Winter 2008 - Leader of the house

12/04/2013 11:04
Once the home of the Greater London Council, the five star London Marriott Hotel County Hall was perfectly placed to host this year’s Craft Guild of Chefs Business Partners’ lunch.

Standing majestically over the River Thames with Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament to its left and the London Eye to its right, the London Marriott Hotel County Hall is a magnet for visitors to the capital and local businesses.

Originally the seat of power for local government, it still carries the nostalgic air of politics about it with its marble floors and oak panelled walls featuring portraits from past leaders, and its ‘noes’ lobby where they obviously went to vote against a proposal. But now this historical building is Japanese owned and County Hall has been transformed into a complex that includes diverse attractions such as the London Aquarium, plus it’s home to London Marriott Hotel County Hall that offers five star food, thanks to executive chef Christopher Basten.

He has now been with the hotel for a year having joined the group from renowned country house hotel Great Fosters in Egham, Surrey. “It’s different to Great Fosters – busy and the unit is quite testing,” he says. “From Monday to Friday we have a lot of corporate clients such as Shell and BP and local businesses, and we do a lot through the millennium wheel. It’s a fantastic locality for visitors.”

Basten is responsible for the menus in all the hotel’s bars and restaurants, which include the Leader’s bar, the Library Lounge, the County Hall Restaurant and the Rotunda Lounge plus room service for the 200 bedrooms, and he admits he has made many changes to the food offerings. “When I joined I went through all the menus. I overhauled the food in the restaurants to fit my style of cooking – a modern British feel –and our à la carte menus are changed three times a year.”

His current winter menu includes dishes such as confit Speyside salmon, roast saddle of English rabbit and Bramley apple and sultana strudel, which encapsulates his passion for local produce and naming sources. On menus, he says, it’s important to put the food source. “People want to know where their food comes from. They look carefully at what they eat.”

He also has to cater for particular guests hence for the Americans there was a special Thanksgiving dinner that consisted of mussel and razor clam chowder, roast Norfolk turkey with all the trimmings and pumpkin cheesecake.

Room service has its own kitchen on the sixth floor and is an important part of the business. He has improved this menu: “I wanted to take our restaurant menu and offer it to room service, to deliver more restaurant style food into rooms. We now offer more homely food in rooms – sausages and mash, calves’ liver and bacon. That’s what our customers want. But we also offer our standard Marriott offerings – burgers and Caesar salad.”

The credit squeeze has been felt but Basten says its figures were set last year before the credit crunch and so the hotel is up on last year and doing better than others. “Cost to sales is 26% and I have to deliver that,” says Basten.

The Craft Guild business partner menu was his idea –comfortable cooking for partners and members – and he came up with nettle and coriander soup, smoked salmon and Cornish crab roll with saffron mayonnaise, roast loin of rabbit with prune and apricot dressing, morel foam, and Cluizal chocolate mousse with pistachio ice cream and curry custard. “For the main course I tried to think of meat that was under used and came up with rabbit,” he says, adding that it was later a popular choice of meat at the National Chef of the Year competition and the Olympics in Erfurt.

The nettle and coriander soup at the lunch was a throwback from Great Fosters, he says. “We were known for nettle gnocchi there; picking the nettles from the gardens in the morning and turning them into gnocchi. I wanted to do something like that. It was an amuse bouche to start the meal.”

He says he chose Cluizal chocolate, which is strong and bitter, to go with the curry custard. “All it was, was crème anglaise flavoured with a mild curry flavour, and it went really well with the chocolate. The ice cream was a kulfi style ice cream that one of our Indian chefs put together,” adding that complementing the food was wine specially chosen by business partner Justerini & Brooks.

He heads a brigade of 26 and, at first glance, the main kitchen looks like any other. But Basten has to contend with interesting but difficult logistics of the building as well as the maximum security one expects because of its close proximity to the Houses of Parliament. Hotel guests have an easier time entering the front of the hotel, but there are special times for entry by staff at the rear of the building where fingerprint recognition on touch pads and swiping cards is a daily occurrence. “It’s a difficult unit to run because of getting the synergy between the kitchens organised,” he says.

But Basten adds that he has complete autonomy over what he does in the kitchen. “I write the menus and I’m left alone to do them. This hotel is seen as the flagship in the group so we have to keep on our toes all the time.”

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