Welcome to our latest content series ‘Meet the Masters’ where we interview experts across the hospitality industry. In our first edition, we interview the well-renowned Chef, Michael Dutnall MCA of the Royal Air Force Club, Mayfair to understand what drives him after so many years in the kitchen and how he perceives the industry of today.
Michael Dutnall MCA
Michael is the Head Chef of the prestigious Royal Air Force Club in Mayfair, London. He has over 20 years of experience in the industry and has cooked alongside world-class Chefs, Michel Bourdin, Herbert Berger and Jerome Ponchelle MCA. Michael is also one of 25 people to have ever been accredited in the Master Culinary of Arts (MCA) for culinary skills; it is known as one of the toughest disciplines in the industry.
What made you want to become a Chef?
Honestly, it was an afternoon cooking with my nan or either my mother. That would have been predominantly baking cakes; Victoria sponges, fairy cakes or something like that.
How did you get your break in the industry?
I was very fortunate, I got employed as an apprentice at the Connaught Hotel, Mayfair. It was luck of the draw, I really landed on my feet, I was a 16-year-old kid coming straight out of school. I didn’t know any different and I think that was kind of fortunate going into an environment like the Connaught that you don’t know any different.
The apprenticeship was five years. So, three years of that was aimed at your training. You’re doing your paperwork at college while you work your way around the sections of the kitchen. As an apprentice I would work on the veg section, then larder, then fish, then sauce and then to the butchery and pastry. Those days it was also in your apprenticeship to do service as well.
That’s your first three years, the final two years includes such things as polishing. By that stage, you are in charge and you need to be leading from the front. You have built up your knowledge and you warrant yourself to be there, it’s what the apprenticeship leads to.
What are your views on the attitudes and quality of Chefs in the industry today?
Going from the Connaught to Herbert Berger, it was a good move, because it was a culture shock to me. I went there with some arrogance because I came from the Connaught and I was some golden child and thought I was going to be better than everyone else even though, I was a First Commis and had only done 5 years in the industry. I got taken down a peg or two and rightly so by everybody there.
I think what is more apparent in the industry now is not the attitude, but the lack of knowledge everybody seems to have. If for example, I finished five years of service as a Commis and if you speak to someone that has done 5 years now, they are looking for Junior Sous Chef positions. Is it right? Is it wrong? I’m not necessarily the one to answer that but when I bring people in my kitchen, I try to keep them engaged and infused with learning, being watchful of them not climbing the ladder too quickly.
“Once you get to the top of the ladder, you are learning from beneath you and learning from beneath is a lot slower than from above.”
Once you get to the top of the ladder, you are learning from beneath you and learning from beneath is a lot slower than from above. If I look at myself now, I am only learning from the team beneath me or what I read in cookbooks. Whereas before I had a whole team of people above me who each of them from their own different backgrounds were teaching me something different.
At what point in your career were you concerned with recruitment?
It was my first Head Chef role when I was first involved with recruitment. I had to think about wages and who would apply. I think it’s about progressing through your career and having a holistic view of everything. When I was a Sous Chef I would focus on how to run the kitchen when the Head Chef was not there and general giving orders throughout the kitchen.
How does the recruitment of Chefs differ from other professions?
Depending on the position, the interview process is very different throughout the ranks. For apprentices, you are looking for attitude rather than skill level, because I don’t expect them to know anything. I expect them to come with a clean fresh mind willing to learn. Then from a Commis Chef, I would expect them to have done their college, their NVQ level 2 and 3 and for them to have a good foundation, and again willing to learn. As you start moving up, the expectation from an employer’s side as well as the interview process is enhanced. If it was a Commis Chef they would do a day in the kitchen and I would be looking at attitude and how they hold themselves in a kitchen. Then moving up to a Demi Chef I am expecting them to cook a few things, whether they can cook steaks to the correct temperatures and so on. Can they fillet fish? At Chef de Partie, I will start asking the leadership questions as well as cooking a dish. For Sous Chefs it would be a longer trial, and there would be an interview with HR, as well myself. At that level, it’s about whether the job is right for not only the company but also for them. I like to keep a close-knit team that has an understanding that we are all on the same page. This is what we expect, we are together, we are bonded, and that’s what I need at that level.
I’d rather employ someone with less of a desirable CV background, but the willingness to learn with the right attitude than someone with the best CV in the world, but has a terrible attitude.
“I’d rather employ someone with less of a desirable CV background, but the willingness to learn with the right attitude than someone with the best CV in the world, but has a terrible attitude.”
What is the best way for a Chef to climb the career ladder?
There is a balance to be had, I believe quite strongly that when I look at a CV and I see six months here and nine months there, I stop reading it as it shows the candidate has no stability or loyalty to where he’s worked. Throughout my career of 21 years, I had six jobs. In some industries that sounds like a lot of jobs and in the catering trade it really isn’t. Anywhere I have worked I have done no less than two years because two years gives you the opportunity to work your way around each of the kitchens. The makeup of any Chef is their past experiences. If you don’t spend long enough at each of the establishments, you don’t get to be in the same mindset of the Chef that is running the place, you don’t get to take a piece of them away with you. At the end of the day that is my make up now. I’m a little bit of Michel Bourdin and I am a little bit of Herbert Berger, Martin Green and Jerome Ponchelle and that is me. They are the Chefs that has made me the Chef that I am today.
Is there space in the industry for flexible Chef work?
Yes, it is a very tough one. Certainly here we are very lucky, I have the backing of the CEO and of the Trustee’s to eradicate split shifts so that we don’t do them anymore but for a group of chain restaurants that need to adjust their workforce to cope with busy and quiet periods can have Chefs with knowledge to NVQ level 2 and 3 do shifts within their restaurants in the West End on the weekend and vice versa to deal with peaks and lulls. That would be a fantastic position to be in for the employer. Would it be a fantastic position for the employee? I suppose it gives them the flexibility to adjust their working hours and where and when they are working, so it could work both ways.
Where is the best place to become a Chef?
London is a great place and it is made great by its diversity. Is it the best place in the country, with the best restaurants? You would be ignorant to say that because there are so many other great places to work outside of London. But for diversity, I don’t think you can beat London. I am sure you can eat out in London every night of the month and not eat the same food twice, and at the same level of quality. There is so much diversity and so many different cultures and cuisines, it’s amazing, it really is. For any would-be-chef, the opportunity is here. There is more demand from a large variety of establishments to gain experience.
“London is a great place and it is made great by its diversity… for any would-be-chef, the opportunity is there.”
What is your number one tip for an aspiring Chef?
In essence, to be a sponge. Soak up as much knowledge as you can and listen. Listening is so important and to do that you need to enjoy what you do. If you don’t enjoy it there is no point in doing it. You need to be passionate about it and love what you do, this will take you places.