As Mayfair institution Claridge’s launches its very first cookbook, Reyhaan Day chats with executive chef Martyn Nail about capturing the hotel’s heritage while embracing the future – and why it was such a long time coming.
When did the idea for the book come about?
It was probably three or four years ago. Meredith was a guest in the foyer and I was walking through. She asked if she could have a copy of my book. I said that we didn’t have one, and she said, “Well I’d love the recipe for your chicken pie.” I said that I would dig it out. Then she bumped into our general manager and mentioned the idea of a book. She connected with me and the subject went from there. We thought about it and put some things together – then various people were saying, ‘come on – where is it?’ So in the latter part of last year, we realised that we needed to stop talking about it and that there was quite a lot of work to do.
But where do you start when the hotel is 189 years old? Some of these things have been here forever – the chicken pie for instance. As I said as a little headnote in the book, a previous chef in the 1950s tried to take it off the menu, and he was told it was him or the chicken pie. It’s still here – it’s something that’s just stuck with the place. Some have become favourites, like the lobster risotto, and some are of the moment, like the dessert trolley.
In a way, the business of the hotel has gone like London has. It was a quiet little tea room; a busy restaurant – it’s always been a busy restaurant; but over the past 10 years its grown and grown and grown in popularity.
Why was this the time to bring out a cookbook for Claridge’s?
I think it was probably overdue. There are so many aspects to Claridge’s. It’s not just pictures of food; there are incredible details from around the hotel we wanted to capture. We were going to caption all these details, but actually, part of the fun is to say, ‘where is that?’ There’s so much detail and so much history… If walls could talk! We came across all these old menus for one-off events, which we printed in the book. It’s fantastic that, for one, they are still here; and second, that once you think about what was behind them, who went and why it was here, it tells you even more about how special Claridge’s is.
How did you decide which recipes made the cut?
It was a bit like picking your favourite child! The book is structured by the time of day, because the hotel is always open. It literally is 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. You’ve got recipes for scrambled egg, some little recipes for biscuits – as after all, it would be lovely for someone to come in and say, “I’ve done those biscuits and they were exactly the same as you do them.” All the recipes were tested, which was really important, because the scale of our recipes didn’t work when we cut them down; we realised that actually, it’s not that simple. It was necessary. Then you go to things like our croissant recipe, some of the pastries – and they can be very layered, very laboursome. You go, ‘Looks lovely’ and move on. But in a way, when you come to one of the finest hotels in the world, I think that’s absolutely what you would expect. It has to be.
What are you favourite recipes or stories in the book?
The chicken pie is timeless. Lobster risotto is very popular – it’s lovely to see it framed in history. We do soufflés for events for 12 to 200 – no-one really does that, so we’ve got a soufflé in there because we do it so well. You’ve got to be pretty mad and confident to do that. We’ve also mentioned a few of our guests as well – families we welcome back, and now their children, their grandchildren and great grandchildren. They’re part of the place. One sadly passed away recently; he came here on his 5th birthday. He was with us earlier this year, and he was 97. What a life! To have been coming to Claridge’s for 92 years of your life. That is very special.
Who is this book for?
Of course, the first answer that came to my head was ‘everybody’ – it’s a must have! But I think it goes into so many different categories. Firstly it’s a cookbook; secondly, it’s Claridge’s – so it elevates it into another world. But it’s also about luxury, style, deco – and it’s also just a beautiful coffee table book.
When did you first get into food?
I grew up in Winchester, Hampshire. My grandmother was a great cook. They had an association with Highclere Castle, and their grandparents were from that area and they helped out there; so they were sort of in service. My father just threw that out a while ago when Downton Abbey was on! But I would sit on the draining board and peel plums – probably eat two and stone one. She would make roast chicken; lemon meringue pie; rice pudding with the skin on top. And I just enjoyed it. I thought I’d be a vet, but I wasn’t going to do years of ‘all that’. So then I went to catering college. It was enjoying it early on – falling in a bowl of cake mix and enjoying it on that domestic level that got me hooked.
Claridge’s: The Cookbook is published by Mitchell Beazley.