Drop by the kitchen of the historic Oriental Club on London's Stratford Place to find authentic Indian cooking of the highest order
The kitchen of this historic private members’ club is surprisingly small. Every work surface, plate, bowl, utensil and carefully calibrated digital dial is gleaming and in its rightful place. Ready for action.
Then comes a frisson of electricity, a gentle hum of anticipation; we are moments away from another lunchtime service at the Oriental Club. Pots begin bubbling and orders are called out to various sections working in harmony. An exhilarating and heady mix of spice fills the air. How many thousands of dishes have been rustled up by chefs in pristine whites and whisked away by elegant serving staff over the years?
“When I arrived at the Oriental Club four years ago, I saw an opportunity to re-introduce its heritage of Indian cuisine”
The history of the Oriental Club, originally founded by the Duke of Wellington nearly 200 years ago, is never far away. Now a place for men and women to enjoy exclusive facilities (40 club suites, an open-air terrace, meeting rooms, an IT suite, drawing rooms and a members’ bar), it was once a retreat for officers and officials who, on returning from India and the East, wanted to continue indulging in the exotic and wondrous sights they’d grown accustomed to.
These Eastern flavours are still found in every subtle recipe. While you’ll find club favourites aplenty on the Oriental menu – steak and kidney pudding or sole meunière – this is also the place to sample authentic Eastern cooking of the highest order.
Executive chef Wesley Smalley has no fewer than three full-time curry chefs working for him, as well as kitchen staff serving a vast range of Western dishes morning, noon and night.
“When I arrived at the Oriental Club four years ago, I saw an opportunity to re-introduce its heritage of Indian cuisine,” Smalley explains at the end of service, when whites are no longer pristine and the air rings with clunking pans and the thunder of glass washers.
“I began looking for experienced curry chefs who could deliver first-class Eastern cookery. I was convinced that they could pass on their knowledge of spice, and we could use it in every other world cuisine, too.
“There were deep discussions with our head curry chef, Dinesh Sharma, and sous chef Chintamani Mamgaim, on how they felt the final dishes should taste. Dinesh felt strongly about serving a real home-cooked style of Indian cuisine, like he used to get as a child. This has worked perfectly in a private members’ club setting. Many of our members are ex-patriots of the East or often travel to Asia, so they are well versed in what authentic cuisine should taste like.”
The very best cuisine of course, depends on the seasons; and Eastern cooking is no different.
“[There is] game in the autumn and winter, asparagus, morels and wild garlic in the spring or lobster in the summer – and we try to reflect them and do them justice,” says Smalley. “Once the concept of the dish is together, we then experiment with the marinade process and levels of spice and chilli before cooking and tasting.”
This fastidious devotion to flavour has borne fruit. Private dining, banquets and tutored tastings are packed with enthusiastic participants. Pork cheek vindaloo with white vinegar and chillies; tandoori Cornish gurnard with yellow mustard yoghurt and curry leaves; fish amritsari. These morsels reflect both the past and the innovative present of this famous venue.
"Dinesh felt strongly about serving a real home-cooked style of Indian cuisine"
“On one hand, it’s a challenge to have a kitchen preparing and cooking two cuisines,” says Smalley. “The prep times and finishing of dishes are different. But it’s forced me to design the menu so that they merge, and it has created an integral sense of teamwork from both sides of the kitchen.”
The kitchen at the Oriental Club uses several core ingredients, such as tarka (a mix of ginger, garlic, cumin and chilli flakes) that goes into the dal, a staple served with every Indian meal.
There are two tandoor ovens, where naan and paratha (traditional flatbread) are cooked, as well as gloriously colourful dishes, such as basil and mango salmon or the deeply-flavoured venison marinated in black sesame and yoghurt. The rich scents of jasmine, cumin and cardamom abound.
East meets west across this kitchen. It’s hard to imagine a more intriguing blend of flavours and dishes that retain tradition, yet capture a certain forward-thinking flair. And after dinner, when the linen is stripped from the tables and the glassware is carefully polished, there’s always the library for those who want to brush up on a little Club history.