A few years ago if you'd told your head chef that you were moving to a London members' club to further your career, he would probably have found it hard not to laugh in your face. He'd have conjured images of wood-panelled venues on Pall Mall, where the smell of boiled cabbage drifted down long corridors and a log of jam roly-poly awaited the old boys for afters.
"I'd never looked at members' places previously; I thought they weren't for me," says chef Mark Page. However, in the Commonwealth Club in the city centre, he saw a private venue with a difference. "The club was modernising, and that attracted me," he says. "They promised me a new kitchen with a custom-made range and they've been as good as their word. [See Caterer, 13 April, page 48.] We do proper food, not apple crumble and tea-shop desserts."
Page mixes European food with Asian or Caribbean spicing and vegetables, pushing a new take on the Commonwealth idea, using influences from the countries covered by the club. Pan-fried snapper comes with lemon grass and vanilla sauce, and crab and chilli dumplings - a real Indian Ocean mélange.
The Commonwealth Club sits across Trafalgar Square from the gentlemen's venues of St James's. Until recently, it was struggling with an ageing clientele and a decrepit building on Northumberland Avenue. But £4m was spent in 2003 on a thorough overhaul, inserting curvy white walls and lots of glass.
Designer Linda Morey-Smith created a members' lounge area in a comfortable, if slightly Habitat-like style, along with a more cutting-edge bar with Paul Smith-esque coloured stripes. The next stage is to put £500,000 towards new offices and an internet café.
Not only are older clubs in transition, there's a spate of new members' venues that have either just opened or are just about to launch in the capital.
A new private members' area at London's celeb-haunt the Ivy will be unveiled in 2007 on the restaurant's second and third floors under the aegis of chef-director Mark Hix. The lesser-known, but increasingly influential Matt Hermer has recently launched a new club, Volstead, off Regent Street. With a chain of Eclipse bars behind him, Hermer has presence in the capital and his pay-to-join Volstead is aimed at providing a 30-plus age group with live music, fine wine and dishes such as wagu beef burgers with foie gras. Head chef Andy Lassetter previously ran the kitchen at Notting Hill's E&O, worked at Leith's in Kensington and also spent time at the Hempel hotel in Bayswater.
"People who come to clubs have often been out to dinner, but I want to give a ‘wow' factor so that they wait to eat here," Lassetter says.
However, Nick Lander, restaurant writer for the Financial Times and former owner of L'Escargot restaurant in the city's Soho, is of the view that "British clubs provide food to soak up the drink, and nothing more".
He adds: "A lot of places start out with good intentions, but then the drinks side takes over because margins are so much higher. And anyway, people don't want to think about what they're eating in a club. They join them to make contacts and build their careers, so any dish that stands out is an annoying distraction." He doesn't think that the new clubs will stick at it.
True enough, not every new club is pushing its food. Volstead's near neighbour, the Cuckoo Club on Swallow Street, seems to be more concerned with attracting fashion celebrities and high-spending bankers. Opposite, on the other side of Regent Street, any chef working at the Paper Club will need serious nonsense-level tolerance to deal with features such as the UP room. UP stands for Untouchable Person - in other words, someone seriously rich or famous.
Journalists, TV producers and advertising executives pack into the rambling Georgian building that is Soho House on Greek Street, with its dark wood floors, plush sofas and gleaming bar. It's owner, entrepreneur and club maestro Nick Jones [see page 30] also runs a Soho House in New York, another restaurant (with a cinema) in west London's Notting Hill called the Electric, a country house retreat in Somerset called Babington House and is just about to open second west London venue, High Road House in Chiswick - all of which are open to members. According to Lander, however, food at the London Soho House could be improved upon. "It has a fantastic social scene, but not a great restaurant."
Unlike Soho House, some venues even struggle to make a profit. The Hyatt hotel group once operated Monte's in the Carlton Tower hotel on Knightsbridge's Sloane Street (it's now a Jumeirah group hotel) and appointed Jamie Oliver as a consultant in an attempt to gain new members - and some positive PR. But Oliver only lent his name; his friend, Ben O'Donoghue, went in as head chef.
