Following an £80m renovation, today sees the opening of a new design for Royal Lancaster London, a prestigious hotel overlooking Hyde Park. As one of London’s most iconic hotels, Royal Lancaster London has an illustrious history – from Michael Caine being filmed for The Italian Job, to events attended by Mohammed Ali and Princess Diana.
It one of the largest banqueting venues in Europe, with a capacity of 3,000 across its 16 refurbished meetings and events spaces. The concept for the redesign of the towering 18-storey hotel was created by London-based Studio Proof, and encompasses the complete refurbishment of all 411 guest rooms and suites.
Hospitality F&B spoke to Ben Purton, the hotel’s executive head chef and director of food & beverage, to discover his thoughts on the trade and the grand re-opening …
Firstly, how long have you been cooking professionally?
It's now 26 years! Wow - where did that time go?
Where did you train to cook?
My first position was at the Woodford Moat House Hotel in Woodford, just up the road from where I lived in Highams Park, where I was an apprentice for three years.
That's where I started but I feel I trained properly at The Hyatt Carlton Tower - I joined in 1994 and was there for 10 years.
Can you talk us through your professional history?
Woodford Moat House was my first taste of being in the kitchen as an apprentice.
I joined The Hyatt Carlton Tower in 1994 as a second commis and realised I had so much to learn and so I worked in all areas of the hotel kitchens and progressed through the ranks.
I moved to a sister hotel, The Lowndes for my first head chef position after about seven years and finally ended up as the head chef of The Rib Room & Oyster Bar for my last two years there.
After the Hyatt I moved to Selfridges Department Store as executive chef, where I was in charge of 24 different F&B outlets across seven floors and stayed there for about 18 months.
My next move was back to Hyatt and The Churchill at Marble Arch where I started as executive chef and grew my role in the four years I was there to CheF&B, a combination of both the exec chef and F&B roles.
Next was an 18-month stint for Goldman Sachs on behalf of Aramark in Central London before moving to take over The Royal Horseguards Hotel as executive chef, where I stayed for three years.
I've now been at Lancaster London since August 2014 as executive chef and recently again added the F&B role to my responsibilities.
If not a chef, what might Ben Purton have become?
Easy - I was always going to be a policeman. It's what I wanted to do and it's where I spent my work experience training.
What advice would you give your 21-year-old self?
Keep learning, and learn a language. Don't listen to those who say something can't be done or you can't do it. Practise! Marry your girlfriend - I did, so it's good advice :-)
When did you join Royal Lancaster London? And why did the hotel appeal to you?
In August 2014 – I wanted a challenge, and wanted somewhere where I could use all my skills as a chef and a manager.
I wanted to work for someone special who really cared for the hotel and its team, and to join a team who wanted to develop each day and end up with amazing results.
At each step of the interview process, this amazing hotel, and Sally Beck, the fabulous GM, ticked every box for me.
What’s the best aspect of your role?
I love hotels, as no two days are the same. I can jump from classic British to Thai cuisine, from staff feeding to cocktails, from large-scale catering to afternoon tea for two people, from one-on-one training sessions to menu tastings - what's not to love? I get to make a great team a little bit better every day, and repeat.
Being a chef is a challenging job – what do you do to relax, and, during holidays, where do you go to recharge your batteries?
I am a bit of a work freak, so am often checking in and keeping in touch - I love what I do and it keeps my brain alert.
But family time and chill-out time are key - we all need to unwind. I love to fish - that peace and quiet is bliss and gives me lots of thinking time. I'm a passionate Spurs fan so I go to a few games too, which is great fun.
I do love a relaxing beach holiday, but am just as happy in my Chingford garden too!
Can you recall your most memorable service to date?
There are so many! My first big event as banqueting chef at The Carlton Tower was Beef Wellington, and I forgot to take the string off the fillets after searing them off! They were being carved in the room by the exec chef, and after realising we managed to go in with scissors and salmon pin boners and get them all out! Phew! Many lessons learned!
Last year we took Nipa Thai from Royal Lancaster London to Taste of London, and, from the first chicken satay on opening night to the last prawn curry on the final day (with a few papaya papaya thrown in for good measure), it was the longest, most exhausting set of back-to-back services I've ever done. Amazing!
Which style of cooking influences you the most? And how would you describe your style of cooking?
Over the years I've taken influence from all types of cuisines and cooking styles and I am who I am today as a result of mixing all of them. I'm a born-and-bred Londoner working in London, so I keep to a British style mostly with my cuisine – but also love Italian and Thai, so you see a bit of that creeping in too. I love simple flavours that are cooked and served exceptionally well – let the food and produce do the talking and don't overcomplicate things just for the sake of it.
I love fine dining as much as anyone else, and there is a time and a place for that of course, but get the flavours and cooking right first - then make it look pretty.
How is your signature style reflected in your current menu?
Being at Lancaster London - my style and the styles of others have a chance to run riot. We have six kitchens on the go serving seven different parts of the hotel, so there is a place for everything you could imagine. Each area is different but you will see the basics in all of them - good flavours, consistency, and, of course, a bit of flair.
Could you tell us about your approach to menu development?
It’s easiest to start with a format – how many starters will there be, and of those, how many meat, fish, veg etc. Then you can play around a little. Get everyone involved as it's better to have too many dishes to choose from than too few.
