After its £200m refurbishment two years ago, Piccadilly's iconic Hotel Café Royal has put its inauspicious opening behind it and is establishing itself once again on the London scene. Emily Manson asks general manager Anthony Lee and executive chef Andrew Turner how they've turned things around
The Café Royal could be compared to a luxury liner. It has vast proportions, plenty of glitz and the prerequisite Cinderella-style spiral staircase. But there's certainly no doubt that the hotel is a massive ship that needs careful steering. After its £200m refurbishment and opening as a hotel just over two years ago, it could be said that it hit some metaphorical icebergs when critics slammed its main dining room, the Ten Room, for being like a morgue, and the opening general manager, Louis Sailer, left after just over a year.
So with the new general manager Anthony Lee having had just nine months at the tiller, and Andrew Turner as executive chef running all nine food and beverage operations, has their combined experience steered this massive operation into calmer waters?
Anthony Lee, general manager
Certainly their excitement, passion and positivity are infectious. Lee candidly explains the fundamental changes that have been made to the Ten Room to introduce more warmth and character. The lighting and music have been changed, and the height of the banquettes reduced and colours swapped. On the walls mirrors and artwork have been installed, side tables with candles have been added, and the previously clothed tables have been stripped back to give the room a more relaxed and modern feel.
But there's much more. In the past year, the full range of food and beverage outlets has opened, the last of the 160 rooms have come online and most recently the launch of the private members' club sees the hotel finally complete.
Since Lee joined, his aim has been to settle down and reintegrate the iconic property as part of the London scene.
"Like any opening, it takes time to evolve into its rightful place on the world stage," he explains. "It's about establishing the DNA of the Hotel Café Royal and anchoring it to its roots."
To do this, he has put up artwork, such as the black and white portraits of legendary Café patrons. "They are integral to the uniqueness of the Café Royal. They are infused into the history and fabric of the building and we needed to recognise that and help let the world know that the history is something to really get excited about - it's not just about the amazing marble everywhere."
The pictures don't just showcase Café Royal's heritage, they also serve the purpose of breaking up spaces such as the meeting rooms, which previously could have been described as lacking character. With such a large property and so many different food and beverage outlets, it was important to work out what style each should take.
"Physically, they got 98% of the hotel right, so it's been about working out what suited each space," explains Lee. The iconic Grill Room, for instance, has now naturally evolved to become the hotel's signature afternoon tea room and is already winning plaudits. "It's just about doing something right and doing it well, and that's what we've done," he adds.
But it's never just about the bricks and mortar. The team Lee has put together this year has been handpicked. He describes them as truly professional, experienced individuals who are experts in their fields. "My role is to mix them together with one aim and to produce something unique that international travellers will love to come back for," he says.
The hotel now has a 3:1 staff to guest ratio, one of the highest in London alongside the Connaught, where Lee spent 31 years before moving to the May Fair hotel as general manager in 2010. He's refined the service style to be attentive yet contemporary - so none of that stuffy, old-school, five-star stuff.
"Five-star establishments can feel quite intimidating, but the way we handpick, train and develop our staff is designed to relax the guest so they can enjoy the whole hotel experience fully," he says.
In terms of processes, Lee spent most of his first months implementing three-stage 'filters' for every task to pick up any human mistakes along the service route and ensure complete consistency. "We aren't machines, we will make mistakes, but the clever bit is ensuring every single process has filters that will pick up any imperfections, so we can ensure the guest only ever drinks crystal clear water."
Guests are, in fact, plentiful. On the day of The Caterer's visit, the hotel is running at 98% occupancy, with an average of around 70%, but it is looking to refine the demographic. Lee wants to grow the US market to around 30%-35%; similarly the domestic base and, of course, the Asian - specifically Chinese - markets. UnionPay is already in place and so are a handful of Chinese-speaking staff - something he plans to increase.
So what has been Lee's biggest achievement since taking the reins? "Getting the right people on board, implementing the right strategies and combining that with getting the word out through all the different communication channels, so that Hotel Café Royal connects up to the London scene and world stage, which perhaps wasn't the case last year."
And what are his hopes for the hotel? To be the number one hotel in London within five years if not before, because, as he puts it: "It has all the bones and now just needs the right vision to fulfil its potential."
Andrew Turner, executive chef
As executive chef at the Hotel Café Royal since its opening, Turner initially took some flak from the critics, but he remains undeterred. "It's been a journey, but it's not the first opening I've done," he says. "Every opening is a challenge, as every problem is a new one, but as you deal with the old problems, they're no longer problems and you move forward. "As a business, sometimes you need to open whether you're fully ready or not. We were delayed significantly by a flood, but had already started to recruit and needed to go into production. We had to embrace the experience and learn by our mistakes - as they were perceived."
But it's all been part of the learning experience, building towards what the business has now become. "Ultimately the journey will take its course and ultimately it will be a success, as the time and effort put into developing and retaining our set values has now seen the whole concept fall into place."
