Dominic Chapman, head chef at Royal Oak in Paley Street, Berkshire, talks reviews, Heston
and Parky with
Calm down, dear - it's only a review. Actually, when Michael Winner says your food is some of the best he's ever eaten, it's not only a review - it's a bloody big deal. At the Royal Oak, in Maidenhead, Berkshire, the notoriously fussy Times columnist waxed lyrical over Dominic's lambs' kidneys and described his bread and butter pudding as "the best ever".
Since the review was published in early January, bookings have been flooding into the Royal Oak. Dominic says modestly: "It's a great boost to beginning-of-the-week trade. At a country pub, it can be hard to get people through the door on weekdays."
According to Dominic, reviews are a window into what he does for a living.
"It's nerve-wracking because you are wide open for criticism. We didn't do anything special for Michael - of course I checked the plates before they went out, but we didn't change the menu. It was business as usual."
Dominic worked at Heston Blumenthal's Hinds Head in Bray prior to joining the Royal Oak last year. It's a bigger outlet than Dominic's new pub and he says that while the two pubs are only two miles apart, the businesses are very different.
He says: "At Heston's pub the focus was on historic British food. I do champion British
produce, but you might see ingredients such
as linguini or buffalo mozzarella on my
Dominic also loves more unusual ingredients such as sand eels and gulls' eggs. Game is undoubtedly his favourite thing to cook. "Grouse is just fantastic," he says.
"I learned a lot from Heston, especially about finesse - really looking at ingredient quality, high standards and consistency. He's a brilliant chef and businessman."
Other gastronomic influences include Dominic's former employer Rowley Leigh, who was chef proprietor of Kensington Place for 20 years and now runs Café Anglais in London's Bayswater. Dominic's passion for seasonal, quality ingredients has also been inspired by Simon Hopkinson, author of Roast Chicken and Other Stories.
Having always worked in restaurants before joining the Hind's Head, Dominic hates the term "gastropub". "This whole pub-restaurant thing - they are the same. People come to our pub to eat. Of course, you can have a drink, but people only tend to drink in the bar before they eat," he says.
"The term 'gastropub' should be banned - they seem to be cropping up all over the place. I'd much rather we were known as a pub with a restaurant."
Dominic's affinity with good, clean food is reflected in the places he chooses to spend his money. Among his favourite places to eat are the Hardwick in Abergavenny, Café Anglais in London's Bayswater, Galvin Bistrot de Luxe on Baker Street, and on more formal occasions, the Ledbury in Notting Hill and Chez Bruce in Wandsworth.
Eating out and group menu-tasting sessions are an important part of the Royal Oak's success. He says it's essential for everyone to have the freedom to make suggestions about the food - right from licensee Nick Parkinson, son of chat-show legend Michael Parkinson, down to 16-year-old new recruits.
"Enthusiasm is important. There are five of us in the kitchen; my sous chef worked for Ramsay for a while and another team member worked with Heston.
"Recruitment in this industry is a nightmare. You have to ensure you are a professional employer and look after decent staff with incentives and training. It's important that everyone feels that they have an input into the business."
Stars in his eyes
In January, the pub was awarded a Bib Gourmand by Michelin. Dominic says this was a massive boost for the entire team - both front and back of house.
"And it doesn't stop there," he says. "We have to continue to drive standards - a star would be amazing, but for me, it's more about driving standards.
"Our general manager, Gherras Mo, is an extremely talented man. He knows and loves food and is fantastic with the customers."
Dominic adds that front-of-house training is paramount - teaching staff to smile and greet customers as they enter, getting them a drink and serving female diners first are all part of the service at the Royal Oak.
Michael - or Mr Parkinson as Dominic respectfully calls him - is very fond of Australia and visits every year.
Nick used to live there and the pair have developed a wine offering featuring his collection of Australian Grange Hermitage.
Customers might also bump into TV's favourite interrogator as Parky pops in most days. Dominic says one of his favourite dishes is
halibut - simply pan-fried, with green beans and mashed potatoes.
Michael Winner closes his review with this timely suggestion: "I advise you to get to the Royal Oak pub in Paley Street without delay.
"To make it easier, I'll do something I've never done in the 46 years - slight exaggeration there - of writing this column. I'll give you the phone number. It's 01628 620541." Given recent success it may take some time to get through.
Covers a week: 700
Average spend per head: £26
Wet:dry split: 30:70
Weekly turnover: £20,000
Tenure: Fuller's tenancy
Best-selling dish: peppered haunch
of venison with creamed spinach &
On the menu
Starters: Jerusalem artichoke soup (£6.50); buffalo mozzarella with red peppers & basil (£7.50); dandelion salad with Stilton, pear & walnuts (£6.25), fried sand eels (£5.95); potted Devon crab & toast (£7.50; macaroni cheese with ham hock (£7); rabbit terrine with pickles & toast (£7)
Mains: globe artichoke with a poached egg & wild mushrooms (£9.50); Old Spot belly pork with mushy peas & braised onions (£14); salt beef stovies with a fried egg & mustard sauce (£11.95); rib of Angus beef, chips & béarnaise for two (£40)
Desserts: greengage tart (£5.95); apple & blackberry crumble (£5.95); Cambridge burnt cream (£5.95); passion fruit pot with shortbread (£5.95); rhubarb trifle (£5.95).
The Royal Oak, Paley Street, Berkshire
Tel: 01628 620541