A meal at The Ritz Restaurant is one of London's greatest food experiences. The spectacular dining room (walls decorated with real gold) is matched by the stunning plates of food that emerge from one of London's most impressive kitchens. It's particularly impressive if you happen to be in love with the classic French style of cooking. Then, of course, there's the afternoon tea — one of the best in London.
Executive chef John Williams has worked in the kitchen here for 12 years. He took time out between lunch and dinner service to give us a guided tour. "This is what we would call a very classical style kitchen," he tells us, his tall chef's hat and embroidered whites gleaming, "we have a very big hierarchy, which Escoffier really brought to Great Britain. You have myself, and then you have sous chefs, then you have your various departments.
"So we have the pastry, the larder [the larder area alone is broken up into four different areas] and one of those is just for the afternoon tea sandwiches.
"Then we have a snack area for sandwiches and salads, we have the hors d'oeuvre and we also have the potential for a private dining scenario, with canapes and other cold things.
"We have the saucier, taking care of all the meat, poultry and game, then the other side is the fish section. Then, we have the entremetier and farinaceous, which is taking care of all the vegetables and the pasta, risottos — that kind of thing — and also general snack items that may be going to room service.
"We have a night chef, we have breakfast chefs, we have staff cooks — oh and I nearly forgot the butchery! So yeah," he laughs "it's a very large setup."
Size aside, what's so impressive about The Ritz's kitchen is that the team make absolutely everything they serve (not as common as you might think), with one exception: "the only thing that we don't cook here on our premises, 100%, says John, "is our sandwich bread, because we use so much within the afternoon tea." How many loaves is that per day, then? "Over 300."
We stand in the main kitchen area and John explains, "come service time, this is focused on the restaurant, this is the hub. You'll have upwards of 15 people working towards the restaurant dishes alone. We average about 70 covers per lunch, seven days a week, 100 covers at dinner.
"It's a high average, plus you have to take into consideration all the room service, the bar. Palm Court does 400 covers a day, and then there's also private dining. And we never close!"
Our eyes turn to what we assume is a fridge in the corner of the kitchen. "Everyone thinks that” says John, "but that's where we grow our own." A peek inside reveals lots of tiny plants, thriving in specially controlled conditions. Teeny nasturtiums stretch skinny stems upwards while underneath are different varieties of cress and other plants.
"We have all kinds in there," says John, "Mexican marigold, lemon verbena, all sorts. There's actually a tiny camera in there, and the whole thing is linked back to the 'farmers' and they tell it when to water, when to feed. The taste of these when they come out fresh, honestly it's incredible."
John has streamlined the kitchen over many years, tweaking and modifying. "We're so lucky to have all the different areas because we were crammed in here before. The reason we segregate is so that one team doesn't have a service while another is doing their mise en place [putting in place]. We used to work like that and it's stressful because as soon as you come in — bang! The service is going."
They've moved to induction, which keeps the kitchen much cleaner, and there's a Big Green Egg in the corner, another modern touch, a contrast with the rows of copper pans stretching along one wall. John laughs, "oh well they’re something I could never get rid of!"
We stand near the pass, which would be a flurry of activity during service but now, between lunch and dinner, we see just a few orders coming through. Someone has ordered a beef wellington — a strong request for 3.30pm on a Monday. We are jealous. A partridge dish is being cooked and John explains how several different people will cook different elements, bringing them forward to the sous chef who dresses the plate before sending it out to be served.
We try an 'Artichoke Royale', a light mousse made with autumn vegetables, fashioned into tiny curls, the dinkiest mushrooms and pickled walnut pieces on top. Around the outside is dotted pickling liquid from the walnuts. It's served with a nest of seasonal leaves, like holly, and within it are edible leaves, made from artichoke. It's stunning.
How long does it take to come up with a new dish for the menu? "We’re constantly evolving, it never stops. You're always developing and then every now and then you'll bring three or four elements together. We do try hard; we try very hard to make everything perfect."
The Ritz in numbers
The Ritz kitchen goes through...
300 sandwich loaves a day
5,000 finger sandwiches per day
1,000 scones a day.
The Palm Court serves 400 people afternoon tea every day
and around 45 beef wellingtons per week.
There are 65 kitchen staff members, with a minimum of 28 in the kitchen at any one time.
One fridge at The Ritz will set you back £40K.