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

Posted on: April 27th, 2019 by Simon Carter
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

Paul’s 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 stagiaires 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 the 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 were 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.