As head chef of Reading’s only Michelin-star restaurant, L’Ortolan, Tom Clarke can often be found foraging for local ingredients like elderflower, greengages, Mirabelle plums, elderberries and cobnuts.
“When we put it on [the menu], we have it as a statement that it’s local produce, so we make it quite clear – and obviously it’s free food as well, which is good on one part from a business sense,” he tells Food Spark. “It’s also good training for the guys to understand what’s in season, what you’re looking for, when it’s ready to pick.”
Menu development is based around the seasons for Clarke – although he also turns to books and social media for inspiration.
“From there, we have a think about classic combinations and then throw something in there to spice it up a little bit,” he adds. “Like for instance, I’m playing around with a new lamb dish. So it’s a loin of lamb, we have a braised leg, some lamb sweetbreads and it’s served with peas, broad beans, and we will put in some anchovies for a little bit of saltiness.”
But it doesn’t mean Clarke hasn’t toyed with more whacky dish ideas – like a blue cheese marshmallow.
“We do a cheese course and I thought we would do something a little bit unusual, so I played with it,” he recalls. “In my head I thought it could be quite interesting, but the more I tried it I thought: ‘Let’s not muck around. If you can have cheese you are going to eat cheese in a raw state.’”
Dishes that delight
The food at L’Ortolan involves using French techniques with Asian influences and seasonal British produce, says Clarke, sometimes with a Nordic influence on presentation.
On the current menu, the halibut is one “hell of a dish,” according to Clarke. “It is poached in lemon oil, and then you’ve got some pickled mooli, some compressed cucumber and coriander, preserved lemon relish, some seaweed that is dressed with ponzu dressing, and then candied lemon zest, caviar, coriander crest and flowers. Then it’s finished off with a cucumber and wasabi beurre blanc,” he says.
“The flavours are nice and well balanced from my point of view, and the preserved lemon gives it an extra kick. For this kind of weather it works so nicely, it’s not too heavy, it’s quite light and it’s been selling quite well.”
But it’s not just new dishes that matter to Clarke, who is also proud of the evolution of the goose liver parfait, which is always on the menu but changes with the seasons. Previously, he has used ingredients like rhubarb and pineapple, but peaches are the star of the show this season.
“We have a red peach gel, a sweet wine jelly, a yellow peach chutney, some compressed yellow peach. We have done a peach meringue and then we’ve got a duck ham and then we flavour it up,” he says.
While fine dining will always have a place, Clarke can see a movement towards more casual eating in the UK, as people don’t want to worry about how they are dressed or their seating. More generally, he also believes Mexican flavours will grow as an influence on the food we eat.