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Food fit for a queen

Sacre bleu! L'Ortolan's creative Head Chef Tom Clarke spills the beans on cooking for the Royal family, his love of French cuisine, famous diners and his food-trend regrets (he's had a few).

L'ortolan Executive chef Tom Clarke in navy apron brick wall

I’ve eaten at L’Ortolan a few times, just over the border in Reading, and it’s really truly impressive. A proper fine dining restaurant with a kind of ooh, aah vibe as the food comes out. Chef Tom Clarke is the man behind the gas decks of steel, and he’s an interesting character.

A shy, Essex boy, Tom grew up in Colchester, had a short spell cooking for the Queen and has been the Willy Wonka of L’Ortolan – Reading’s only Michelin star restaurant – for the past six years, helping maintain its Michelin twinkler (17 years in total) with his phenomenal flavours, precision cooking and arty plating. Muddy caught up with him to dish on life in and out of the kitchen.

What made you become a chef? 

My grandparents had a bakery in Chelmsford. It has been passed through the generations and whilst they were running it, I’d go there a lot and eat all the bread. My granny was also A great home cook and taught be the basics. It started from there.

We heard a little rumour that you cooked for Her Maj

When I was at college I spent two weeks at Buckingham Palace and two weeks at Windsor Castle. It was nice cooking for the Royal family. I’ve always loved the precision of fine dining and every dish made for the royals had to be perfect from the diced shallots to ensuring the toast had a neat hole for their breakfast eggs to sit through. I liked the military side of it.

Ooh, spill the beans – what’s the Queen’s favourite meal? 

Crikey I can’t remember. It was so long ago. At home I have a copy of the the menu we cooked for a special birthday dinner for her but it god knows what was on it. At the time, I was more worried about what I was doing, to be honest.

Did the Queen’s gaff have a super-swish kitchen or were you wrestling with a stove older than Prince Phillip?

Windsor Castle was brilliant because it had an elevator. Once I’d finished in the kitchen I jumped in the lift and it took me straight up to my bedroom. How cool is that?

So how did you go from cooking for the royals to Michelin star French cuisine?

One of my first jobs was at an Essex fine dining restaurant called Le Tollbooth. Three years later I got a job at Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons and that was a real turning point. Following that I had my first stint at L’Ortolan under Alan Murchinson before I moved to France for a year.

I’d worked in French restaurants but needed to experience the food and the culture. I stayed with a friend’s family in Brittany and foraged in woodland as well as working at Le Stratohotel in Courchevel and the legendary L’Oustau de Baumanièrein Provence, both two Michelin starred. I returned to L’Ortolan and Alan was hugely supportive.

 

What was it like working with Raymond Blanc?

I discovered an attention to detail that I hadn’t experienced before. Raymond Blanc and his Executive Head Chef Gary Jones’s passion for food and for the industry is huge. They create an energy there that your want to be a part of.

One time we needed quinces, I was in the garden pulling them off the trees in rush and Raymond started charging over, rabbiting on at me in French – ‘Take care of everything. Be gentle”. He taught me to appreciate the ingredients. When I see my guys not using scissors to cut the herbs, I’m the one hollering at them.

Checking out the competition, who’s slaying in the kitchen right now?

There are chefs all over the place doing interesting stuff, but I think Matt Worswick’s creating some brilliant food right now.

 

What’s next for you?

There’s a lot more I can give to L’Ortolan, but I’d love to own own my own restaurant. It would be French with a bit more of an Asian influence. But I need to learn all the ins and outs of the business. Obviously I know the kitchen and front of house, but I’m want to understand the marketing and financial side too.

You don’t fancy doing being a telly chef?

I didn’t become a chef to be famous, I did it to cook great food.

You must get loads of famous people in here, tells us all the goss

We’ve had lots of foreign royal families, ex Arsenal and England goalkeeper David Seaman, and Linford Christie. He actually had lunch on the chef’s table.

Are there food trends you regret?

Foam. Don’t get me wrong, we did it and we even got the machine that helps to aerate it. It looks like something you put in a fish tank, but we were doing it and doing it, and you started the foam looked like the top of a pond, so I just thought ‘enough already’!

L’ortolan.com

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