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Festive tales from the hospitality industry

25 December 2010

The Christmas season may be profitable for hospitality businesses, but when a diary packed with events meets staff holidays and icy winter weather there's an outside chance that it won't always be a time of universal rejoicing. Here, Caterer readers share some of their yuletide yarns

When I was executive chef at the Berkeley hotel we had a Christmas function for a VIP and his 200 guests in the ballroom. Two hours before the function started the banqueting manager came down looking as white as a sheet - she had forgotten the canapés.

We pulled in the whole hotel, including the general manager, to come and help, and turned it round by the skin of our teeth.

Then the larder and pastry chef came to me to explain that they had split the soufflés. So we remade and lined 200 soufflé tins and the function went out 40 minutes late - even though we slowed down the water and bread service.

The banqueting manager then remembered that the function was Jewish, which meant pigs in blankets were off the menu. At the last minute we raided the dry stores to make a suitable stuffing. We mixed sage and onion stuffing, loads of confit onion, toasted chopped nuts from the bar, sage and chopped apricots, and fried and wrapped it in about 10 minutes.

By this point the customer was getting upset about the speed of service. As the soufflé was being cleared we immediately began service on the main course at the far end of the room, and did the same for the dessert and managed to make up the 40 minutes.

Afterwards the customer wrote to thank us all for an amazing dinner. He commented on the freshness of the canapés, the amazing stuffing and the fact that all his customers left on time! The banqueting manager brought us a case of Champagne, and we lived to fight another day.
Andrew Turner, head chef, Wiltons

Our last four Christmas parties at Host have all been fancy dress.

As I'm always working up to the last minute, the staff organise my outfit for me, and for some reason they always put me in a skirt. Last year I had to wear a very fetching purple outfit as Henry VIII.

It will be the same this year, too - I'm just dreading being the Christmas fairy again as I'm not sure I've really got the legs for it!
Jerry Brand, managing director, Host

When I was 18 and at university I spent at Christmas on placement at a hotel reception and had to be there at 7am on Christmas Day.

I woke up at 5am and none of my family were up and about. Obviously I was feeling rather miserable about working on Christmas day… until they all surprised me at the hotel at 10am with a stocking and mince pies. I think the hotel guests were rather surprised.

On another occasion, one New Year's Eve at Sam's, an adventurous American waitress asked if she could wear her special New Year's Eve outfit to work. I said, "Of course," expecting some smart party dress, and was a little surprised when she appeared in an all-in-one black PVC suit. Fortunately, the customers loved it.
Sam Harrison, Sam's Brasserie & Bar and Harrison's

We have already had an eventful start to this year's festive season (some might say the most eventful), and I'm not talking about snow and sub-zero temperatures.

Besides all the hassle of suppliers not being able to show up with produce since the beginning of December, we have had a number of challenges to overcome.

We've had a small explosion and a mini fire in the basement of one restaurant. Luckily no one was hurt, and we cleared up and started the following day on massive generators. On top of that we had a gas leak and power cut in another restaurant.

As if that wasn't enough, at 11:45am all the phones and till system went down in another restaurant on the same day. We were forced to redirect the phones to the GM's mobile and went on to prepare hand-written bills for 160 people.

After a lot of hard work, running around and stress, we seem to have got back on track across the group. Hey, it's Christmas time after all - we had to!
Ajay Barak, executive development chef, Le Bistrot Pierre Restaurants

When I was the executive chef of the Taj Group Complex in Goa, India, in 1987, it was drawing towards the big last week in December and the hotel was packed to capacity.

On 20 December one of the boys in the kitchen inserted a knife-sharpening steel to push the meat into the mincer after failing to find the hopper. The steel got caught in the crank and snapped the belts of the machine, rendering it useless.

We had massive cold buffets to cater for and that machine was our lifeline for making all the pâtés, terrines and mousses.

I booked a call to Hobart USA and asked if they could help, but everyone was already on holiday and they had only one person there who could not help. He said that my zone was Germany, not the USA, so I called Germany but again encountered the same problem.

However, to my surprise, on 24 December a courier arrived and delivered a complete set of belts, a new crank, a new hopper and a new bearing with a card saying "Merry Christmas from Team Hobart USA and Germany".

What a sigh of relief! Some good-hearted soul was clever enough to get the permission from his superior, and in good Christmas spirit pulled a desperate chef out of a huge mess. My machine was working and I finished everything that I needed for both big banquets.
Cyrus Todiwala, chef proprietor, Café Spice Namasté, London

Flu jabs aren't that funny, but they do work. About 10 years ago we were hit in mid-December with a major outbreak of flu. The staff were dropping like flies, and those who were fit for work were having to work extra hard to make up for it.

The following year we started to offer all staff flu jabs and we have not had a problem since. The flu jabs are optional - we can't insist on an employee having one - but we normally have an 80% uptake.
David Moore, owner, Pied à Terre and L'Autre Pied, London

After witnessing the effects of a vodka luge previously - a senior director missing in action for three days - it was with some trepidation that I was witness to another vodka luge at a Lexington managers' Christmas party.

Initially all was well, then the ice started to melt, literally. First a chef, to the great amusement of all present, managed an acrobatic flip on to his coccyx (why do we laugh when someone hurts themselves?).

