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Chef Daniel Ayton of The Taj - London

This is a beautiful hotel just a few yards from St James’s Park Underground station. Its red brick and ornate terracotta friezes, its fountain and courtyard all offer the guest a chance to glimpse another era, far from the buzz of traffic.

Daniel Ayton Daniel Ayton is a striking figure. Already tall, the addition of his chef’s toque adds another foot to his lofty stature. This chef is one of the most decorated and respected within the industry but is strangely overlooked by those seeking the next celebrity. There are few chefs, however, who are so thoroughly immersed in the industry, and few who are better known by their peers.

We settled ourselves in a sumptuous private room and I asked Daniel about his background. ‘I was brought up in Torquay, down in Devon. My father owned and ran a restaurant for 20 years. I earned some pocket money by washing dishes and then progressed through the ranks to salad hand and then doing a bit of pastry work.’

Had Daniel ever considered another career? ‘I was asked by my careers teacher what I wanted to be and the first words that came out of my mouth were, “I want to be a chef.” I think there is something in my blood. As you grow up you always think about the options open to you, but deep down I couldn’t do much about it. It’s in my blood!’

How about formal culinary education? ‘I went to full-time study at South Devon College and then I moved to the lovely 5-star Imperial Hotel in Torquay. That’s part of the Trusthouse Forte group - they had a 2-year training programme. That took me all over the UK and a little bit in Europe. It was a very intense programme – you were in a different kitchen every two months. We also looked at airline catering, fine dining, and outdoor catering. It was a good training background and I wish there was still an equivalent in the UK, but the colleges here cover that shortfall these days.’

Daniel is proud of his kitchen at one of London’s finest hotels. It’s actually a duo of a 4- and a 5-star, which give guests a choice of culinary experiences. ‘I currently work for The Taj Group in London and have been here for a little over 7 years. The Taj Group has a programme for hotel management, not just for cooking but it covers every aspect of the hospitality industry. In this hotel quite a few staff members have been through the programme, including those on reception.

‘There are two hotels at this location: 51 Buckingham Gate and St James’ Court. They are beautiful and we have the celebrated Shakespearian Frieze in the courtyard. We have a great location between the Houses of Parliament and Buckingham Palace. Taj is an Indian group but the guest profile is international. It’s a London hotel that just happens to be owned by an Indian company.

‘We have lots of tourists, as we have such a central location in London. There are many business travellers and we even have two luxury 2-bedroom suites. The hotel has old-style grandeur but with all the current technology. The butlers at the 5-star hotel welcome our guests, but the greeting at the 4-star hotel is just as warm. It’s all part of the ingrained hospitality ethos. The whole nature of Taj is to give that little bit extra. We don’t just offer the basic services: we can even go up to the suites and present cooking lessons!

‘Taj has Quillon, which serves Indian food and is a Michelin-star restaurant. There is also Bistrot 51 and that’s very eclectic. We have an Asian corner on the menu which offers classic Indian dishes. We also have steaks and a trio of duck which utilises some unusual ingredients such as Alan Coxon’s Alegar Vinegar. Another dish has Peruvian oil! My food has got to be educational. I like to put unique dishes on the menu so the guest will ask what they are and where they came from. That gives us the chance to interact and to make the dining experience so much more interesting. One can use all the senses and learn something!’

I asked Daniel if young chefs are aware of the life of a working chef. ‘These days young chefs are more aware, as they watch TV. The profile is a lot higher now than it was when I started out, and colleges are teaching what’s relevant to the workplace. The curriculum reflects reality.

‘There is something of a North-South divide when it comes to working hours. In Coventry, for instance, people will tend to work 40 hours per week just like car workers. In London it’s a bit different. The hours might be longer but young chefs know that, and they have dedication, and they realise that if you want to get on in any industry you have to work hard.

‘I work very closely with Westminster College and their curriculum is second to none. They send their students out into industry as well as to private functions as part of the course. These days it’s not just about teaching people to cook, it’s about dietetics and legislation as well.

‘It’s not always necessary to travel abroad and even qualifications shouldn’t be essential, as long as cooking is in your heart. My father ran a restaurant and he wasn’t qualified. As long as you understand about the hospitality industry and that it’s about giving the guest what he wants, there are still opportunities to just apply to a restaurant for work with no previous experience – but those openings are harder to find these days. There is more legislation and problems with insurance for working in a dangerous environment.’

Daniel Ayton is one of the finest chefs in the UK. He is likely one of the most academically qualified and he uses his experience to inspire and support others. He spreads the word of Taj excellence by his example, but his legacy will endure in many a professional kitchen with chefs who have benefited from his mentoring.

Taj 51 Buckingham Suites and Residences
51 Buckingham Gate
London SW1E 6AF
United Kingdom

Telephone: +44 20 7769 7766
Facsimile: +44 20 7630 7587
Email: booktaj51.london@tajhotels.com
Visit The Taj here

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