For more than a decade, Mark Dodson was Michel Roux's right-hand man. But, in a move that surprised even himself, he took charge of his own kitchens at historic Cliveden. Gaby Huddart reports.
Last summer, Mark Dodson took what he refers to as the biggest career decision of his life. After 18 years at Michel Roux's renowned three-Michelin-starred Waterside Inn in Bray, Berkshire - the latter 12 as head chef - he decided to quit in order to take up the post of executive head chef at the nearby Cliveden country house hotel, in Taplow.
The decision to leave was in many ways as much of a surprise to Dodson himself as to others in the industry. "I've always been very happy at the Waterside and never intended to move - I could quite easily have spent the rest of my working life there," he explains. But when a friend called and told him that his name was being mentioned at Cliveden, in the wake of John Wood's departure from the kitchen last June, it sowed a restless seed in his mind.
"The Waterside Inn is very much Michel Roux's place," he says. "He's the chef-patron and always will be, and I never once felt bitter about that because his is an absolutely amazing achievement. But when I started to think about Cliveden, I realised here was a fantastic opportunity for me. I had eaten at the hotel many times over the years and felt that it had enormous unfulfilled potential. While the hotel has a fantastic reputation, the food hasn't always achieved the same recognition. And here was a chance for me to put my stamp on it."
Although Dodson does not come across as an egotistical character in any way at all, he does admit that, after so many years in Roux's shadow, much of Cliveden's appeal lay in the fact that it would allow him to enjoy a little limelight in his own right. "Over the years at the Waterside," he says, "I saw people who I'd helped train go on and make it on their own and win Michelin stars and, when it comes down to it, I wanted a shot at doing the same thing myself. Coming to Cliveden was about proving to myself that I could do 100% of the thinking about the food and make my own name."
Aware that the culinary world can be a hotbed of gossip, Dodson is keen to stress that there was no bad feeling on his departure from the Waterside, and he remains extremely loyal to Roux. "I think when I first told Michel that I was leaving, it came as a shock to him," he says. "But then I think he thought about it and understood why I had to go, and I left with his blessing."
He adds: "I still speak to him regularly and would like to think in future we could establish some useful links between the two establishments - maybe sending each other chefs to develop their skills."
The opportunity to take centre stage as a chef was not the only thing that attracted Dodson to Cliveden. The challenge of running a large-scale food and beverage operation was a definite lure. In contrast to the Waterside Inn, with its single restaurant, Cliveden has the 24-seat Waldo's restaurant (open for dinner Tuesday-Saturday), the 80-seat Terrace restaurant (open for lunch and dinner every day of the year), several conference and banqueting rooms, and the Cliveden Club (a private club, where members come for lunch, gastronomic dinners and cookery demonstrations).
Since he took over the Cliveden kitchen last October, Dodson has been gradually evolving the hotel's food as he gets to know the capabilities of his 28-strong brigade. His aim, he reveals, is to bring the style of cuisine very much into line with the English stately home setting, in contrast to the recent past, when Wood's international culinary experience meant that the odd Asian influence had crept on to menus.
"I think the food here should work well with the environment," he says. "So, dishes now are classical and based very much on the seasons. Wherever possible, I'm sourcing ingredients locally. For example, I've recently reintroduced game here. In the past, there was very little game served, but it fits beautifully with the house and it seems to be selling really well."
Indeed, the current Terrace à la carte main course of roasted loin of venison with salsify beignets and leaf spinach, peppered game sauce (£31) is proving to be one of the most popular dishes, and Dodson also offers pot-roasted guinea fowl in a cider sauce (£28) on this menu.
Dodson is also introducing more luxury ingredients on to the menus at Cliveden because he believes that these fit well with the unashamedly lavish property. "In the past," he says, "people were getting nice food when they came here, but I think they want something more than that. I think people really want to indulge when they come somewhere like this, so that's what we're giving them."
Among the starters on the Terrace à la carte can now be found the likes of marbled terrine of foie gras, chicken and tongue, quince chutney and toasted brioche (£25) and fricassée of quail breasts with grapes and walnuts in a Sauternes sauce (£22.50), while mains include grilled lobster with a shellfish sauce béarnaise. "At £36, the lobster is the most expensive dish on the menu," says Dodson, "but it's walking out of the door. I think that shows people are coming here for a treat."
As his examples illustrate, Dodson is concentrating much of his attention on the Terrace restaurant because he feels that this is where he can effect the biggest change. In contrast to Waldo's, which holds a Michelin star and three AA rosettes, the Terrace holds just two AA rosettes.
"I want to get away from the impression that Waldo's is first class and the Terrace second class," he says. "I think both restaurants at Cliveden should be of the same high standard. We'll continue to offer a different experience in them - Waldo's being a bit more delicate and refined, with the Terrace doing more robust dishes - but both should offer a fabulous fine-dining experience."
So, in a year or two's time, will he judge his own success according to whether Cliveden wins further accolades? "It would be fabulous to get two stars here," he says, "but I can't say whether that's possible yet - I haven't been here long enough. What I'd really like, above all, is for us to be busier."
He explains: "Waldo's is currently full only on Friday and Saturday nights, while at the other three dinners it's half-full. I think it should be busy every night of the week. And the Terrace is full only on Saturday night and for Sunday lunch, while the rest of the time it's not even 50% full.
"My aim," he concludes, "is really to put Cliveden on the map for its food."
