Daniel Kent – Head Chef at Wiltons, an almost three centuries old classic London restaurant
Daniel Kent is Head Chef at classic London restaurant, Wiltons. He joined in 2011, having previously worked in some of London’s finest kitchens, including Le Café Anglais, Skylon and The Wolseley. We chat to him about the pressures of cooking at a restaurant that’s almost three centuries old, and the place of classic restaurants in today’s dining scene.
A chef portrait of Daniel Kent
by Victoria Burrows
Daniel, you have worked at some very prestigious London restaurants – is there anything that you learned from these kitchens that particularly surprised you or changed the way you think about food or being a chef?
When I was in my 20s, working with Chris Corbin and Jeremy King at The Wolseley, I have to say the key learning for me was about delivering the whole dining experience and how every little part of the story made a difference; from Chris and Jeremy’s vision, to the front of house right through to the detail on the plate.
I’m privileged to be at the helm of a British institution. I respect what our founder set out to do and I try to deliver that to every guest – with a modern twist. We keep telling his story and giving the guest something to come back for time and time again.
It was working with Helena Poulakka at Skylon that I really understood what my kind of food is and how I wanted to cook. She showed me how important it is to use your own story, your own experiences of food and of eating in the dishes you create.
And it’s this insight and advice I’ve carried with me; be it in my take on a sherry trifle which reminds me of those boozy spongy affairs my Auntie Mavis used to make, right through to our refined lamb navarin we do with a consommé from the cooking liquid.
What do you think are the key factors in the success of a restaurant?
If only there were a set recipe for success – if I had one, I’d be a very rich man! Seriously though, there are some key criteria for success; I do think every restaurant must have the ambition to get it right for the guests every time; and if they do this, guests will come back, and you’re on to a winner. It’s not easy, but consistency is key – from front of house right through to those petit fours with the bill.
I also want to say location, but look at the River Café; yes it’s on the river, it’s in Richard Rogers firm’s building, but it does not have foot fall and it’s quite a distance from anywhere. What it does have, however, is a brilliant product that the founders believed in and brought to us. It also has consistency – you’re guaranteed a fantastic experience every time!
It’s passion, belief and the team that believe in the story, a guest’s experience and the food you want to put on a plate to serve to people. If you cannot put them together you are not going to be able to let people know what you are doing, enthuse them with your ideas, and keep the focus driving you every day.
Wiltons was founded in 1742 – do you ever feel two, almost three, centuries of pressure on you?
Yes I do! It’s not every restaurant that has so much history behind it. I made sure I read about its characters, including the famous Jimmy Marks who came from the clubs of St James and became ‘mine host’ and oyster shucker extraordinaire to the rich and famous.
Now, here we are in 2018, trying to do the same … telling the story but also trying to keep Wiltons relevant; and just tweaking the dishes to uphold our history, while keeping things fresh for our guests. Having been here six years you do wonder what impact you have on such an institution.
Wiltons is classic British – how would you define classic British food today? Is our understanding of British food changing with new ingredients and styles of cooking being introduced?
I know what I do is simple classic French cooking with the very best British ingredients – and that is how I interpret what Classic British is.
Because, if you look at it, shepherd’s pie is hache parmentier; trinity cream is crème brûlée and when we make lamb hot pot we make the potato topping in the style of a French gallete. Which came first is the argument you could have, but they both follow the same rules and that’s how I teach the young chefs here at Wiltons.
I still think that it’s true today, the French Masters set the rules and we have just adapted them to push food forward and to our tastes.
But as you say the new ingredients and styles of cooking are having an impact on how we all cook. We enjoy that here at Wiltons as we can try new things on our set menu and sometimes it works and sometimes it does not. But I think that British food is an evolving thing and an eclectic mix, reflective of our evolving population. It’s like our language, our art, our society. We have stolen, inherited and accepted so many different things in our history and we use them every day so I do think that’s how our food is growing and changing the restaurants you see around us.
So much dining these days is casual – do you think there will always be a place for more traditional, refined restaurants?
When I was a young child growing up in Beverley, East Yorkshire, and my parents said, “let’s go to the Walkington Manor”, I would jump at the chance! It was a special occasion and an experience and I loved going! I think we all want a little bit of that from time to time; we want to be spoilt, we would like to be looked after when in a restaurant and that’s what I think traditional refined restaurants do.
I went to a restaurant in Dubrovnik a while ago; it had a long history, like Wiltons, but it was a refined experience, it was really romantic (I was with my wife!) and we felt spoiled – it’s something I won’t forget.
I think restaurants have learned this and recognise that their story, their service, their food are about creating special moments for their guests. There will always be demand for top-notch experiences.
Thank you, Daniel, and we’re looking forward to trying your Aunt Mavis’ boozy trifle when we’re next in town, and, of course, giving your lemon sole a la Grenobloise a go.
If you cannot wait to try Daniel’s lemon sole a la Grenobloise, your just one click away to prepare the dish yourself.
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