As director of food and beverage for the worldwide Mandarin Oriental Hotel Group, David Nicholls has built an enviable reputation for operating and creating destination restaurants in the most competitive environments. Janet Harmer discovers what makes him tick.
The scope of David Nicholls's role as corporate director of food and beverage for the Mandarin Oriental Hotel Group is huge. As well as ensuring all the bars and restaurants throughout the company's 25 hotels are running smoothly, he is also developing new food and beverage concepts for the 16 hotels that are currently in the pipeline.
The global nature of the job, which he started in 2007 after being promoted from executive chef and food and beverage director of the Mandarin Oriental Hyde Park, means Nicholls spends about 60% of his time travelling, the rest is spent at his office in London. A recent 17-day trip to Asia involved him flying from London to Singapore, and then on to Kuala Lumpur, Jakarta, Manila, Bangkok, Hong Kong, Macau and Taipei, before returning to London.
By the time he touched down at Heathrow, he was fully up-to-date with all the reports he had to write and was ready to move on to his next project.
"The only way I can do the job is to be very disciplined, very focused," he explains. "As a result I no longer drink alcohol, except when I'm tasting wine. On a 14-hour long-haul flight I use the time to eat, work and then sleep for a good eight hours, so that I get off the plane in real time wherever I am, ready to go straight into a meeting."
The job - one that Nicholls obviously loves and thrives on - carries a massive responsibility, as Mandarin Oriental hotels have long been renowned for offering excellence and innovation in food and beverage. Whether it is through installing a celebrity chef in one of its hotel restaurants - such as Pierre Gagnaire in Hong Kong and Las Vegas, Carme Ruscalleda in Barcelona or, most recently, Daniel Boulud in London - or by appointing sound, enthusiastic local culinary talent to a key position, the group knows only too well the importance of a great restaurant in boosting bedroom turnover.
"Food and beverage is hugely important to Mandarin Oriental as it is a very tangible product," says Nicholls. "We are very keen to retain the guests in the hotel to eat, and that explains why we go to so much effort in creating really special restaurants."
Nicholls points to the London property as a case in point. The fact that the hotel is situated in the heart of Knightsbridge and is surrounded by so many top-class restaurants, with chefs like Gordon Ramsay and Marcus Wareing at their helm, has meant that he has had to up the ante in creating a destination restaurant. And not only has he already achieved that with one very special restaurant in the form of Bar Boulud, overseen by three-Michelin-starred chef Daniel Boulud from New York, but by the end of the year he will have a second three-Michelin-starred chef - Heston Blumenthal - installed in the hotel.
The deal with Blumenthal was the first to be agreed. "Once we had that in place we had to decide what we were going to do with the second space that we were turning into a restaurant," says Nicholls. "Running it ourselves would have been too risky, as it would have always played second fiddle to Heston's restaurant. We needed someone on a level playing field with Heston, and Daniel Boulud was the ideal choice."
Nicholls has taken great delight in working with both Blumenthal and Boulud, describing them as "star chefs with real humility". He is enormously pleased that Bar Boulud, which opened in early May, has been so well received by critics and customers alike. The 120-seat restaurant is regularly serving more than 500 covers a day - about 100 covers ahead of the forecast.
The new Blumenthal restaurant, which will also have 120 seats, is one of several new outlets that Nicholls is involved in creating. Like many Mandarin Oriental restaurants and bars globally, it will be designed by Adam Tihany, and this one will fill the space previously occupied by Foliage and the Park restaurants.
Work has already begun on creating the new space which will have a soft opening on 29 October before an official launch at the beginning of December. Blumenthal will be offering a creative interpretation of historical British dishes, something quite different from what he does at the Fat Duck. "The food is going to be quite extraordinary," says Nicholls. "We've recently had a tasting and I was quite blown away. There is no other restaurant serving the kind of food that we will be seeing from Heston."
For most of the 25 hotels within the Mandarin Oriental group, Nicholls does not need to get involved in the food and beverage departments on a day-to-day basis. "We have a fantastic team of staff and there is generally no need for me to interfere," he says. "The only time I might is when the role of executive chef or food and beverage director becomes vacant and I may be able to recommend someone for the position, or if there is a cause for concern, and then I will offer to assist via the general manager."
The bulk of Nicholls's time is spent on launching new restaurants in existing hotels - as in London - or creating new ones from scratch in forthcoming properties. He is assisted by a core team of three, who include Gregoire Simonin, culinary project design manager for Asia; Alex Chen, who does the same job for the USA; and Petra Bierwirth, project analyst. Both Simonin and Chen also help Nicholls in the development of new outlets in Europe.
The starting point for all new projects is thorough market research. "I cannot overstate the importance of this, as you have to make sure that there is a requirement for what you are doing," he says. "There is no point going blindly into a country like Italy and thinking that because there are very few Asian restaurants there that there must be a gap in the market. The market research we have done for the Milan hotel, which is due to open next year, overwhelmingly tells us that visitors go to Italy to eat Italian food and Italians themselves like to eat Italian food. So you can be certain that the food we'll be serving at the Mandarin Oriental Milan will be Italian."
Once a concept has been decided upon, Nicholls will then select the right person to execute it. Depending on the location, he will consider a celebrity chef. "The most important factor is to create a destination restaurant to enhance the brand. For instance, in Las Vegas, where there is so much competition, it made sense to put in a world-class chef like Pierre Gagnaire."
Nicholls will never stipulate how much time a celebrity chef has to spend at a hotel. "It would be wrong to tie these people into a stringent contract," he says. "It is their name over the door and they will be there as often as they need to be."