Five courses, £60; six courses, £70; eight courses, £90
Ballotine of foie gras, marinated duck breast and smoked pear compote
Fillet of sea bass lightly flavoured with star anise, langoustines and fennel purée
Verbena, apple and ginger sorbet
Suprêmes of Bresse pigeon, casserole of figs and bacon, lavender potato fondant
Crème caramel and roasted plum
Orange soufflé, poached pear and liquorice ice-cream
Pan-fried scallops served on a bed of shallot purée with a red wine jus, £23.50
Lobster bisque with pearls of winter vegetables, £17.50
Fillet of sea bass with a potato mousseline, mussel and saffron broth, £29.50
Roast Goosnargh duck, spiced pear and a root vegetable galette, £30.50
Lemon tart, orange muscat jelly, passion fruit sorbet, £11.50
1 ox tongue, salted
Bouquet garni of carrots, celery, onion
3 x 200g lobes of foie gras
60ml white port
3 chicken breasts
250ml chicken stock
For the quince chutney
750g quince, peeled and roughly cut
125g cooking apples, peeled and minced
250g tomatoes, peeled, deseeded and chopped
125g onion, finely chopped
1tbs orange rind, grated
2 oranges, juiced
300g soft light brown sugar
½tsp ground cinnamon
½tsp ground nutmeg
1tsp cayenne pepper
50g ginger, minced
300g white wine vinegar
Soak ox tongue overnight. Rinse well. Poach in water with bouquet garni. Leave to cook gently for three hours. Cool.
Soften the foie gras at room temperature and carefully de-nerve them. Season with salt and cayenne. Lay on a baking tray and moisten with white port and Cognac. Place in a warm oven at 120ºC and cook until the livers reach 42ºC.
Poach chicken breasts in a little seasoned chicken stock with thyme and bay leaf. Cool. Thinly slice the tongue and chicken.
Line a terrine with clingfilm, then line with sliced tongue, leaving 5cm of film and tongue overhanging rim. (NB: use a terrine 30cm long x 10cm wide x 8cm high.) Layer in the foie gras, chicken and tongue. When full, lightly press down and fold over the remaining tongue to close the terrine.
Leave to refrigerate for 24 hours before serving.
For the chutney, incorporate all ingredients, bring to the boil and leave to simmer until desired consistency.
For milk chocolate and hazelnut praline mousse
75g caster sugar
3 egg yolks
1 leaf gelatine, soaked in cold water
200ml double cream
75g praline paste
75g milk chocolate, melted
For chocolate fondant
125g extra bitter chocolate
125g unsalted butter
3 egg yolks
60g caster sugar
25g flour, sieved
100g (approx) white chocolate, melted
For white chocolate ice-cream
250ml double cream
6 egg yolks
150g white chocolate, chopped
Optional: 1tbs coffee essence dissolved in condensed milk
For chocolate and Grand Marnier ganache
125ml double cream
50ml Grand Marnier
2 egg yolks
45g caster sugar
200g extra bitter chocolate, chopped
For the chocolate and hazelnut praline mousse, put sugar in a pan with a drop of water and cook to 121ºC. Whisk egg yolks till they whiten. Whisk sugar into yolks, then add gelatine leaf. Whip the cream and the praline paste to a soft peak. When egg-yolk mixture is on the point of setting, fold in melted chocolate and then the praline and cream. Refrigerate before use.
For the chocolate fondant, melt and then whisk chocolate and butter over a bain-marie. Mix yolks and eggs together. Whisk with the sugar and add the chocolate and butter. Gently fold in the flour. Pour into buttered and sugared moulds with a little melted white chocolate in the centre of each one. Cook at 180ºC for six minutes. The fondant should be served immediately and be of a runny consistency.
For the white chocolate ice-cream, make a crème anglaise from cream, milk, yolks and sugar. Pour on to the chocolate. Pass, refrigerate and then churn. Marble the ice-cream with some coffee essence dissolved into condensed milk (optional).
For the chocolate and Grand Marnier ganache, boil together the milk, cream and Grand Marnier. Combine the egg yolks and sugar. Pour the cream on to this and cook out as a crème anglaise. Pass and pour on to the chocolate. Whisk together and chill well before serving.
Pasta, beignets and sauce (see below)
Salt and pepper
4 x 200g 3-bone best ends of venison
For the pasta
125g "00" pasta flour
4 egg yolks
Drop of olive oil, salt
Optional: chlorophyll to colour
For the beignets
200ml sparkling cider
Salt and pepper
2 egg whites
300g salsify, precooked in a blanc
Oil for frying
For the sauce
500g venison trimmings
100ml red wine
500ml light veal stock
2g peppercorns, crushed
150ml double cream
32 soft green peppercorns
Salt and pepper
For the pasta, combine all ingredients and roll very thinly on a pasta machine. Cut into strips 45cm long x 6cm wide. Poach and roll.
For the beignets, mix flour and cider together. Season. Whisk egg whites and fold into batter. Cut the salsify into batons, dip them into flour and then into batter. Deep-fry in oil at 180ºC.
For the sauce, in a pan, colour the venison trimmings with a mirepoix. Flame with Cognac. Deglaze with red wine. Leave to reduce, then cover bones with a light veal stock. Add some crushed peppercorns. Bring to boil. Skim.
Leave to cook for two hours, then pass and reduce. Add cream, then boil and slightly reduce. Add about eight soft green peppercorns per portion. Correct seasoning. If required, add a few twists of freshly milled pepper.
Melt 15g butter in a hot pan. Sauté spinach. Season. Drain well and reserve.
Season and seal the venison. Finish cooking in a hot oven. Do not overcook - the meat should be served pink.
Reheat pasta. Dress the beignets on to the spinach. Slice the venison into cutlets. Dress on the plate and pour sauce around.