Later, having enjoyed to the full the real purpose of the luge, he was bundled into a cab - to emerge quickly from the other door ready for more.

After strong protest the ride home was accepted - followed by a massive hangover and a sore bum the following day.

The moral of the story is: beware the luge.
Tim West, chairman, Lexington Catering

One Christmas I was accosted on Christmas Eve by an American lady guest who did not appreciate the smell of the traditional log fires in the lounge and hall.

She informed us that in America it was possible to purchase artificial logs that look just like the real thing and she would be happy to give me details of the supplier. Needless to say we declined her offer.
Turrloo Parrett, owner, Eastwell Manor

One year, to make my mother happy, I told her that I would prepare Christmas lunch and would cook goose instead of turkey as it was her favourite meal.

Unfortunately, when I arrived at her house on Christmas Eve with my ingredients, including a goose in full plumage, she screamed, nearly fainted, and insisted that I try to resuscitate the bird.

It made me realise that you sometimes forget about what the raw ingredients look like to people who don't have that kind of relationship with their food.

Thankfully, I was able to take the bird away, pluck and prepare it and, after she stopped screaming, give her a meal that she thoroughly enjoyed.
Frank Bordoni, food director, Kudos, part of the Crown Group

One Christmas I left chutneys out in my greenhouse because it was snowing and cold, and what with all the Christmas stock the house fridge was full. I took some in for a job on television where I was describing preserves. As I pointed to them, a baby snail was making his way up the outside of a jar to the surprise of everyone in the studio.

Another year we were serving 200 Japanese delegates traditional turkey roast and they began pouring brandy sauce all over it. We breathed a sigh of relief when they began eating it with zeal.
Robert Kirby, chef-director, Lexington Catering

A number of years ago one of our kitchen porters was staying in the house on Christmas Eve, transport, as always, being a real problem.

Unknown to all of us, he was romantically involved with one of the housemaids, who was also staying in-house. His ardour knew no bounds, and he shuffled across a fifth-floor balustrade in order to climb in through her window and deliver her Christmas present personally.

Mrs Smith, a wonderfully jolly 80-year-old Christmas guest of ours, got the shock of her life as the porter clambered into her room. No other present was quite as surprising for her that Christmas!
David Morgan-Hewitt, the Goring

Years ago I ran the Sackville hotel in Hove. The boilers broke down at 6pm on Christmas Eve, leaving us with no heat or hot water. Fortunately, cooking was possible.

At the Christmas Eve Champagne reception I simply stood on a chair and told the truth. One wag shouted, "We did Dunkirk, we can do this."

Everyone entered into the spirit of the thing. We made no reductions. It was great.
Mike Bevans, owner, Linthwaite House hotel

It was my first Christmas as general manager at Le Manoir aux Quat'Saisons. By 4pm we had served Christmas lunch and I headed home to Rutland, where I then lived.

I was in the car and about 60 miles away when I received a call explaining that we had lost all hot water and heat in one wing, so I had to turn around and head back to Le Manoir.

There was no traffic on the roads, so I put my foot down as I sped along the M40. All of a sudden there were blue lights in my rear window and I had that sinking feeling. The police came alongside and waved at me before heading off to stop a car about a mile further on. There is a Father Christmas.

I managed to get a heating engineer in and we had hot water by 7pm.
Philip Newman-Hall, director and general manager, Le Manoir aux Quat'Saisons

Three years ago on Christmas Eve we had a full house arriving from 2pm onwards. One of my reception staff came running through to my office at about 1.30pm to say that we had water not just dripping but cascading through the ceiling of our drawing room.

Of course, it couldn't just be where there were no guests sitting, but right above one of our guests who, having arrived in advance of the rest of their family, was enjoying a cup of tea.

I ran upstairs with the owner of the hotel to investigate, assuming that the waterfall was coming from the bedroom directly above, only to find water in torrents coming through the ceiling there also.

Having summoned a skeleton housekeeping team to deal with the problem in the drawing room, we then had to bring them upstairs to deal with the issue in the first-floor bedroom while I ran upstairs again to find a badly burst pipe underneath the bath in a second-floor bedroom.

Of course, our maintenance team had departed for the Christmas break, but were thankfully available by telephone to guide us through the temporary repair of the pipe, which at least then stemmed the flow.

By now housekeeping, the owner's wife and our receptionist and dining room staff were involved in the clean-up - while the first of the mass arrival was happening downstairs.

We eventually managed to clean everything up and get the two bathrooms looking ship-shape, but it was very much seat-of-your-pants with the timing.
Robert Ince, general manager, the Torridon

Eight tips for a tasteful Christmas environment
1 Less is more There's no need to cover a room in tinsel.
2 Nothing says Christmas like the outside inside Garlands speak masses.
3 Stick to one colour Don't overcomplicate decorations.
4 Arouse the senses Use fern for that authentic smell.
5 Decorate trees with just one colour of lights The Dorchester does this well.
6 Get inspiration from shop windows Less Fortnum & Mason, more Paul Smith.
7 Don't go over the top with the music Just 10% should be Christmas-related.
8 Bring in partners to work with you John Galliano at Claridge's and Baccarat at Sofitel St James - both très très chic!
Source: Robbie Bargh, founder, the Gorgeous Group

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