"It was all so old-hat when we arrived," O'Donoghue says. "We removed the double-folded tablecloths and the stiff silver service and brought in our River Café-style dishes." Many clubs subsidise food because of the fees received from membership, but O'Donoghue was allowed to buy line-caught sea bass plus good-quality game, and to charge £30 for main courses. However, the restaurant, though full at first, gradually emptied. High overheads, which included Oliver's consultancy fee, contributed to this and, after the Jumeirah group took over in 2003, the club closed.
Chefs don't always mix with members' places when they become involved in the finances. American uberchef Charlie Trotter saw the warning signs in meetings with the owners of Covent Garden's Hospital members' club, Dave Stewart and Paul Allen - and pulled out. Adam Oates and Adam Byatt took his place, moving their acclaimed Thyme restaurant from Clapham in south London to Covent Garden in the city centre as well as taking on the food and beverage operation for the club. "It was a complete nightmare," Oates says.
The Hospital project had cost so much that, by the time Oates's and Byatt's restaurant opened to the public, it was being seen as some kind of saviour for the club - which very few dining rooms can be, especially in the first 18 months with a clutch of less-than-ecstatic reviews. Oates withdrew from the project, leaving Byatt to run the first-floor public restaurant, which changed its name to Origin.
On the other hand, for chefs seeking to establish their name, members' clubs can be a good option. O'Donoghue went from being a sous chef at the River Café to head chef at Oliver Peyton's Atlantic Bar & Grill, via Montes. Ian Martin, the Hospital's in-house members' club chef, was previously head chef at a gastropub in London's Muswell Hill called the Victoria Stakes. As a result, he finds working at the Hospital's members' restaurant tough, but rewarding.
"Every day, I clear my board," Martin says, "and then, the next day, there's a whole load of new pins stuck in there to deal with. We'll have a buffet for 1.30pm, canapés at 2pm, and 25 booked into the restaurant at lunch. Some see events as the downside of catering, but it will stand you in good stead if you want to work in kitchens. The amount of stuff passing through your hands will impress anyone looking at your CV."
Cheffing in members' clubs is about much more than just good food. In fact: "It's better that chefs in private venues are not over-excited by what they're cooking", says Margaret Levin at the Groucho Club in Soho.
Levin is in charge of appointing chefs in her role as operations director. "We don't ask that they have a passion that runs too deep," she says. "Members come here two or three times a week, they treat it as an extension of their home, so we have to cook food that reflects this. Chefs have to come down to their level, which is more about comfort than excitement. When I arrived last year, there was real inconsistency interspersed with flashes of brilliance."
Members' clubs tend to suit chefs who've been there, done it and want a more ordered life. Robert Reid, for example, used to run the kitchen for Marco Pierre White at the Oak Room, at Le Meridien Piccadilly Hotel, with responsibility for food that maintained the level of Michelin's three stars. Now, he's at Home House, a members' club on London's Portman Square, and "glad to be off the radar".
"If you want a relationship with your wife, this is ideal," he says.
Reid's chefs at Home House work about 50 hours a week, which allows them a social life that most restaurants assume chefs are happy to sacrifice. "What regular restaurant offers you that?" asks Reid. Furthermore, split shifts are less common, and many clubs are quiet at weekends, as their members head home. Mark Page at the Commonwealth, for example, rarely works on Saturdays because it is so quiet, and never on Sundays, when the club is closed.
Reid believes that working in a members' club kitchen is increasingly relevant, as comfort food shows up at places such as Gordon Ramsay's Boxwood Café at the Berkeley hotel and at the Wolseley, on Piccadilly. And he reckons there are ways in which a chef can improve his cooking by working in a members' club.
