It was a chance occurrence that led Aiden Byrne, Daniel Pawelek and Jason McAuliffe to the Dorchester Grill, but they're certainly not leaving it to luck when it comes to the restaurant's future. Tom Vaughan meets a team aiming for the stars
Serendipity: the happy art of good fortune occurring by chance. In an infamously mobile industry, it can take a heavy dose of this to land a challenging job, let alone one with boundless potential.
But as the team behind London's Dorchester Grill - head chef Aiden Byrne, manager Daniel Pawelek and head of wine Jason McAuliffe - set their eyes firmly on the top end of the market, they agree it took plenty of luck to land them with the opportunity to achieve their lofty aims.
None of them, they say, were initially particularly enamoured with the idea of working in a restaurant famed for its sweet-trolleys and blue-rinse clientele.
McAuliffe had been at Chez Bruce for 10 years, culminating in his appointment as head sommelier, before he left to work abroad in 2005. But when a job in the USA fell through, he found himself on holiday in Spain, "lazing on my back like Ray Winstone in Sexy Beast, wondering what to do" he explains in south London tones.
Then two phonecalls came through: one from the Dorchester, inviting him to take charge of a new wine programme, and, strangely, one from Byrne, then head-chef at Danesfield House, in Buckinghamshire, asking him to become restaurant manager on the strength of his reputation.
Had he accepted Byrne's approach, their paths would have crossed two years' earlier than they eventually did - but possibly too soon in their careers to take full advantage of their obvious rapport. Serendipity? "Maybe," McAuliffe answers.
Because his first job in hospitality had been at the Dorchester, McAuliffe made an emotional decision to accept the job offer. "If I'd thought about it with my head rather than my heart, I probably wouldn't have gone there," he says. "Going from Chez Bruce, where I had complete freedom and was a big fish in a small pond, to an establishment with the infrastructure and size of the Dorchester was a big call to make."
Starting at the Dorchester in September 2005, when Ollie Couillard, also formerly of Chez Bruce, was head chef, McAuliffe was joined a month later by Pawelek.
Polish by birth, Pawelek had spent two years as manager of the Gallery at London's Sketch before taking a year out to travel. When encouraged to go for an interview to head up the Dorchester Grill front-of-house team, he was, like McAuliffe, a little reluctant. "I was set on going into gastropubs, maybe becoming a restaurant manager," he says in his clipped Polish accent. "The whole idea of a five-star hotel put me off."
But after a friend convinced him to apply, Pawelek met the team and decided to take the job. McAuliffe's presence was a big factor in the decision. "We both spoke restaurant language and I liked that," he says.
For the first nine months the pair worked alongside Couillard, before he left in July 2006 to take charge of Tom's Kitchen in Chelsea. By that point, Byrne knew McAuliffe vaguely, having offered him a job, but it wasn't until Pawelek visited Danesfield House, and got "so paralytic on wine that we had to find him a room", in Byrne's words, that he became familiar with the two-strong core team at the Grill.
When asked to apply for the vacant position at the Dorchester, Byrne wasn't as cagey as McAuliffe and Pawelek had been about the establishment, but had reservations nonetheless. "The positive side was that the hotel was in London and, to be fair, I'd been falling asleep out in Danesfield House," he says. "But the flipside was that it meant going into a restaurant that had been an institution for so long with the kind of older clientele that I didn't think would appreciate my cooking."
His wasn't the only dissenting voice, either. "I visited the Grill with my wife and there were people falling asleep in their bowls of soup and she said to me ‘You're not coming here."
Eventually he came out in favour of the move and convinced his wife it was the right choice. "I believed in coming to London, being patient and changing things slowly," he says. And the deal-clincher? "As soon as I knew Daniel and Jason were going to be here it was in the bag."
Byrne started at the 75-seat Dorchester Grill in November last year, and admits that the new team didn't hit the ground running. "We all got on from day dot," he says. "But it was in the run-up to Christmas and I was serving roast turkey after roast turkey, and I began to wonder what the hell I was doing there. But I kept saying to myself and to Jason and Daniel ‘January's just round the corner, January's just round the corner'."
January came and, as they hoped, the team began to impose their will on the restaurant. There was, however, no initial strategy meeting, rather an unspoken understanding between the trio of where they wanted to take the restaurant. "We didn't need to sit down and say ‘we want to be here in a certain number of years'," says Byrne. "We all know what we want and have the top end firmly in mind."
The menu began to take form, shaped by Byrne's distinctive style of British cooking. Signature dishes such as roasted Cornish scallops with white truffle and white chocolate risotto, and braised chicken with potato mousse truffle and Parmesan sabayon came to define the restaurant.
At the same time, McAuliffe overhauled the wine list to match Byrne's more complex dishes.
"You had a huge comfort zone at Chez Bruce, didn't you?" Byrne asks, or rather tells, McAuliffe in his unbridled Scouse accent.
"Yeah," he replies. "And I knew Ollie (Couillard's) food from Chez Bruce and was very comfortable with it. It was meat and two veg."
Byrne's food, though, presented much more of a challenge. "Aiden's food is hugely complex, both with texture and flavours - you can't just throw anything with it," McAuliffe says. "With the scallop dish it took a eureka moment. I was stumped for a long time then literally woke up in the middle of the night and knew what I was going to serve with it."
The next few months saw the three mesh as a team, and some of the results, both front and back of house, have been the product of constant debate. "I wouldn't say we argue," Pawelek says. "But we certainly debate a lot."
