On 20th June 2018, the Jumeirah Carlton Tower (JCT) took the title of the first-ever Afternoon Tea of the Year.
Led by executive chef Simon Young, a crack team including head pastry chef Lyece Major and tea sommelier Tenna Friis competed in a live final against 15 top afternoon teas from hotels around the country.
Putting together their signature Symphony Afternoon Team in-front of a live audience and serving it to a team of expert judges at Westminster Boating base, London, the JCT team scored the most points across categories including, taste, presentation, flavour and ingredients.
Even using a recorded backing track of the harpist who plays live daily in the hotel’s Chinoiserie restaurant, the JCT performance comprised an incredible attention to detail in theme and flavour, and even included a colleague transporting a frozen sorbet by motorbike just in time.
Now, six months on, we headed back to the Hyde Park-side hotel to find out more about the winning service.
“The Symphony is the signature,” says Young. “We created it, initially, because we have the live
harpist. But, also, because it comes in stages, like a symphony.”
Afternoon tea is available at the hotel daily between 3pm and 6pm, with up to 50 being served during the sitting.
“We have peak seasons and seasons where the demographic in the Chinoiserie changes,” says Young. “We aren’t up there with quantities of The Ritz or Claridge’s, but I think the award has definitely increased our sales.”
The Chinoiserie team includes a trained tea sommelier – there are more than 25 teas on offer to guests – while each of the service staff is put through their paces in training to know every
afternoon tea item being served to customers, including the origin of some of the specialist ingredients; for example, the Strawberry and Vanilla Preserve from Rocket Hall.
The medley of treats starts with an amuse bouche, or the ‘Overture’, which is a sesame cone with beetroot hummus and a second Indian-spiced savoury cone, with chicken and mango.
The middle section, which is the cakes, pastries and sandwiches, is referred to as the Savoury Symphonies and Sweet Serenades.
A mini tiramisu with whipped coffee ganache; Sicilian pistachio éclair with cranberry compote; seasonal plum and custard tart; and Manjari chocolate and blueberry delice make up the sweet side.
Savouries include and open sandwich of fig and taleggio cheese; brioche bridge roll with Loch Fyne smoked salmon and duck egg mayonnaise; and, of course, the signature Rib Room roast beef sandwich with creamed horseradish and watercress.
The service ‘Finale’ is a beautifully light coconut and lemongrass sorbet.
“The actual elements of the afternoon tea are still lovely cakes and savouries, and it is more the service that gives it the symphony feel,” explains Young. “I think you have to use classic elements of patisserie with a modern twist. Sometimes, being too funky with the presentation can take away from the food items. There can be too much worrying about the theme, rather than the quality.
“The one thing we keep in all our afternoon teas is the beef. In our restaurant, The Rib Room, we are famous for our rib of beef, so we always do a rib of beef finger sandwich. But we wrap it in a little piece of logo paper and ribbon, just to add that luxury element.
“We might do something in a brioche bridge roll, but we try not to go too far away from those traditional bread elements. But we still get away from the boring egg and cress, ham and mustard and cucumber sandwiches.”
The Symphony tea doesn’t run for the entirety of the year, themed teas are brought in intermittently to keep the offer fresh, with a special Valentine’s Tea set to run for the whole of February, and a Summer of ’69-themed tea being crafted for the summer.
“Everything has to be seasonal,” adds Young. “You won’t see asparagus here unless it is June or July and British-grown. Likewise, strawberry will play a big part of the afternoon tea in the summer, but not in winter. For example, in the competition we had the rhubarb and custard tart, which was in season, but now we are using plum and custard.”
The hospitality industry is littered with cooking competitions, with the Hotelympia Salon Culinaire often being cited as one of the largest and most pressurised contests. And for the JCT team it wasn’t just the Afternoon Tea trophy that they bagged in 2018, having also taken home a number of medals from the iconic hospitality event.
“There’s a big buzz in watching my guys win something,” says Young. “We really put them through their paces in training, and there’s sometimes tears, but they keep going. It is a real buzz when we get back here with a medal.”
The Afternoon Tea of the Year is the only national competition where contestants are required to produce their signature afternoon tea out of the comfort of their hotels and in front of a live audience. The added time pressures and a tight kitchen space to work in add to the difficulty.
“You have to take competing seriously, or don’t do it, adds Young. “If you are organised, and thinking about every single element, then you stand a good chance.
“A couple of people asked me why the executive chef was there at the competition, and I said, ‘I want to win it’.”
Young has been at JCT for 15 years having had career that has seen him take positions at The Dorchester, the Great Eastern Hotel in Liverpool Street, the Four Seasons and Harrods, but it is the last few years that he has seen a real change in the afternoon tea category.
“I think it’s getting more popular,” he says. “The millennials now get it and it now appeals to all ages.
“I’ve been in the business for 35 years and for a long time it was staple sandwiches and classic cakes. I worked at the Cavendish Hotel in Eastbourne when I was 15 and I can still tell you what was on the menu – cream horns, an éclair, Battenberg and Madeira cake. And that was pretty similar anywhere you went in the 80s.
“But, now, afternoon tea has changed and really upped its game.”
SYMPHONY AFTERNOON TEA
Sesame cone with beetroot hummus
Indian spiced savoury cone with chicken and mango
Open sandwich of fig and taleggio cheese
Our signature Rib Room roast beef sandwichwith creamed horseradish and watercress
Brioche bridge roll with Loch Fyne smoked salmon
and duck egg mayonnaise
Mini tiramisu with whipped coffee ganache
Sicilian pistachio éclair with cranberry compote
Seasonal plum and custard tart
Manjari chocolate and blueberry delice
Coconut and lemongrass sorbet
Afternoon tea, with your choice of tea or coffee – £39
With a glass of Champagne Laurent-Perrier Brut – £49
With a glass of Champagne Laurent-Perrier Rose – £55