Forthcoming new projects include a Japanese-inspired Asian restaurant run by New Zealand chef Jeff Tyler at the Mandarin Oriental, Marrakech, due to open later this year. Mustapha El Hajraoui, who worked with Alain Ducasse for 14 years, will be the executive chef of the property and will oversee a Moroccan-French brasserie. Then, in 2011, the Mandarin Oriental, Paris, will open with chef Thierry Marx from the two-Michelin-starred Château Cordeillan-Bages in Pauillac at the helm of its signature restaurant.
"I have been very fortunate to meet some great chefs, and over the years we have become close friends," says Nicholls, in explaining how he has been able to attract some of the world's finest chefs to work for Mandarin Oriental. "It works because while I completely respect them and their achievements, they also greatly respect the hotel brand. To find great talent you have to have the capacity to develop individuals and allow them to realise their ambitions and dreams. Mandarin genuinely does this."
A key area of training at Mandarin Oriental comes via the food and beverage graduate programme, which has been running in London for eight years. This involves 12 graduates being recruited annually on to a two-year training programme, after which - with a full understanding of the Mandarin Oriental philosophy - they are ready to be deployed into supervisory roles at a new opening.
"I would now like to launch this programme into five other hotels, in Geneva, Hong Kong, Singapore, Miami and Las Vegas," says Nicholls. "This will ensure we build up a great pool of international food and beverage talent.
"I would then like to start a global culinary scholarship to ensure we provide the opportunity for young chefs to benefit from the culinary direction we are taking. If we start this next year, within 10 years we would have 10 hugely talented chefs with great potential. We want to do everything we can to encourage our talented internal resources."
While there is no end to Nicholls's enthusiasm for creating the world's best hotel restaurants and bars, he is also aware of creating a balance in his life. This means that, when he gets home, his time there is for his family - hence his discipline for work when he is travelling.
At home his responsibilities for his family are probably greater than for most fathers, for as well as providing for his younger sons, 20-month-old Dylan and 21-year-old Dean, he is also responsible for 25-year-old son Dan, a tetraplegic who was injured in a swimming accident in Australia in 2003.
The Nicholls Spinal Injury Foundation, which he set up on behalf of his son, has already raised £2m. "I believe there is the potential to raise a further £3m in the next three years," he says.
Whether it is in his professional or private life, there is no doubting Nicholls's determination to achieve the very best for everyone around him.
MANDARIN ORIENTAL - FACTS AND FIGURES
The group began with the opening, in 1963, of its flagship property, the Mandarin in Hong Kong. In 1974 Mandarin International Hotels was formed as a hotel management company and acquired a 49% interest in another legendary property, the Oriental, Bangkok. Eleven years later the company combined these two prestigious properties under a common name, Mandarin Oriental Hotel Group.
Today the company has 25 hotels throughout the world, with a further 16 under development.
The existing properties are located in: Hong Kong (three), Bangkok, Chiang Mai, Manila, Jakarta, Singapore, Kuala Lumpur, Macau, Tokyo, Sanya, Bermuda, San Francisco, Miami, New York, Washington, Boston, Las Vegas, Riviera Maya (Mexico), Geneva, Munich, Prague, Barcelona and London (pictured).
Planned hotel openings include: Marrakech (2010), Macau (2010), Paris (2011), Milan (2011), Maldives (2011), Guangzhou (2012), Taipei (2012), Abu Dhabi, Marbella, Moscow, Atlanta, Costa Rica, Grand Cayman, St Kitts, Turks and Caicos and Beijing.
DAVID NICHOLLS'S KEY CRITERIA FOR CREATING A SUCCESSFUL HOTEL RESTAURANT
• Undertake solid market research to establish the right concept
• Select the right personnel to deliver the concept
• Price the menu correctly for the market
• Have a good, workable design that is very different from the rest of the hotel in order to create a destination
• Create a great ambience
CELEBRITY CHEFS AND MICHELIN STARS AT MANDARIN ORIENTAL
Bringing together two three-Michelin-starred chefs - Daniel Boulud and Heston Blumenthal - is a massive coup for Mandarin Oriental and a testament to the standing David Nicholls has in the culinary world as the company's corporate director of food and beverage.
Other top-named chefs working with the group include Pierre Gagnaire, who opened his first US restaurant, Twist, in the Las Vegas hotel in 2009 following on from his successful debut with the group at the Mandarin Oriental, Hong Kong.
Also launched last year was Moments, the signature restaurant at the Barcelona hotel, where Carme Ruscalleda - the only woman in the world to be awarded five Michelin stars - is the director.
There are currently nine restaurants across the Mandarin Oriental group that hold Michelin stars.
In Europe, at the Mandarin Oriental, Geneva, Rasoi by Vineet, overseen by London-based Vineet Bhatia, was awarded one star in the 2010 guide for Switzerland. Opened in 2008, the restaurant serves an "evolved" style of Indian cuisine and features an open tandoori oven. In the Munich hotel, the modern European restaurant Mark's, headed by executive chef Tobias Jochim, also has one Michelin star.
In Asia, the group's flagship property, the Mandarin Oriental, Hong Kong, has two Michelin-starred restaurants: the Mandarin Grill + Bar, where executive chef Uwe Opocensky serves a modern interpretation of grill classics and seafood, and Pierre, headed by Pierre Gagnaire. Also in Hong Kong, the Landmark Mandarin Oriental is home to Amber, a two-Michelin-starred French restaurant overseen by culinary director Richard Ekkebus.
In Macau, at the recently renamed Grand Lapa hotel, the Cantonese restaurant Tung Yee Heen has been awarded one Michelin star. And in Tokyo, the Mandarin Oriental is the only hotel in the capital to have three Michelin-starred restaurants - Signature (contemporary French), Sense (Cantonese) and the Tapas Molecular bar (innovative molecular cooking).