Detail therapy

22 October 2003 by
Detail therapy
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David Nicholls
David Nicholls has more than a sneaking admiration for McDonald's. The Mandarin Oriental Hyde Park's executive chef and food and beverage supremo admires, perhaps with a touch of jealousy, the burger chain's unfailing reliability. "Whether you like the taste is a personal thing, but it always delivers what it sets out to." His management of the hotel's fine-dining restaurant, Foliage, has plenty in common with McDonald's. Every detail counts. Langoustines are delivered live in individual tubes "so they cannot attack each other". Scallops are diver-caught "because dredged ones sometimes develop off-tastes as a result of being choked with debris". Fish is never farmed and line-caught where possible "to avoid bruising to the flesh". Although he stepped back and allowed his chef Hywel Jones to take the credit for Foliage's Michelin star and intends to do the same with Chris Stains, who recently took over, the style reflects Nicholls's safe pair of hands. Haute cuisine has a specific meaning for Nicholls. It's part of a slowly-evolving international movement. In the London context, the current generation of top chefs have a pedigree that leads back, almost without exception, to either of the Roux Brothers, Nico Ladenis or Pierre Koffmann (himself a Roux baby). Three guiding principles dictate its changes: trends, balance and personal taste. Fashion dictates how a chef cooks, but is itself responding to best-practice craft skills. The judgement of what and how much to put on a plate comes from experience. What matters most, Nicholls insists, is that a dish "has to eat well". One of his most memorable meals, he recalls, was a tomato salad, roast duck and apple tart at a seaside resort in Provence. It was perfectly measured to its setting, but wouldn't be suited to a major luxury hotel. There's a risk, he feels, that young chefs cocooned in kitchens become detached and fail to relate the dish leaving the pass to the one placed in front of the customer. Nicholls sees that every one of his 60 chefs dines at Foliage. On top of this, he has a separate budget for his senior sous chefs to check out the competition. Marco Pierre White taught him never to put more than five elements on the same plate and the Foliage menu has dishes that are easy to execute under pressure. They may rely on labour-intensive preparation, but are then essentially simple to execute. "The name of the game," insists Nicholls, "is consistency." It's a philosophy with which McDonald's would agree. [Pan-fried scallops, peas and lettuce, pancetta, salad leaves and girolles vinaigrette (serves four) ]( [Pan-fried turbot, Jersey Royal potatoes, asparagus, langoustines, horseradish and caviar cream (serves four) ]( [Keeping the upper hand
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