Tony Fleming: ‘Michelin is as relevant as it has ever been.’

Tony Fleming: ‘Michelin is as relevant as it has ever been’

by Pete Dreyer 29 October 2018

Pete Dreyer chats to the straight-talking chef about his new restaurant The Baptist Grill at L’Oscar, how Michelin is still a positive influence on the industry and why he doesn't like tasting menus.

Pete worked as a food writer at Great British Chefs.

Pete worked as a food writer at Great British Chefs.

It has been over six years since Tony Fleming took over the kitchen at Angler. Having worked with Marco Pierre White at the Oak Room and Richard Neat at the Oxo Tower before that, Tony took the reins at the South Place Hotel and made the high-rise restaurant into a big name in the London scene, earning a Michelin star within twelve months. Whatever you may feel about Michelin, that star legitimised Angler as the real deal. ‘It took things to another level,’ says Tony. ‘Our business, our staffing, our profile – everything. It made the restaurant.’

These days, Tony’s relationship with Michelin is a little different. He has since left Angler to focus on a new project – the recently renovated five-star Holborn hotel L’Oscar, and the attached Baptist Grill restaurant. He admits that there’s a slight feeling of ‘been there, done that’ in regards to chasing another Michelin star, but in the widely varying discourse over the relevance of the Michelin Guide in today’s industry, Tony is firmly in favour of the little red book. ‘A lot of people badmouth Michelin,’ he says. ‘They say it’s old fashioned, in the past – I don’t agree with that. I think it still does a lot for the industry. I think it pushes chefs, it makes good restaurants open, it raises the profile of London and it raises the profile of food. I think Michelin is as relevant as it's ever been, to be honest, and a lot of people don't agree with that.

‘That said, there are so many other things that are much more important to this restaurant and this hotel than having a Michelin star,’ he continues. ‘We need to be busy. We need to make money. We want to make the best food we can possibly make, and for people to enjoy coming here.’

As executive chef for the L’Oscar group, Tony oversees all the food and drink in the hotel. That includes The Baptist Bar as well as the Grill and Cafe L’Oscar – a beautiful all-day brasserie that has been modelled after Venice’s famous Cafe Florian and features one of London’s most impressive bars – a gleaming onyx monolith with moody uplighting. Not only that, the L’Oscar Group is planning lots more hotels, spread all around the world. Tony will be in charge of all of them. ‘London will be our calling card,’ he explains. ‘It’s going to take a year or two to get this off the ground, and then after that, the concept will spread more globally.’

With the bars, the terrace, the restaurant café and the restaurant proper, there’s plenty for a chef to get his teeth into. Despite that, The Baptist Grill remains Tony’s main priority, and he has very specific plans for how it’ll work. For a start, there will be no tasting menus in sight – The Baptist Grill will be à la carte only. ‘I just don’t find it a pleasurable way to eat,’ he says of tasting menus. ‘I’m going out for dinner on Friday – I couldn’t find anywhere because it was all tasting menus! Most places either do away with the à la carte altogether or have a limited one with four starters and four mains. That’s just not enough choice for me. I like a decent size menu – ten starters and ten mains. Claude Bosi is a great example of the way it should be – he has a nice tasting menu, but he has a proper à la carte as well.

‘Sure, if I’m in New York and I’m going to Eleven Madison Park, that’s fine. But as a general rule, if my wife and I are going out on a Friday night, we just want a couple of courses, an hour or two and then we’re done. I don’t want to spend three hours sitting there, being wowed and wooed with overbearing service. It’s just dinner! I’ve just come for dinner with my wife and that’s it. I just find the whole thing over-contrived.’

The magnificent Baptist Bar features bespoke cocktails, designed around the seven deadly sins and seven heavenly virtues
Whilst the bar takes up the ground floor of the old Baptist chapel, The Baptist Grill sits on the mezzanine, bathed in light under a glass dome
Coronation crab salad with lettuce, mango and pickled lime
A 40oz 'mini axe' with smoked bernaise, potato hash and cep gratin

Tony had a similar approach at Angler – the restaurant only ran an à la carte for the first couple of years, only bowing to pressure later on, when everyone started asking for tasting menus. ‘Some nights at Angler we’d do seventy covers and sixty would be tasting menus. So the chefs on the starters would just be cooking scallops all night, the young guy on the larder is slicing terrine all night. Everyone is cooking the same thing which becomes robotic and boring for the staff too. À la carte service is much wilder, because there’s lots more going on.’

By running a wide-ranging modern British à la carte at The Baptist Grill, Tony hopes to provide proper, enjoyable dinner for guests, as well as ensuring that his chefs enjoy their jobs too. After a career spent rattling pans on hot stoves, most chefs appreciate the chance to step away and run things in more of a big-picture role. Tony is not that chef, and he has no intention of leaving the kitchen anytime soon. ‘I’m too young to give that up!’ he laughs. ‘Why would I let someone else do that? That’s where all the fun is. I love being with the team, by the stove, cooking and creating and doing service. For me, it’s still the best part of my day – that will always take precedence over anything else.’

The Baptist Grill will almost certainly attract attention from Michelin in the coming months. Tony still remembers his first year at Angler, when the restaurant received eight separate visits from inspectors. ‘They came once, then they came again, then Rebecca Burr (former editor for the Michelin Guide UK and Ireland) came to check us out. They just kept coming back.

‘That wasn’t because we were looking for it, we just had the right philosophy of making a successful restaurant. We were consistent. I’m not the best chef in the world – there are hundreds of millions of chefs better than me, but what I think we do better than most is consistency. We have high standards and we hit them all the time. At Angler, we put a grilled piece of fish on a plate with potatoes, sort of, and they gave us a star for it. But it was the best halibut, the best potatoes, the best sauce we could do, and it was like that 365 days a year. That's why they gave us a star.

‘I say to my team here, ‘we come in everyday to be the best we can be, and cook to the best of our ability’. If we do those things, we’ll have a really good business. Then, hopefully, you're there to last; that's the important thing about running a restaurant, and if some guy in France with a red book wants to give you a star then let him!’