Chef Interview: Paul O’Neill, Cliveden House (April 2019)

Cliveden House Hotel

It would appear
that the four part “A Very British Country House” Channel 4 TV series aired
last September hasn’t done the hotel any harm, perhaps in particular through giving
air time to the visit of Meghan Markle before the Royal wedding.  Indeed, subsequent business has seen a rise
in the numbers of guests and turnover alike. The first three months of the year
has been a record, plus in terms of reviews and feedback about the hotel,
business is continuing to move in the right direction.

Paul O’Neill
fell into cooking by accident but found his first serious post college position
at Claridges under the iconic mentor John Williams.  After a career taking in hotel kitchens and a
resounding success in the 2013 Roux Scholarship, Paul talks candidly about the
experiences that have shaped him and led to his position as Executive Chef at
Cliveden House hotel.

Paul O’Neill

childhood was characterised by mum and dad being away for significant periods
of time, leaving him in the hands of au pairs, to the point where he believes
were his mum asked why he learned to cook, she would say it was because he was
hungry!  At the age of 15 Paul enrolled
in a catering course at Chichester College and spent weekends working at Chichester
Festival Theatre.  At 17 he sent his CV
and a covering letter to a number of Michelin Star standard Hotels and
restaurants – from Hilton on Park Lane and The Dorchester to Chapter One.  Paul went on about ten trials when he was 17,
in the end it was between Chapter One and Claridges.  The size and scope of the brigade at
Claridges was too much to turn down and he joined the brigade working for the then
Executive Chef, John Williams. 

Claridges had
48 chefs and was an incredible beehive of activity. It was the perfect
experience for any young chef, it wasn’t like in a restaurant where you do two
or three dishes every service, at Claridges you would be doing canapés for 800
one minute, then the next a function for 250, then on larder for evening
restaurant service, then maybe doing room service and sometimes even bar.  The main sections Paul contributed to in
terms of the restaurant were fish, garnish and larder.

The level of
discipline and regimented hierarchy at such a place meant chefs learned so much
so quickly.  It was in the days when you
would go into work punctually, properly attired and clean shaven and you’d
happily put in 96 hours a week for £11,000 (no overtime).  The world has changed so much and Paul wonders
whether the development of chefs today is any better for that change. Having
joined in 2002, Paul left Claridges after two and a half years, which was at
the same time as John Williams moved to The Ritz Hotel.

After a few
roles honing his skill set further, Paul became Senior Sous Chef at Ashdown
Park Hotel and Country Club in East Sussex.  A 106 bedroom, 4 red star property, popular
with weddings and functions as well as a two AA Rosette Restaurant.  At the time of Paul joining, Andrew Wilson was
head chef.  Andrew had worked for Eric
Chavot at The Capital and had also taken part in the 2007 Roux Scholarship.  2007 was the year that Armand Sablon was the
Scholar, Armand had entered from the brigade of Andre Garrett at Galvin at Windows.  In fact, there was quite a network of
contacts with experience of The Roux Scholarship.  Encouraged by Andrew to do so, the first year
Paul entered was 2012 and despite not having not made it though the paper
recipe stage, entered for a second time in 2013, making it through to the final
before being crowned Scholar of that year.

Roux Scholarship

Indeed, the
2013 Roux Scholarship was the televised competition, so before the semi-finals
Paul went to Limewood with Angela Hartnett, Luke Holder and James Martin.  Some other finalists went to Gleneagles with
Andrew Fairlie, and some further went to Padstow with Rick Stein.  The week leading up to the final; Monday all finalists
went to Le Gavroche with Michel Roux Jnr, Tuesday they were at The Waterside
Inn focusing on wine with Diego Masciaga and Alain Roux, then the next three
days at Michel Roux Snr house in Switzerland with Michel and Robyn, including a
wonderful memory of eating charcuterie and drinking wine.  The final was on the following Monday.

In terms of the
final, Paul suggests a finalist is better off practicing and learning
techniques than trying to research classic recipes, as there is a 90% chance
you won’t have considered the recipe chosen. 
Techniques like filleting a whole flat fish and sowing it up, trussing a
bird, deboning and ballotine a bird and so on. 
Paul describes the overall experience as one of the greatest of his life,
the support of the whole ‘Roux Family’ is incredible.