You always need to have an eye on costs, and there are some things that you just cannot use on certain menus or in certain restaurants. But in essence, just create good dishes that have an individual identity but sit with the identity of the whole menu.
Look at past data - if no matter what you do, rabbit does not sell, don't do rabbit.
Ask your guests what they actually want. Don't be afraid if you put something on and it's not working - tweak it or replace it with something that the guest wants.
Feedback and dialogue is key – the guest, the team and the hotel all have a say, and it makes for a more complete result at the end.
Do you have a favourite dish on the menu?
Being in such a great hotel with so much on offer it’s a hard choice as I'm a little spoilt. But to keep everyone happy ... Lancaster London’s Home Smoked Salmon to start, Nipa Thai's famous Chicken Phad Thai for main and then off to Island Grill for a Chocolate Tasting Plate with a Honey Ice Cream made with the honey from our bees on our roof. Yum yum yum!
How has the menu evolved over the years?
The menu has evolved with more of a focus on provenance, seasonality, sustainability and locally-sourced produce and ingredients. There are lots more diets out there now too, with an ever-growing list of allergens, and at one point it felt like these would hold menus back, but once you embrace them and offer alternatives for all, you can crack on and still be creative.
How does the restaurant define its dining concept?
The two restaurants we have are very different. Island Grill is a sustainable British restaurant with a few European twists, led by head chef Adam Woolven, and focuses on good food that is done really well – Home Smoked Salmon, Lancaster London Honey from our bees and a cheeseboard where everything is sourced from within 40 miles of the hotel.
Nipa Thai is one of the best Thai restaurants outside of Thailand, led by heaf chef Sanguan Parr. Authentic, tasty and consistent – there is an all-female brigade of chefs (I know my place) and a Thai front-of-house team, along with Thai wines to complement all the food. It’s a truly amazing place.
Who would you say are the hotels key suppliers? And how do you go about sourcing new partners?
Due to the size of the hotel (we have 411 rooms), we have a lot of suppliers - some for the volume and some for the more bespoke. We work with a purchasing company called PSL and have a huge amount of dialogue with them as to our needs and wants. We do still keep up our communication with the actual suppliers, but PSL do a lot of sourcing for us, which is great.
How does the restaurant approach sustainability with its produce?
We have this as one of our primary focuses, and it is especially evident in our Island Grill restaurant. We smoke our own Scottish salmon, harvest our own honey from the beehives on the roof and the restaurant is well known for the cheeseboard, as all the cheeses were previously sourced from within 100 miles of the hotel, and the team have cut this down to create the '40 Miles Cheeseboard’.
These items also feature on the other menus within the hotel and are available at events and banqueting – apart from the honey as it is quite bespoke and in high demand!
How does the hotel tackle waste produce?
The hotel introduced a waste recycling centre quite a few years ago and it is still going strong. We have collections daily and set targets constantly to reduce waste in all areas of the hotel and recycle as much as possible. In the kitchens and F&B, the menus are carefully created to use similar ingredients so that produce can be shared and wastage reduced.
Do you have any involvement in the specification of tableware? If yes, can you explain how your pair your tableware with certain dishes?
My role as exec chef and director of F&B means that, yes, I am involved even in tableware!
Tableware and glassware is so important to making the items served look their best. We take a simple approach and the dish, glass etc has to fit the purpose and be easy to eat and drink from for the guest.
Some menu items just need a clean white plate and others need some colour or texture to bring the dish alive, but as long as it fits with the ethos and theme of the restaurant then we are open to most things.
In your opinion, what is currently the most pressing issue for the food & beverage market?
Food and beverage price increases, and trying to keep a good value for money environment for our guests while still delivering profits for our owners.
Labour resources in the new world we live in will also be one more of a challenge in the next few years.
Finally, please tell us your favourite five – restaurant, chef, dish, drink and guest …
Restaurant: Nipa Thai and Island Grill! Come on, what did you expect?! But ok ok, if those were fully booked, then Galvin Bistrot de Luxe, as the standards there have always been stunning – the Galvin brothers are top blokes and it is very local to work.
Chef: There are so many out there who I respect and admire and to choose just one is very hard. I suppose someone who I have watched my whole career, admired and learned from is Brian Turner. A great chef, a lovely lovely man, honest and respectful and dedicated to making our industry a better place to work in.
He is a huge ambassador for all chefs and F&B professionals alike who does good, simple and honest food.
Dish: Again, this one is really tough, but I think I will always go back to one of my favourite meats – lamb. A perfectly-roasted rack, a slow-cooked melting shoulder and a mini shepherd’s pie, all brought together with a light grain mustard mash, British asparagus, baby carrots and confit shallots ... drooling yet?
Drink: After a long day – and I’ve had a few! – a nice glass of Amaretto with lots of ice just about ticks every box. I also love a good red wine.
Guest: Wow! So many, and lots are still my current guests. I love entertaining friends and family, as you really know what they like and can add little surprises that they were not expecting.
When you get to know your guests well enough, you can do that for them too, and that is a great place to be.
As for a guest I’ll never forget … while I was head chef of The Rib Room and Oyster Bar at The Hyatt Carlton Tower, a certain Jon Bon Jovi decided to come for dinner! I’m a big fan so this was super special – if he reads this and wants another dinner, I am sure he can find me when he’s next in London!