Martyn Nail, executive chef at one of London’s most iconic hotels, takes us behind the scenes in Claridge’s busy kitchen to reveal the secrets of Claridge’s: The Cookbook
Martyn Nail, executive chef at Claridge’s – one of London’s most iconic hotels – is a busy man. When we speak shortly after the lunch service in December, he’s deep in the midst of preparations for what is an almost absurdly frenetic time of year.
‘From mid October onwards, until New Year’s Day, it just never lets up,’ he tells me. ‘In the food and beverage department, we make more money in the last three months than in the rest of the year put together – and we’re busy during that time as well!’
Thus it comes as something of a surprise that he’s also busy promoting Claridge’s: The Cookbook, which he has co-written with the food writer Meredith Erickson. A beautifully presented book, it promises to be an indispensable addition to many a kitchen shelf – but it also offers a valuable insight into the history of a great British institution.
‘Claridge’s has been going since the middle of the 19th century in some form – 164 years, I believe. And we’d never done a cookbook before. Personally, I thought that we’d been a bit slow; many places have a book before the paint is dry on the walls. I exaggerate, but only just… But what I found was that many of our guests ask for recipes, and we wanted to put them together in a format where it was legible, and could be appreciated.’
The book itself contains over 100 recipes, and there are a few things in the cookbook that have been around since the 1930s; there’s a certain joke, for example, that an executive chef once took the chicken pie off the menu, only to be told ‘it’s you or the pie’. However, it’s not all nostalgia. ‘We have things that are contemporary, such as a venison dish that is a nod to Noma, following on from our collaboration with Rene Redzepi in 2012.’
Nail is clear that not every recipe in the book is suitable for the ordinary home cook: ‘The afternoon tea recipes, in particular, are quite elaborate,’ he says. ‘But why would you come to Claridge’s and not have something elaborate? However, the chicken pie is reasonably easy… you can knock it up in about 40 minutes.’
There’s a certain joke that an executive chef once took the chicken pie off the menu, only to be told ‘it’s you or the pie’
As for collaborating with Meredith Erickson, it came about in the most unexpected of ways. ‘The genesis for the book was that she was in search of the chicken pie recipe, and waylaid me in the foyer,’ he explains. ‘She asked for a copy of the book, which then didn’t exist, and so she suggested a collaboration. The book was put together in three different cities – Montreal, Boston and London – and has been tested rigorously. I’m incredibly proud of it, and it’s a wonderful thing.’
He has now been at Claridge’s for 30 years (‘my first job out of catering school’) and he’s noticed that things have changed a great deal during that time. ‘A lot of food used to be silver service and prepared in advance,’ says Nail.
‘Can you imagine anyone accepting food like that these days? People’s knowledge has really evolved, which is a challenge for any chef – but it’s a wonderful challenge, and I hope that we’re embracing it.’
It helps, of course, that he has set up camp in such an iconic institution: ‘Claridge’s is almost like a wonderful stately home, with an upstairs and downstairs, and many of the faces are still here after years,’ he enthuses.
‘We have an appreciation for our guests, and one of the reasons why I’m still here is an innate familiarity with what people want; it’s lovely to know, for instance, that particular guests love the chicken pie. The devil is in the detail.’
One of the signature treats at the hotel is, of course, the afternoon tea, for which Claridge’s is justly famous. How does Nail make sure that every single one lives up to the expected standards?
‘It needs to have its own identity; the ingredients in the sandwiches should be, respectively, cucumber, egg, smoked salmon, chicken, and ham. It should be a third bread, a third filling, a third other piece of bread,’ he says.
‘The temperature of the tea is very important, and the pastries need to be delicate and refined, and the scones need to be great. The cream must be clotted. We use the Marco Polo jelly – a step above strawberry jam. People have very high expectations of what they eat, and we want to fulfil those.’
The past three decades have been remarkable, and memorable, for Nail. ‘The highlights have been meeting some special people, guests or visitors, who have included Obama, the Queen, and many other members of the Royal Family,’ he says. ‘But there is always something amazing happening here; there are so many wonderful people, and that’s something to bear in mind, that people want to be at Claridge’s.’
Claridge’s: The Cookbook is £30 from claridges.co.uk