Paul took his winners
stage at Gagnaire in Paris. While working at the Michelin three star restaurant
five days at week, Paul worked Saturdays at the group’s Michelin one star
restaurant.  In fact, about the third
week into the stage, Gagnaire’s three star restaurant was closed for a week, so
instead of kicking his heels, Paul went to the one star restaurant on the
out-skirts of Paris where he was put straight on the fish section.  This went so well that upon returning to
Gagnaire’s Michelin three star restaurant kitchen, he found himself on the sauce
section.  This reflected not only respect
gained by Paul over a short space of time as a talented and accomplished chef
but also spoke volumes for the quality and reputation of the Roux Scholarship. Paul
adds that part of gaining respect meant knuckling down and working along side
maybe 5 other stagiers present in any given week.  Paul’s stage was three months in total, which
he describes as a wonderful and career changing experience.

After staying
another year at Ashdown Park, Paul went to an AA five gold star restaurant with
rooms called Berwick Lodge in Bristol, where he remained in his first head chef
role for over three years.  Andre Garrett
contacted Paul, when he was looking for a head chef at Cliveden House.  With so much quality hotel background, one of
Paul’s attributes is to multi-task to fit around the number of outlets that the
main kitchen serves. At the same time Paul found it great to learn and work
under Andre to understand how he wanted to product to be delivered day in day
out, service in service out.

Cliveden Dining Room

Having taken
over the Executive Head chef role at Cliveden House at the turn of the year,
Paul has found the change fairly seamless and able to hit the ground running.  In terms of the main dining room, his focus is
on obtaining the best possible produce and then managing three or four ingredients
on a plate to keep the dish as simple as possible.  The rule is typically to make the most of the
flavours by presenting ingredients in different forms to provide complementary
and contrasting tastes and textures.

 The overall dish must not hark back to those
days when chefs added, added and added some more and sometimes didn’t know when
to stop, Paul suggests that the beauty of food is in the simplicity of strong
natural flavours combining and enhancing in their own right.  Paul suggests an explanation for a decade or
so long trend that happened in fine dining between around 2005 and 2015 stemmed
from access to knowledge and information becoming so great – the consequences
were two fold – customers and chefs not only made more health conscious, in
other words, less butter and cream but also encouraged by social media imagery
to deliver excessive appearance of complexity. 
Fortunately the stripped back, back-to-basics mentality has revived to
relieve the unneeded complexity sought by chefs of that era.

In terms of
Cliveden dining capacity, the main dining room can do 70 covers and with a few
relays may hit 80 covers, plus on special days, like Mother’s Day, the hotel
may open the adjacent French Dining Room to take up to 90 or more covers.  In terms of chefs, there are 26 in the
kitchen brigade for the whole hotel, 5 rotating between the spa and the grill,
breakfast chef, afternoon tea, functions, events and so on.  So for example, the hotel may have a wedding
with a wedding breakfast at 2.30pm, a function in The French Dining Room at
7.30pm in between afternoon teas and then covers in the main dining room for
dinner.  All of this serviced from downstairs
in the main kitchen.  Paul feels that the
hotel kitchen manage it well, people don’t wait and he’s confident of quality
and consistency.

Being aware of the trends
of less formal lunch dining, the main dining room is now only open for lunch on
Sundays with the rest of the week being a popular choice for afternoon tea; and
improving the overall experience to the hotel residents as the Great Hall is
ideal for arriving or current hotel guests to relax.

As part of the
Iconic Luxury Hotels Group, Cliveden House is part of a wider identity and
recognition of this is in the form of ‘Iconic Dishes’ that span the group of
Chewton Glen, Cliveden House, Lygon Arms and 11 Cadogan Gardens.  There are 14 dishes in total that reflect the
highest quality with consistency and the strongest customer feedback, so for
example the truffle risotto, the Dover sole or beef Wellington will appear on
the Iconic list of dishes and minimum number of those will appear on each property
menu at any given season. 

Paul’s own
creative process invariably starts with a spider diagram, centring on the main
protein with the web consisting of the complementary and contrasting way in
which the element Is prepared for example asparagus may be blanched, shaved,
pickled or raw – then what brings that together such as a curd, emulsion, olive
oil or dressing and so on.  Paul was
inspired to create in this way from a strong and developed respect for
ingredients, particularly gained since his three months stage at Gagnaire.

The main focus
is now to help develop Cliveden House as a food offering that is in the
forefront of people’s minds as part of the wider picture of a world-renowned
destination hotel.  His progress will
naturally be followed with interest.

from Fine Dining Guide