Since opening, the team has had a strong belief in the product so, while things have evolved, the core principles of simplicity and top produce have remained the same. The evolution has come through customer feedback, with Turner offering guests and regulars dishes he's trialling. "If it's just 'OK', it's off the menu," he says. "We're better than that. And now we're full, so we know what we're doing is right - we've got 100 booked for afternoon tea later and we're full for dinner, so the issue is going to be that we don't have enough room."
The menu now better reflects the environment, too. Turner explains: "I'm quite technically minded as a chef, but I have had to tailor the offer to the physical constraints, challenges and practicalities of the building."
His focus has been on delivering the best of everything in prime condition. "If the plates had lots of swirls and garnishes, the dish would end up being compromised," he says. "We don't do textures or foams, but we do have different textures within each dish - just without the tagline. It's just all about the products and cooking them to perfection."
After his time working at Wiltons, there's nothing you can tell him about cooking lobster or Dover sole, and Turner is equally exacting about everything else. For example, they taste-test and pH-value seven different types of oranges each week and then either select one or blend them until the juice is just right.
"We do the same with apples and lots of other products, and we know the farm, the farmer and the whole journey, so that when guests eat something here they can't believe it has such an amazing flavour - it's totally different to anything else you can get," he says.
Turner and his team have also developed a range of bespoke Café Royal products, including 'lacon', a bacon made from streaky lamb, which is ideal for Muslim guests; Himalayan pink salt butter; chickens fed on sage; three bespoke cheeses; smoked salmon; and specially made caviar. All the creations are designed using the best ingredients, giving the Café Royal menu its unique character.
Pastry chef Andrew Blas has even linked up with Valrhona to create, for the first time in the chocolate brand's history, a co-branded bar called Profile 66. The team are also investigating whether deer can be fed chocolate to create a unique-flavoured venison.
Turner has also embraced technology. His massive £3m kitchen has Apple iPad screens in every section, which have revolutionised the way the brigade works. The iPad sends through orders, has visuals, recipe instructions and also holds a massive collection of cookbooks. "I can also send messages to all my staff through them," he says, and notes that this is only the beginning of their capabilities.
Food costs have settled at 28% which, as Café Royal is not a massive banqueting hotel but a large venue with small pockets of unique and different business, Turner is satisfied with. "All the menus are different," he explains. "Although that's woven together, so there's a web of recipes that all interlink with products at some point. There aren't a million lines, but rather lines that rotate to offer profit."
While Turner is not especially after stars, awards or personal recognition any more, his focus is on leaving a legacy through training members of his team to go on and dominate the industry. "I won't be remembered for the food on the plate, but if I can train these guys to be free-thinking and have a creative and innovative mind set, then that's great," he says.
"How I am today is so different to how I set out. Now I'm your father, your brother, mate and boss, and although boss is always first, I am also here to support, listen and encourage.
"Times have changed and, ultimately, it's all about the youth. There's so much opportunity here, with the chocolate room, the bakery, the ice carver, and, of course, we buy everything in whole, so the chefs can see and learn fantastic skills. Hotels are built on people, and if you stick with the people and the plan and believe in the product, you will always succeed."
When pushed on awards and accolades he insists, "I'm not a chaser, I'm a maker", but he would like the Hotel Café Royal to be acknowledged for the effort that has been put in, in terms of training, building of careers through apprenticeships, the ingredients and the focus on perfection.
"If that brings accolades, I would be appreciative," he concedes. "But that's not the motivation or my day job, and I'd rather it's about them [the staff], not me - I've already had a brilliant career independently, so it would be great to help others around me. I'm now getting towards the end of my career; they're still at the beginning. It's a wiser person who can see the bigger picture, not just a window of opportunity for themselves."
Food and beverage facts
The Hotel Café Royal has nine food and beverage operations, including the Ten Room, the Oscar Wilde Bar, the Green Bar, Domino, the Café, bar menus, dining suites, room service and outside catering.
Executive chef Andrew Turner
Turner's executive team Armand Sablon, chef de cuisine; Elisha Carter, head chef for Domino and the Club; Andrew Blas, executive pastry chef
The Ten Room Open to the public, it serves haute cuisine that is classical in approach but modern in delivery
Domino Serves club members and hotel guests only. The food is light and contemporary with an American/Californian ethos, with dishes such as native lobster with cauliflower, vanilla and orange.
Signature dish Café Royal Cotswold White chicken - the birds are fed on sage to give them a unique flavour
The Set Hotel Group
The owner Alrov Properties, an Israeli company owned by property and design entrepreneurs Alfred and Gerorgi Akirov
The architect David Chipperfield
The hotels The Set group comprises the Conservatorium hotel, Amsterdam (opened December 2011), Hotel Café Royal, London (opened December 2012) and Hotel Lutetia, Paris (opening soon)
The concept Occupying only historic and iconic landmark buildings, the collection aims to redefine the concept of the luxury hotel by mixing the style and glamour of historical buildings with the contemporary needs of the sophisticated, design-literate, modern traveller