Barely five minutes walk from Victoria station in a remarkably quiet location is The Goring, the only family-run 5-star luxury hotel in London. Just a couple of years past its centenary celebration, the current CEO, Jeremy Goring, is the 4th generation of the Goring family to run this beautiful hotel. The Single Gourmet Traveller doesn’t hang out at luxury hotels very often and mostly thinks of them as pretty stuffy places with no character. But heavens, just stepping into The Goring was a delight and I knew this was a really special kind of hotel. (Despite my research before I went for the interview, I somehow missed the fact that this was the hotel where Kate Middleton stayed the night before she married Prince William, and discovered it once home again. I add this as really, I didn’t know about this while I was there – though I feel I should have done! – so feeling it was special was entirely my reaction to the place itself and not influenced by its current royal connections – though I knew it had quite a few historically and many famous people have stayed there over the years.)
I was a few minutes early for my appointment with Executive Chef Derek Quelch, so was shown into the busy bar lounge, sat at a table with comfortable armchairs and offered a drink – I settled for just some sparkling water. A dish of olives and nibbles were on the table. Around me people sipped pink champagne to my left; to my right a group was tucking into afternoon tea (it was 4 pm) and a cake stand filled with scones and cakes and other delicacies looked wonderful. I felt not the least intimated. This is a compliment. I remarked later to Derek that there was almost a ‘club’ feel to the hotel – an exclusive club maybe, but that comfortable atmosphere of being known, being well looked after and everyone just relaxing and having a good time.
Derek came to greet me and suggested we move to a quiet corner of the restaurant. I was immediately charmed by it. It is such a beautiful and elegant room. There’s a sophisticated simplicity to its design and I wasn’t surprised to hear that it was redesigned in 2005 by Viscount David Linley, the Queen’s nephew. I’ve long admired his beautiful furniture and in this dining room he’s achieved a warm and peaceful charm that makes you immediately feel comfortable: a perfect way to enjoy a good meal at leisure.
Derek has been Executive Chef for 14 years. Before that, he was Executive Sous Chef at Claridges and Senior Sous Chef at The Savoy. He told me that he’d seriously wanted to be a chef since about the age of 12/13; it even influenced his subject choices at school. It was just something he’d always wanted to do. And it is such a demanding career, we discussed, that you have to have a passion for it to succeed and cope with the long hours and demands on your home and social life. I asked Derek about the ‘executive chef’ title as this often refers to someone who plans menus and manages but doesn’t necessarily cook. And Derek was sitting before me in his chef’s whites. It was his choice to still be hands-on and sometimes in the kitchen he said. The demands on him have grown since he arrived, for The Goring had only 4 stars then. Now its exclusive 5 red stars reflects the higher standards and finer quality in facilities and products in the hotel, but also bring higher expectations from the guests. But these are expectations that appear to be met with extraordinary care. Derek told me how, if a client arrived quite stressed from a difficult journey, for instance, word would filter down from reception and extra care would be taken to look after them and help them relax.
Derek has a huge commitment to training and developing young people, not only student chefs but by also going into schools and helping to set up a new apprenticeship programme. His own training began in the 1980s in Wexham Park Hosptial in Berkshire. He assured me his food wasn’t let loose on patients in his first year but it was a time when he learnt basics and spent a day a week at college. For the second year of his training he moved to Flounders restaurant in Covent Garden, and for his final third year he went to Grosvenor House. It was here he developed a love for working in five-star establishments. Now married, with two children, he combines a demanding job with family life, trying to spend most weekends at home with the family but always on hand if there’s something especially important going on at the hotel. He talked of the importance of delegation: of training people to think for themselves and be able to make decisions, and this ties in with his philosophy of good training, of instilling confidence but necessarily always expecting the best of people. We moved on to Derek’s book choice:
1. Mrs Beeton’s Household Management: Derek has an early edition of this and told me he’d used it a lot for the hotel’s centenary celebrations in 2010. He likes it because it’s well researched and full of good traditional things. All the techniques and thought behind the food is correct. It provides a basis for understanding classic dishes, even though they generally need to be adapted for the modern kitchen. Mrs Beeton was very frugal, he said, nothing was wasted.
2. The Complete Guide to the Art of Modern Cookery, Auguste Escoffier: Derek said it was important to understand the techniques of classic cookery in order to be creative and imaginative with your own cooking. He uses this book a lot when teaching. It contains all the classic terms and techniques. He told me he went to the house where Escoffier was born in the south of France while working in the area. There was nothing from The Savoy there. We talked about Michel Roux Jr’s recent programme on TV giving the story behind Escoffier’s dismissal from The Savoy.
3. Forager Handbook, Miles Irving: This is a bible of wild things, Derek told me. Anything you need to know about foraging is here; it’s a brilliant reference book. There are recipes and contributions from chefs.
4. Simpsons, Andreas Antona: Simpsons is a Michelin starred restaurant in Birmingham. Derek likes the simplicity of this modern day cookery book. Antona is a restaurant owner so understands about good cooking with reasonably priced ingredients.
5. 50 Great Curries of India, Camellia Panjabi: A step-by-step guide to authentic Indian curries, Derek told me. Panjabi uses authentic spices but the recipes for the most part are simple. Derek likes to cook up a good curry at home sometimes, maybe with his kids, and his wife’s favourite in here is the chickpea curry.
6. Nose to Tail Eating, Fergus Henderson: Derek loves the concept: using the whole animal; no waste. Today, he said, most people go for prime cuts but this shows you how to use all the animal.
7. On Food and Cooking, Harold McGee: This is a book about understanding the science behind cooking, Derek told me. It’s about understanding what’s happening when you, for example, braise some meat; understanding what the chemical reaction is. Heston Blumenthal talks a lot about this book, Derek said. It underlines the importance of understanding the basics; it’s such an important book, he added. It’s like building a house, you need the right foundations to build from.
8. The French Laundry, Thomas Keller: Derek has been to the sister restaurant in New York, Per Se. There were 21 courses on the tasting menu and the meal moved from traditional to modern and back to traditional. You have to understand the classics to understand what you’re doing with food, Derek said. This book shows Keller’s classical training; his understanding of technique.
9. English Food, Jane Grigson: Derek described this as a more up-to-date version of Mrs Beeton, containing British classics and lots of the traditional food we tend to forget. This was another invaluable book for choosing food for the centenary celebrations at The Goring.
10. Rick Stein’s Guide to the Food Heroes of Britain: Derek is a big believer in using British products. This book provides an invaluable list of suppliers and sources, sometimes leading you to a small artisan cheese maker, for instance, in Cumbria, who in turn will lead you on to another small producer. It opens doors. I asked about the British food influence at The Goring and Derek said there was now a fine balance between offering traditional and more modern dishes – not ultra modern, but updating some classic dishes. However, he added, he thinks that when you modernise a classic dish it should still be recognisable: it’s about meeting people’s expectations.
I asked Derek what his number one choice would be and he unhesitatingly said the Escoffier. It’s the basis of knowledge in cooking; it’s about gaining a good grounding in understanding cooking and techniques which allows you to go on to be creative.
I really enjoyed talking to Derek and hearing not just about his passion for cooking and how he runs his kitchen, but also his commitment and interest in training young people. It was also a fabulous location to talk cookbooks; such peace and comfort to be found just a stone’s throw from busy and rather manic Victoria. What a lovely oasis of calm and a quintessentially British hotel.