"My experience, in over 15 years in the kitchen, is that what chef says goes," says Byrne. "But that's not the case here at all, because we respect each other's opinions too much. Daniel will look at one of my dishes and tell me what he thinks, whether he thinks something ought to be there or not. And my bottom lip might quiver, but 30 minutes later he'll see a change. Same with Jason - he might come in and say this flavour is too powerful on this dish and I'll change it."
The nature of debate raises the restaurant's standards, Byrne says. "Occasionally you need someone outside the box to point something out to you. Discussion is education and we're constantly discussing."
The three are focused squarely on the Michelin-star market, and are tip-toeing in that direction with utmost care. "We want to do a tasting menu because that's what Michelin-starred restaurants do," Byrne says. "But instead of just going ahead and doing it, we're going to wait until September to get it absolutely tip-top. The waiting's killing me, it's a big deal for me to be patient, but we've bought all the crockery and we're slowly getting the food and wine right."
So far the response to the Grill's new direction has been positive and even the critics have been beaming, with the Observer's Jay Rayner describing it as "a beautifully consistent meal" and the Independent's Thomas Sutcliffe labelling his meal "a masterclass demonstration". At present the restaurant does about 130 covers a day with an average spend of £60.
The quest to perfect the Dorchester Grill's new food-and-wine offering never ceases. "Half-way through the service, I'll have six glasses lined up on the counter from Jason," Byrne says. ‘That's going with that', ‘that's going with that', he'll say. It's constant."
With all three having spent the majority of their careers in restaurants, how does working in a hotel differ? "There's two sides to the coin," Byrne says. "It's harder because you can't just buy from any Tom, Dick or Harry turning up at the back door with 10 sea bass. As a chef it's a bit like chopping an arm off. We have to go through nominated suppliers, but that's part of working for an institution. But then, at the same time, since I arrived here I've spent way more than I'd ever have spent at a restaurant because they offer us such terrific support."
The hotel management has very much stood back and given the trio free rein with the restaurant. Ultimately they answer to food and beverage manager Zoe Jenkins and executive head chef Henry Brosi, but the pair are happy to give the restaurant to Byrne, Pawelek and McAuliffe as "their baby", as Byrne describes it.
Where does the trio realistically see "their baby" in three years' time? "One Michelin star this January," jokes Pawelek. "Two the January after"
Byrne breaks in: "I'm not going to be here forever. My dream is to open my own restaurant and the Dorchester is well aware of that. But if they make it impossible for me to leave then why would I?"
So serendipity, if you will, has placed Byrne, Pawelek and McAuliffe in a restaurant where the future is theirs for the making. The hotel infrastructure, support and, most importantly, the almost limitless potential between them, means each of the three-strong core team count their blessings that the sometimes uncertain nature of the hospitality industry has led them to work together at this restaurant at a formative time in all their careers.
"We're all between 35 and 38 years of age and we all know what our dream is," Byrne says. "We're not in this for a laugh. We're all carving out careers in the top of this market and we knew that about each other from the start. I firmly believe that in two or three years' time we'll still be here, debating on a daily basis. But maybe with a bit of recognition behind us."
Food and wine matches at the Dorchester Grill
Roasted scallops with white chocolate and white truffle risotto
Pinot Gris "Cuveé St Catherine" 2001, Domaine Weinbach, Alsace, France
Smoked foie gras with white onion Parmesan soup Gaillac Doux "Renaissance" 2004, Domaine Rotier, south-west France
Squab pigeon with pickled cabbage, pigeon mousse and sweet garlic butter sauce Valtuille "Cepas Centenarias" 2002, Raúl Perez, Bierzo, Spain
Poached turbot, scallop tripe, chervil sauce and truffle potatoes St Péray "Les Figuiers" 2004, Bernard Grippa, northern Rhône, France
Iced strawberry parfait, sweet red pepper purée and basil cress Pinot Noir Eiswein 2005, Helmut Lang, Illmitz, Burgenland, Austria
Orange and olive oil cake with orange sorbet and candied celery Jurançon 2004, "Clos Thou", Henri Lapouble-Laplace, south-west France
A dish is born
Aiden Byrne, Daniel Pawelek and Jason McAuliffe on the evolution of one dish
DP: We had this smoked-eel dish that started as a cold dish, with apple jelly terrine, smoked eel, horseradish and a quail's egg.
AB: That's right, these two hated it. Apparently it was too sweet. It went out to a few of our old customers
JM: Who chucked up when they got it.
AB: No. They said they hadn't had smoked eel for ages and when they got it they said "what the hell is that", but in fact they quite often loved it. These two absolutely hated it, though. It was back in February and we had probably our biggest and last argument. But I was being a child and I stuck with it for four weeks, and had a big smile on my face every time it was ordered.
JM: From my perspective it was a nightmare, because of the acidity. It was such a rich dish you couldn't serve sweet wines with it and even dry ones didn't work. It was almost impossible to find a wine that would match it and make it delicious.
AB: It was early days then and although it was only a few months ago it seems like ages - we've come on leaps and bounds. It represented a turning point when I started to listen to these guys.
DP: We all went to Sketch together for dinner and we started to talk about their dishes and what we could do with the smoked eel.
AB: Yeah, eventually it became a soup dish. I kept all the ingredients but made a smoked eel, apple and horseradish soup which we served in a jug. In the bowl was smoked eel, an apple flan and two quail's eggs and it also came with smoked eel béarnaise and little tortellinis of smoked eel and apple.
DP: It's now one of the best smoked eel dishes I've ever had. I actually pour the soup at the table which gives a little bit of theatre, which I think is beautiful. It also means it's as fresh as possible.
JM: For me, the sweetness had been slightly checked. Soups can still be tricky but things that were slightly off sweet would suddenly work and we could look at Pinot Grigios and other such wines. It became a lot easier to find a selection of wines to match it.