Pledging to retain sustainable and accountable sourcing at the heart of his efforts, award-winning chef Michael Dutnall is taking on a new challenge at iconic private members’ establishment, the Royal Air Force Club in London’s Mayfair. On the dawn of a whole new culinary adventure as its latest executive chef, Produce Business UK talks to Dutnall as he begins to make his mark on tradition
Sitting in a prime position on the edge of Hyde Park, the Royal Air Force (RAF) Club is a grand 19th century building. It caters for no-less-than 35 events a week and up to 400 covers a day throughout its table d’hote restaurant and banquet rooms; entertaining former and serving officers of the RAF. With a breeze of affluence and a sense of the Britain of yesteryear, the club is as grand in real-life as it sounds. Put it this way; I was glad I wore a good hat!
The RAF Club could be imposing or overwhelming for anyone, even if you do have nearly 20 years’ experience of working in London’s best hotels and restaurants, but Dutnall walks through the gilded corridors as if he has been there for years – although not with arrogance, rather self-assurance and pride.
He eagerly points out the view from the reception to the cream and gold badge corridor, through the partition of the RAF plaque. There I can see suited-and-booted staff mill in and out of the grand rooms with silver trays held high.
“This is the best view of the club for me and it says it all – there is such a sense of history and tradition, and now I’m part of it,” comments the 35-year-old Master of Culinary Arts credited chef.
Steeped in history
Dutnall guides me across the bright and airy restaurant and through the maze of tunnels at its basement level, which holds the kitchens that house the 18 chefs it takes to run this kind of establishment, before we wind up in his office. He has been at the RAF Club for just two months by the time I interview him.
Stuck between that almost awkward ‘newbie’ feeling but also in charge of all matters relating to food for the 24,000 members, Dutnall seems refreshed by the whole process. As much as he is ready to make changes, he’s sure of his responsibilities – both to the next generation of fine-dining chefs under his watch, and the club’s near 100-year history.
A mentor on BBC’s MasterChef in 2013, Dutnall started his own career under acclaimed chef Michel Bourdin, with a five-year apprenticeship at the Connaught Hotel, Mayfair, which he describes as the best time of his life. The chef then moved on to Michelin-starred 1 Lombard Street and eventually to Le Meridien Piccadilly as executive chef, where he relaunched the on-trend, seasonal and sustainable 1 AA Rosette Terrace Grill & Bar.
“I have had a great career so far and cooked with and under some of the best chefs – from Michel Bourdin to Martin Green, Jerome Ponchelle and Paul Bocuse,” says Dutnall. “I have seen classical cuisine develop and British food come a long way. Something you realise very early on as a fine-dining chef is that a dish pivots on good-quality ingredients and the detail is in the preparation. I have learnt so much; sometimes the hard way.”
Dutnall says he hasn’t stopped learning either, but explains that his education now comes from the younger generation of chefs that he guides. “If you keep your mind open, you can learn how to do things differently and take on new trends and skills,” he points out. “I am all for making my mark here, but very much in a holistic fashion.”
It’s clear Dutnall has no intention of bounding into the RAF Club’s long history with hobnail boots and he believes in taking “baby steps” towards cooking seasonally and sustainably. With tradition comes set values, while fine food has its own expectations; facts Dutnall is well aware of.
“Progress is always slow – changes have to be made for the better for everyone involved,” explains the chef, who admits it’s likely that most of his members will want fresh pineapple and melon on the breakfast platter, wherever they are in the world.
“We need to act correctly and set a solid foundation. At the Terrace Grill & Bar, eating British produce and cooking by the seasons was our ethos – and there was no other choice on the menu. We had British gin-based cocktails and solely used British farms and produce.”
There is a steady type of patron at the RAF Club, who likes things a certain way, and regardless of that, Dutnall says it’s difficult to upsell fruit and veg as a chef in a fine-dining restaurant.
“Eating out is generally a treat for the diners, and fruit and vegetables have a healthy image rather than a treat one,” he explains. “It’s a widely imbedded thought pattern you are fighting against that won’t be changed overnight. When people go out, they want to forget about their diet.”
Plating up change
So Dutnall is steadily making changes. For instance, his first point of call was to look at sourcing, and stepping up a gear when it comes to seasonality on the menus. One of the first dishes he introduced to the RAF Club’s restaurant was a roasted cauliflower risotto with cauliflower purée, roasted florets, dried cherry tomatoes, seared scallops and a black pudding crumble.
“We don’t source directly from farms but we do source from vegetable suppliers who have close links to the producers and supply the best quality,” says Dutnall. “If it isn’t the best quality, then it gets sent back.
“It’s good to have someone who will tell you when something is dodgy, as well as when something good or a good buy. Some suppliers will keep sending you something that you usually like, regardless of the quality, and keep on increasing the price. I want to know when there are problems and something isn’t good value because it is in demand and short for a reason.
“You have to get the fundamentals right: the deliveries have to be on time, the produce has to be of the right standard and the relationship has to be communicative. It is good to know your account manager and to be able to pick up the phone and talk to them.”
On this note, Dutnall adds that he would like to have direct connections with the growers, so he and his chefs could visit the farms and better understand the food they are cooking. “I would like to go to farms – but the question is, do they have the facilities and time for us to visit?” asks the chef.
“I have taken my commis chefs to Surrey Farm to see how their meat is butchered and it really helped – it is important for chefs to see the whole process. When it comes to fruit and veg, I usually take groups of four chefs to [London retail market] Borough Market for the morning with £20 to buy as much unusual fruit and vegetables as we can. Then we do an idea storm and cook with it. Last time we managed to find three different colours of cauliflower – it was specular.”
After a career working towards his latest position at the RAF Club, Dutnall is mindful of others and therefore is eager to give young chefs the opportunities and experiences he had access to, but also the ones that alluded him.
“I wish my head chef had encouraged me to create my own dishes,” he reveals. “Something I started straightaway in the RAF Club kitchens is to allow my chefs across the three sections to take one dish and change its concept, while still using local produce, remembering who the menu is aimed and considering the cost. I like to think I am nurturing as well as integrating fresh ideas and thinking, in a drip-drip fashion.”