An army marches on its stomach, according to Napoleon Bonaparte. So does NICK HAMMOND according to, er, him. His latest Tales from The Oriental…
Deep in the basement among rambling corridors, there is the hive nucleus.
It is from these small, hot, crowded rooms that carefully tended treasures are carried aloft.
It is here – the kitchens – where the heart of The Oriental Club beats loudest.
Members take their food seriously. From traditional curry dishes, once brought back from the Orient in scribbled note form and lovingly recreated; to favourites like smoked salmon, oysters and daily Club Roasts. Only the very best will do.
In the last few years, a subtle change has taken place; a nod to contemporary dishes, without forgetting history and heritage. There’s been an investment in new equipment and new skills at Stratford House. Not to mention new people.
“It’s a completely different job to being a ‘normal’ Chef, I must admit,” Wesley Smalley tells me over coffee in the boardroom. We’re surrounded by ‘pig-sticks’ and Far Eastern artwork and the Club’s Executive Chef is in his whites, fresh from lunch service, informative and engaging. There is a steely focus to his gaze.
“I was working in high-end London restaurants,” he says.
“I’d done TV work and spent plenty of hours at the coalface learning my trade. And then, through a friend, I learned about a job vacancy for Executive Chef at The Oriental. And I’d reached a stage in my life where a change was appealing. I chanced my arm.”
A meeting with Club Secretary Matthew Rivett, several interviews and a cook off for the Committee later – and Wesley got the job. That was three and a half years ago.
“The challenge the Club faced in my view was to make some necessary changes without disenfranchising the members. Don’t forget, some of them have been Members for 50 years or more; there are things they like on the menu, things they expect to see. You don’t want to be annoying your customer base from the outset. But some things needed to change in order to enhance and improve the Club.”
Members were always consulted. Different versions of Club dishes were offered alongside originals. And the menu – and the Club – evolved.
Like the smoked salmon. Might sound daft, but the old version was very popular with Members and had remained unchanged on the menu for countless years. Wesley introduced something subtly different, but still very much of the Oriental Club. The salmon arrives fresh daily from Loch Duart, Scotland and is smoked, here in the kitchens, over Oriental Club Lapsang Souchong tea, a rich blend of leaves themselves originally smoked over pine needles. The result is a wonderful mouthful and something quite unique.
Perhaps even more remarkable, each day, the menu features a full Eastern selection alongside an extensive list of Western delights. The original Club Chef back in the 19th Century, Richard Terry, was one of the first to bring curry to London and in 1861 published the book Indian Curry, with several of its recipes still being made in the Club today.
At today’s lunch, for example, I’m faced with a dilemma of the following proportions:
The Western section offers starters like Potted Shrimp in Seaweed Butter or Cos Caesar Salad, Smoked Bacon Crumble with Marinated Anchovy; Eastern starters begin with Aloo Bonda – Spiced Potato Dumplings with Sweet Yoghurt and end with Spiced Ikan Bilis – Crispy Anchovy with Peanuts and Chilli.
And then one must select from main courses such as Sea Trout with Clams, Fennel and Sardine Velouté or Slow Cooked Lamb Rump, Wild Garlic, Morels and White Asparagus. Not to mention Tandoori Chicken Malabar and Prawn and Wild Garlic Saag.
As you can quite imagine, this is a first world problem of the highest order.
“We use the best cuts of meat and fish,” explains Wesley.
“We butcher a lot of it here, so the chefs have to know what they are doing. We’ve got a superb network of suppliers around the country. I have three incredible Indian Chefs and we learn a lot from them. And all of our Chefs are at the top of their game. All of us are learning something, every day.”
The day begins for the service team at 5.30am, with breakfast here spanning a whopping 7-10am slot to catch all from for early morning City derring-doers to leisurely late-risers. Up to 70 breakfast covers are not unusual.
Breads and pastries are made here; stocks and sauces simmer for days. Sous Vide gently roil.
Lunch service begins at 12.30pm with Club Sommelier Elena Barattini on hand to personally ascertain each and every bottle served is at its very best. It runs until 2.30pm and includes such old favourites as Welsh Rarebit or Club Stilton with Port and Tea-Soaked Prunes available as additional savoury morsels.
Cleandown complete, handover to the next shift is around 3.30pm. Staff eat their supper at 5.30pm – always Club food, often taste-tests of new menu dishes; and the evening briefing is at 6.30pm before service runs from 7-9.30pm.
Weekends offer a truncated service, which means, unheard of in the catering industry, Wesley and many of his staff get a weekend, of sorts.
“It’s a bonus,” he laughs. As the father of a newborn, he should know.
“It’s a truly great place to work, we’ve always got our eye on the future as the caretakers of the Club. In a restaurant, you wouldn’t give a second thought to what happens after you.”
With that and a final flash of the steely gaze, he slugs his coffee and is gone, back to the nucleus. There’s work to be done.
For more information about The Oriental Club, including details of dining options and, of course, membership, visit www.orientalclub.org.uk.