Meet the chef: Talking food with Tom Clarke of L’Ortolan
Occupying a beautiful Grade II listed building, L’Ortolan is Reading’s only Michelin-starred restaurant.
On September 11th, it will be celebrating its 18th birthday and for two nights only, Head Chef Tom Clarke and former Head Chef Alan Murchison will be back together in the kitchen to bring back some of the restaurant’s greatest hits.
Food writer Ina Yulo chats with chef Clarke about L’Ortolan’s legacy and what he predicts the next 18 years will have in store.
What would you say are the biggest changes on the L’Ortolan menu when it first opened its doors compared to the present day?
I think back then, it was very much classical French cooking using classical French techniques. Now, it is a bit more innovative using world cuisine, not just French. The use of technology and the science of cooking has changed how we approach cooking.
Much focus is given to the London dining scene. If you were to convince guests to make their way out to Berkshire, what would you suggest they see and do?
The scenery and setting of the restaurant takes you away from the busy life of London. We are surrounded by great produce, breweries, and wineries.
What are some of the biggest misconceptions people have about chefs?
The aggressiveness and the shouting—this is all in the past. If you sat at our chef’s table you would be surprised at how calm it is.
What are the most important skills you learned during your time in France?
The love and connection with food. They have a very close bond with food and wine.
Alan Murchison headed up the kitchen at L’Ortolan for 14 years. Was it difficult to balance respecting his legacy whilst bringing forward your own ideas?
Not at all. I worked under him previously; he was my mentor andwas very open for me to express myself through food. The thing I thought most was I had big shoes to fill!
What is your favourite thing on the menu at the moment?
We have a squab pigeon dish on with celeriac, pine nuts, lovage, and local foraged blackberries. I love the balance of the dish.
Which local ingredients do you enjoy using the most?
We are very lucky here. We have Barkham blue cheese, Tunworth cheese, and not too far away on the River Test we have Chalk stream trout and watercress over at Andover, just to name a few.
How do you balance your time between your job and family?
Having a great and understanding missus. But on my days off, I give her and my two children 100% of my attention.
How do you manage staff turnover and attracting new talent?
Very hard question and easier said than done. We try to cut the hours down as much as possible. We have taken more staff on to help reduce hours, but we also try to make the kitchen environment an enjoyable place to be. We make sure we have one-on-one training for every staff member and try to visit producers so the kitchen team learn where and how our produce gets to us so we understand and respect the produce.
What do the next 18 years have in store for L’Ortolan?
Keep building on what we are doing to try and be better than yesterday, to improve on the whole guest experience.
Address: Church Ln, Shinfield, Reading RG2 9BY
Phone: 0118 988 8500