Àclèaf's head chef goes from Acorn Award to Michelin star

07 September 2023 by

With the Àclèaf restaurant now garlanded with a Michelin star, head chef and Acorn Award winner Scott Paton shares his career journey and how he overhauled the restaurant at Boringdon Hall.

On each table at Boringdon Hall Hotel's restaurant Àclèaf sits an oak sapling, the acorn balanced in the narrow neck of a jar and the roots growing down into the water. These miniature oak trees perch on the tables for six to eight weeks until they get too big, at which point head chef Scott Paton and his team plant them in an oak tree nursery behind the restaurant.

"Every year around September or October, I'll walk around the grounds with the chefs, and we will collect all the acorns that have fallen and are still in good nick," Paton says. "We end up with 200 or 250 and we'll select the best ones, then germinate them and grow them.

"Then every week, we plant out a new tree; eventually we're going to have an oak forest. I think we've got about 60 mini oak saplings now, plus the 30-odd saplings in the restaurant."

The fledgling trees are symbolic of the name Àclèaf, which means oak leaf in Old English, and also mark Paton's 2017 win in The Caterer's Acorn Awards, which each year recognise 30 of the hospitality industry's brightest prospects under the age of 30.

Paton joined Boringdon Hall Hotel and Spa, just outside Plymouth, in 2016. He took over the running of the kitchen at what was at the time called the Gallery, and at the end of January 2020 opened its replacement, Àclèaf.

Àclèaf was awarded its first Michelin star in March this year, with the prestigious guide describing it as serving "exciting modern dishes" which are "refined yet restrained". Receiving the award was not just exciting, Paton says, but "overwhelming".

"Throughout my whole career, it has always been important to me to exceed expectations," he explains. "Now with a Michelin star, we knew guests' expectations would increase. How do I exceed those already high expectations? That's been the biggest challenge for me since receiving the star."

Born and bred in south-west England, Paton cut his teeth in the kitchen of Jack in the Green in Rockbeare, near Exeter. While no one in his family was a professional chef, his parents were "very hospitable", which helped him discover food as a means to express himself and give people memories. "I got into hospitality because I was a bit of a show-off; I've always liked to make people laugh and smile," he says.

At Jack in the Green, Paton worked as a commis chef before moving into pastry. He then moved to the Horn of Plenty, a small hotel in Devon with a three-AA-rosette restaurant. It was after he'd worked his way up to become the hotel restaurant's head chef that he moved on to Boringdon Hall's Gallery restaurant, which at the time was the hotel's sole eatery for the venue's 40 rooms.

On taking on the role of head chef, Paton got rid of the à la carte menu and gave diners two options instead: a tasting menu, and a more relaxed offering with dishes like fish and chips and club sandwiches. This first overhaul preceded the introduction of a further two dining options at Boringdon Hall.

"With the spa due to open, we wanted to turn the hotel into more of a leisure space," he explains. "This meant we had the chance to open a brasserie for casual dining guests and then work hard at creating a more dining-focused experience. That is what Àclèaf is now."

While Paton's main focus is Àclèaf, he also "guides" the cooking at the hotel's Mayflower Brasserie and the spa's Spatisserie, which serves breakfast, lunch and afternoon tea.

Àclèaf's pre-pandemic opening

Late in 2019 Paton started a conversation with the managing director of what was then the Gallery restaurant, asking for a new carpet and a lick of paint in one of its rooms. The conversation "spiralled", the chef says, and management agreed to "do this properly".

Paton says: "It became about creating the experience that I wanted to give. The directors put all their trust into the experience that I wanted to give and in turn I said, ‘Look, I'll put that passion and drive into it, ultimately to try and achieve the star.'"

The doors of the new Àclèaf restaurant opened a little less than two months before the coronavirus pandemic wreaked havoc on the hospitality industry, forcing the closure of Boringdon Hall. Paton says the timing was frustrating, with Àclèaf having only just gained momentum after the launch.

"We didn't have the foundations of a quality restaurant that would stick in people's memories; we were just starting out in creating that."

On the other side of a rebrand and Covid-induced closures, Paton has managed to retain all members of his original kitchen staff and grown the team, now catering for a seven-day, rather than five-day, operation. Despite the pandemic being a "very tough time", he says their cooking is better for it.

He explains: "We really came together through that Covid time, creating a family-orientated kitchen team which is open and honest. We kind of dismiss positions when talking about food, and we all express our opinions. That's been the biggest change, and we've really started seeing our food come to life."

Paton says the recipe development process is "completely collaborative", with each chef having free rein to "buy what they want" and "try what they want" when developing and evolving dishes. This also shines through in the recently released Àclèaf book, which features two dishes from each chef and an explanation of how they execute them, from planning to plating.

On the menu at Àclèaf

Paton describes Àclèaf's food as seasonal and ingredient-led, without being restricted to a single style or cuisine.

"We have a little term in the kitchen, in the restaurant, it's ‘truth with elegance': we offer some of the world's best ingredients, cooked simply and served with sophistication."

A mainstay on the menu is Àclèaf's signature crab dish, which treads the line between food and art. Local Brixham crab meat is shredded into a rice-like texture and presented in the form of a hollow circle, which is topped with mango purée and micro greens and filled with curry emulsion. "We try new crab dishes all the time, but they're never quite as good and they never hit every mark that the signature crab dish hits," Paton says.

Àclèaf launched with a four-course option as well as a six-course, but Paton has recently pared it back to the shorter menu in a bid to simplify and refine the guest experience.

"Through the years, we've done both six and four courses; we've just done a tasting menu and a four-course menu. Just doing a tasting menu didn't work for me. I felt there was a lack of hospitality in not giving customers a choice. It felt wrong to me."

The restaurant has a focus on quality ingredients and lets these stand out in visually striking dishes by picking accompaniments that highlight rather than overpower the key item on the plate. One supplier Paton works with is Highland Wagyu, run by two of his friends who breed Japanese wagyu cattle on a 25,000-acre farm in Perthshire, Scotland. Àclèaf's current menu features a dish pairing the meat with wild mushrooms and celeriac.

"You've got this amazing breed of Japanese cow but obviously bred in the UK, using British farming techniques, so they're grass-fed. When you have wagyu from Japan, it is all about that marbling and all about that kind of fat to create the texture, but this is flavour-driven," Paton says. "It's such a win; the flavours and the texture are like nothing I can describe."

New opportunities with a Michelin star

Paton says that while operating within a busy hotel has ensured a steady stream of bookings, the Michelin star has beefed up demand.

"Guests trust the Michelin star; it gives them a stamp of approval where they know they're not going to be disappointed. We've seen a nice uptick in bookings; over the last month, sales have flown up. Our footfall is probably another 50% on top of what it was."

Àclèaf is all about the diner experience, Paton maintains, although he points out that the Michelin star creates new opportunities for the restaurant through money and resources.

"We're supposed to tell you guys, the press, the media, that it's not about the accolades – and it's not. But if we're being totally honest with ourselves, an accolade is so important, because it not only gives the team a nice little pat on the back, a reward for their hard work, but it brings more business.

"It opens up new opportunities. Even if it brings in just a little bit more money and resources, it means you can go to a new level of elegance, of crockery, glassware, stemware, an extra member of staff, maybe you employ a sommelier.

"That's why the accolades are important to me, because they give us another platform to elevate our already great experience."

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