It’s a classic, overcast London day as we step into The Rubens at the Palace to meet Robert Lyall, the new Maître d’ at The English Grill. Humble, considered and effortlessly attentive, Robert has a genuine air of professional calm. As he leads us through the military reds of The New York Bar into the smooth ceruleans and debonair browns of The English Grill, we begin to talk about Robert’s extensive experience and his impressions of his new home:
“Back at school,” Robert tells us with a smile, “many, many years ago now, I was always that one friend organising things. Everyone would come to me to ask, ‘Where are we going tonight?’. I guess I was the party-planner, and my love for hospitality just stemmed from that.” It was this passion that set Robert on a 25-year path that has culminated in his joining Red Carnation Hotels as a Maître d’.
Robert wasn’t always involved in restaurant management. Following a university placement in Israel, Robert dedicated himself to overseeing large-scale banqueting events at various venues across London. It was only in 2007 that he made the switch to restaurants, having been personally invited to take over by The Rib Room’s retiring manager of over 25-years’ experience. “It wasn’t really something I had tried before, but I love the restaurant industry now,” Robert adds emphatically.
“I loved banqueting, too, but, as a profession, it lacked the personal touch, as you’re talking almost exclusively to the event organisers. As a restaurant manager, you’re involved with everyone—up to 100 guests a night! You’re at the table, you’re having conversations with guests, making sure they’re happy. At one moment you might be doing a Dover sole, filleting it, then perhaps a crêpe Suzette. So, there’s a lot of theatre involved, a number of introductions—and that’s fantastic.”
Robert’s zeal for theatrical cooking is contagious. It is also well-placed given The English Grill’s prominent open-plan kitchen. “The open-plan kitchen was quite big in the 70s and 80s, but it’s coming back in once again,” Robert gestures. “Its theatre is intoxicating; guests love to watch everything as it’s happening. At The English Grill, we do the crêpe Suzette and the Dover sole (which I personally love performing) at the table, as well as the smoked salmon carving, so there’s a lot of theatre we can bring out of the kitchen to the tableside. It’s the best of both worlds for dining experience: diners can watch food being prepared in the kitchen, but they can also experience it being made at their seats.”
With his first month at The English Grill coming to a close, we ask Robert about his first impressions. “Having one Maître d’ leave and another come in can always be difficult for some guests who loved the old manager. So, you have to be yourself, have a chat with every table, work out who likes talking and who would rather just be served—all that comes with experience. What I like about working with Red Carnation Hotels is that it’s a family-owned collection. At a more corporate hotel, decisions have to be checked by this person and that person—but you’re trusted to take ownership of your department here, which makes sense because we’re the people who know what works for the guests.”
As for first impressions: “The main reason I came for an interview was Red Carnation Hotels’ reputation. We’re renowned for being very strong on training, for looking after the staff, for promoting from within. All that really comes from Red Carnation Hotels being owned by a family. And once I saw the restaurant, I loved it! There’s a lot of thought that goes into everything, and there are still things that I’m finding out. Yesterday, for example, I found out the candelabra in the middle of our display there,” Robert points enthusiastically to the regal, silver-gilt and flower-laden central showpiece, “was once on George V’s personal dining table in Windsor Castle.”
Experience Robert Lyall’s restaurant expertise and theatrical finesse first-hand at The Rubens at the Palace’s The English Grill.