday night, Saturday, Sunday, sleeping in history classes on Monday, getting told off, and doing a paper round from Monday to Friday. It must be the richest I’ve ever been!’

By sixteen, Tom had decided his future lay in the kitchen, despite the protestations of his teachers. ‘A maths teacher said to me, ‘you won’t be a chef forever’. It’s quite out of order really, isn’t it?’ he laughs. Instead he took a full time job at Le Talbooth and stayed for another two-and-a-half years. ‘It taught me all the basics,’ he says. ‘I started on garnish, did the larder section; by sixteen I was on the sauce section, going down in flames when I look back on it!’ Le Talbooth had a Michelin star back then, and three AA Rosettes – it was a proper kitchen, but one that allowed him to grow. ‘A lot of the stuff I cook now is actually from Le Talbooth,’ he adds.

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The Grill at The Dorchester has been refurbished to signal Tom's arrival, with warm lighting, shimmering gold walls and cream banquettes giving the dining room a modern touch
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The big new addition to The Grill is the pudding bar, where guests can enjoy a dessert whilst chatting to the chefs who are preparing it

Tom was still just nineteen years old when he joined Alyn Williams for the first time in his career. He had already amassed plenty of kitchen experience, but life experience? Not so much. ‘I was two hours late to my trial,’ he sighs. ‘It was my first time in London. I was so nervous on the train that I threw up. Then I got lost. I remember wandering around Grosvenor Square – I didn’t have a phone or directions or anything – and this old lady walked me to The Westbury. I was properly stressing out; eventually I got into the kitchen and Alyn was like, ‘calm down, yeah?’ He was so chilled.’

Tom routinely breaks out an excellent impression of Alyn whenever he comes into conversation, though admittedly, it’s not much different from his own accent. It’s clear the two have developed a real bond over the course of their careers; Tom was with Alyn for a year before leaving to take a role at Pied à Terre. He would eventually return to The Westbury as head chef some years later, but the two stayed in touch in the interim. ‘We’re like father and son,’ Tom grins.

Before that, though, Tom spent formative years in a number of restaurants, most notably with Andy McFadden at L’Autre Pied and Pied à Terre. Andy was twenty-six at the time – the youngest Michelin-starred chef in the country – and Pied à Terre was a notoriously tough kitchen. As the restaurant’s twenty-one-year-old sous chef, Pied à Terre was the toughest test of Tom’s career. ‘We used to do sixty for lunch, eighty for dinner and there were only four of us in the kitchen,’ he says. ‘I probably wasn’t ready for sous chef in that kitchen.’

Tom speaks with remarkable poise and honesty about his experiences – get past his babyface and you realise he has a wise, rather philosophical head on his shoulders. ‘What does it mean to be too young, though?’ he quips. ‘We all just try and keep our head above water and keep swimming, regardless of how old we are. I cried on the bus home every night, but I came back the next day and tried to do better. It was tough – really tough – but it made me.’

Short stints at Dill Restaurant in Reykjavík, Studio in Copenhagen and a month in New York followed, but Tom returned to London eager to make his mark somewhere. He had just started working with Alyn again when news came through the grapevine about a sous chef role at Dabbous with Ollie Dabbous. ‘I did a year there,’ says Tom. ‘Ollie is a great guy to work for, he really looks after his chefs. He was great for me because he has a great business mind – he’s an entrepreneur. To fund Dabbous, he went out and raised all the money himself. He’d have everything worked out to the finest details – tax bills, rubbish bills, food costs. If we got a punnet of strawberries in, Ollie would make us count how many strawberries were there, and then work out how much they cost each.’

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Lobster thermidor tart
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Herdwick rack of lamb, ratatouille, Boulangère potatoes
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Tom's menu is modern and exciting, but he still finds a space from some classic British cooking
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This beef Wellington is available for two to share, and comes with a choice of side

He laughs when he recalls his return to Alyn Williams at The Westbury afterwards. Tom returned to The Westbury as head chef and took control of the kitchen with a new understanding of how to manage the costs of a restaurant. ‘Alyn’s a very old school chef – an amazing chef, but old school,’ he grins. ‘He wants a clean slate every day, so at the end of the night we’d get rid of everything and go again in the morning. He loves truffle, loves caviar, but when you cost up the dishes they’re so expensive!’ It took Tom a year to convince Alyn to stop buying truffle; even then, things would mysteriously turn up in the kitchen. ‘He would just order stuff,’ Tom laughs. ‘After a year of me being in charge he would pick up the phone and say, ‘I’d better pass you on to Tom or I’ll get told off.’’

Alyn Williams at The Westbury maintained its Michelin star during Tom’s time as head chef, and he had no plans to leave when a chance meeting with The Dorchester’s general manager Robert Whitfield put him on their radar. ‘He was in the restaurant for dinner,’ Tom explains. ‘He wanted to meet the chef and then we had a nice chat afterwards. I think he was expecting someone a bit older!’ Plans were set in motion and Tom is now ready to turn the page on a new chapter at The Dorchester, opening The Grill with a fresh, exciting new style.

‘I just want it to be a really energetic restaurant,’ he explains. ‘It’s something that I feel we haven’t had at The Dorchester before – a modern interpretation of the grill that suits London today.’ The menu is packed full of smart, modern cooking: a delicate prawn Scotch egg with warm tartare sauce and pickled gherkin is a clever half-way house between two classic British entrées; Cumbrian beef tartare comes with radish, oxtail jelly, yesterday’s bread and a beef fat egg yolk and for the purists, there’s a beef wellington for two. The far wall of the dining room is now a pudding bar, designed for people to be able to sit and have a chat with the pastry chefs whilst they’re having their desserts. The front-of-house suits and ties are gone, replaced by more contemporary outfits, provided by The Uniform Studio in Shoreditch (who also outfitted the staff at Hide and The Standard Hotel). Everything feels refreshed, and more importantly, in keeping with London’s dynamic dining scene – not stuck in the past.

‘When they brought me in, Mr Whitfield said ‘I want you to change the perception of what people think the restaurant is, and bring in a new audience’,’ says Tom. ‘So, that’s what we’re going to do.’

The Grill at The Dorchester reopened on 12 November .

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