For a really long-term union, the recently retired Keith Podmore's 20 years as head chef at Boodle's on St James's Street would be hard to beat. Podmore's food may have been slightly old-fashioned - such as tournedos of beef Bordelais with stuffed fennel, Dover sole or chicken supreme with Provencal herbs - but his ingredients were always excellently sourced and his culinary techniques were sound. Yet surely no young chef would want to join a similar venue, with a head chef who has been in situ for an eternity?
In fact, according to Jayne Lintern at the Heat Hospitality recruitment agency: "Some of the old gentlemen's clubs have really upped their game in the past few years. They weren't great for food once upon a time, but we're happy to place talented chefs with them now." And it's worth bearing in mind, too, that one of Podmore's early protégés was Andrew Fairlie, who now has his own two-Michelin-star restaurant within Gleneagles hotel in Scotland. For a solid grounding in classical cuisine the older gentlemen's clubs are still hard to better.
Blackened quail on plantain curry
4 whole quail
1 ripe plantain
2 cloves garlic, crushed
1/2 red onion, peeled and chopped
25g red lentils
Garam marsala, to taste
1tbs curry paste
1/2 tin tomatoes, chopped
Coriander, chopped (to taste)
1 green plantain
2 plum tomatoes - peeled, deseeded and chopped
1/2 onion, peeled and chopped
1/2 red pepper, chopped
1tbs tomato ketchup
Salt and pepper
METHOD Rub the quail in the Cajun spices and roast in a hot oven for eight to 10 minutes until pink. Peel and cut the ripe plantain into 1/2 cm dice, colour in a pan with crushed garlic, chopped red onion, red lentils. Add the garam marsala, curry paste and cook for two to three minutes until soft. Add chopped tomato. Finish with chopped coriander.
Peel unripe plantain. Slice thinly lengthways, deep-fry until it crisps. Mix the chopped onion, pepper, ketchup, lemon juice, salt and pepper to make a salsa. Dress the curry in a ring. Put quail on top of the curry sauce with the salsa around. Top with plantain crisps.
INGREDIENTS (serves 30)
20 litres water
3 veal trotters
15kg beef bones (shins )
1 whole ox tongue (or 1 oxtail)
1 whole chicken
2tbs tomato purée
150g button mushrooms
2 heads of celery
2 heads of garlic
750ml soy sauce
1 bottle Madeira
1 bunch tarragon
3 bay leaves
1/2 bunch of thyme
3 cinnamon sticks
2tbs black pepper
3 star anise
1/2tbs whole all spice
Garnish Thin slice of fillet of beef or Wagu beef
Brunois of ginger
Brunois of red chilli
Black sesame seeds
Chive tips or chopped chives
Soft boiled quail's egg
Sea salt and cracked pepper
METHOD Place all ingredients in a pan big enough to hold them with at least a couple of inches to spare. Put vegetables in first, then all softer meats and then the bones before adding water. This will help when it comes to skimming the stock since the bones prevent veg from floating to the surface. Bring to the boil.
While you are waiting, cut five large white onions in half across the grain. If you have a flat griddle, spread a double thickness of aluminium foil over it and place the onion halves cut side down on top of it. Leave these (don't be tempted to jiggle them around) until quite well burnt and blackened, then add to stock. If you don't have a griddle, use a large heavy frying pan.
As stock begins to simmer, skim off any impurities which form. When the stock boils, turn down heat so that liquid is barely moving. Cook for three to four hours, skimming when necessary. Forty-five minutes before stock is ready, put a bottle of Madeira in a saucepan. Reduce until thick and syrupy but still pourable. Add to stock along with the rest of the aromatic herbs and spices.
Allow stock to cool. Pass through a colander and then, again, through muslin. Remove any remaining globules of fat by dragging paper towels across the surface or by chilling the stock and then scraping them off.
(A little fat adds flavour.)
To plate: Cover the base of your presentation bowl with a thin slice of beef. Sprinkle the garnish over meat. Pour boiling beef tea over meat - this will lightly cook beef and release the aromatic flavours of the herbs.