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Landing a big name

13 October 2005

So it's little wonder that hoteliers are choosing to hire the industry's hottest chefs for their kitchens - Ken McCulloch's decision to appoint Roy Brett, previously at Rick Stein's Seafood restaurant, as his new chef-director at Dakota and Columbus hotels is just one recent example. And while creating a top-quality kitchen might be the main aim of bringing in a premier league chef, they can also add instant profile to your business and give a hefty leg-up over the competition.

At Danesfield House in Marlow, Buckinghamshire, now run by Anouska Hempel's management company, the recently appointed executive chef is Aiden Byrne, who brings a strong restaurant pedigree to his new role. He was previously head chef at Tom Aikens for two years, and his CV also includes earlier stints under Richard Neat at Pied Á Terre in London, the Commons in Dublin and Adlard's restaurant in Norwich.

One of Byrne's responsibilities is to upgrade the current F&B operation, which includes banqueting and two restaurants, in line with the hotel's forthcoming multimillion pound refurbishment. "Our aim is to move the property up several grades but the first target is the food," explains general manager Brian Miller. "By bringing in somebody like Aiden, we're setting ourselves apart and really capitalising on what we can offer here. Lots of hotels have good chefs but very few have an outstanding chef at Michelin-star level."

Miller recognises that there's a PR benefit too. "The showcase for any hotel is the restaurant, so the appointment of a master chef brings a real focus to our name," he says.

But Miller is keen to point out that there's more to building up a successful hotel restaurant or banqueting operation than employing a top chef. The infrastructure of the kitchen and other hotel departments, has to be right too. At Danesfield House, the previously combined banqueting and main kitchen have been separated, with a brand new £40,000 main kitchen, designed by Byrne, to be installed over the next few months. Changes have been made on the service side too, with Miller appointing a new restaurant manager and Byrne taking on new staff for his brigade.

"There's no point taking on a great chef if all the other parts of the operation don't work," Miller says. "You need to make sure that support is available elsewhere as well." Staffing is an obvious area, but getting the finer details right too, right down to the type of crockery and glassware, is just as important.

For Byrne, it felt right moving to a hotel at this stage of his career. "I could have stayed where I was, but I wanted more freedom in the kitchen," he explains. What really persuaded him to take the job, though, was the potential. "It's a big move but when I heard the plans for the place, I thought it was a fantastic opportunity. I've got the chance to really build something up here and watch it grow."

According to account director Lorenza Alessie at specialist hospitality recruiter Chess Partnership, hotels that want to attract the very best chef talent for their kitchens must be prepared to invest in the business. "Experienced chefs will be looking to see if a future employer is willing to pay for the right size brigade, for example, and the right level of experience within that brigade," she says.
"But the chef really needs to buy into what the business is trying to achieve overall. It's not just about the style of the food - nowadays, chefs look at things like the design of the restaurant, how much the operator is willing to invest in PR and marketing, and how much freedom they get to choose suppliers."

Certainly, for most senior chefs, independence in the job is important. For Byrne, freedom to make decisions was a fundamental part of the package. "Hotels can be a bit institutionalised and political," he says. "But I've been lucky. I can be honest and say what I think, and I can ask for what I need to do my job properly."

Allan Clarke, owner of St Ervan Manor, near Padstow in Cornwall, believes an experienced head chef should be free to get on with the job. He brought in Nathan Outlaw, former head chef of the nearby Michelin-starred Black Pig, in Rock, back in March this year after deciding to establish a fine-dining restaurant at the hotel. "Nathan's got great freedom but that's unusual for a chef," says Clarke. "He's got no commercial restrictions and we've really given him carte blanche with the food." For him, it's a matter of personality and trust. "Nathan is very well respected and we've had amazing feedback from our guests, but at the end of the day, we all get on very well and, most importantly of all, we all share the same vision for the restaurant."

In turn, Outlaw adds that working with owners who really care about the business makes a huge difference to his role. "I know the rest of the business is being taken care of properly, which means I can concentrate on the food," he says.

Outlaw also enjoys the combined package of food and accommodation, giving security as one reason for his move from restaurants to hotels. "The restaurant industry can be very unstable, especially in Cornwall, which is so seasonal and tourism-driven," he says. "Businesses with accommodation tend to generate more customers, because people like to have dinner without worrying about getting back to their hotel. If I ever bought my own business, it would definitely be somewhere with rooms."

Equally, some chefs feel that hotels can offer more career scope than restaurants, with salaries often higher in the hotel sector. Megan Jones, head chef at the Zetter hotel in Clerkenwell, London, believes that for a lot of ambitious chefs eager to climb up into more managerial positions, hotels can be a more interesting option.

"There tend to be more opportunities, particularly at the top end of the bracket," she says. "The other path for chefs, once you've reached a certain level, is to set up your own business. But not every chef wants to do that, or wants to risk their own money."

For Jones, who was previously at Moro in London's Exmouth Market, the move to the Zetter was, in her words, a natural one as she was head-hunted by owners Mark Sainsbury and Mark Benyan, both of whom she knew well. Even so, like many chefs who have made the leap from restaurant to hotel kitchens, she admits it was a culture shock at first.

"The biggest difference was the number of menus. We've got breakfast menus, room service, weekend brunch, canapé, buffet and a number of business lunch menus and it was all a major change for me," says Jones. "It's taken me a long time to get on top of it. I tend to recruit staff from restaurants, as that's where my contacts are, and they can also find it difficult."

For Byrne at Danesfield House, there are also sharp distinctions. "I've had to write banqueting menus for the first time in my life," he says. "I'm dressing plates for 100 customers now, rather than the 30 or so that I'm used to. And you have to get used to getting a room service order for an omelette bang in the middle of service when you're frantic."

A luxury hotel environment was nothing new to Hywel Jones when he joined Lucknam Park hotel in Chippenham, Wiltshire, as he was previously head chef at Foliage restaurant, at the Mandarin Oriental Hyde Park hotel. There were still some surprises, though.

"At Lucknam Park, it's a 16-hour service with everything coming out of one kitchen, starting with breakfast. You need more senior staff because it's 24/7," he says, pointing out that in the country, people tend to eat earlier and at the same time, so bookings tend to be much closer together.

"In a restaurant, the pace is completely different. It's a much slower start, but there's a big build-up to lunch before cleaning down and then the big build-up to evening service. Here it's slower but more constant."

One of the major advantages for Jones is being able to build up a good relationship with suppliers. "I didn't get enough of a chance to do this in London," he explains. "You tend to do everything on the phone, or go to the market occasionally if you're lucky. Here, though, I love the fact that the bacon comes from down the road, and the cheeses and meats are all local. And it's great seeing hotel guests who care about that too."

Attracting a top restaurant chef Lorenza Alessie is an account director at Chess Partnership, which specialises in hospitality recruitment. She offers the following advice:

  • Be prepared to listen to ideas and give as much freedom in the job as possible. No experienced chef wants to be told what to do.
  • Flexibility with suppliers is very important. Many large hotel groups buy only from a centralised supplier list, but most chefs will want to build up their own network of contacts to ensure quality control.
  • Provide the right support. Make sure you're willing to invest in equipment and staff or are able to show them a backer who is. Many chefs will want to know what the budgets are for PR, marketing and design.
  • A better quality of life is often a deal-clincher for chefs who have already climbed up the ladder, especially if they have a family. Offering more regular hours, fewer split shifts or a four-day week will make the job much more attractive.
  • Salaries for head chefs in hotels are often higher than in restaurants, ranging from about £35,000 to £100,000-plus, depending on location and price bracket. If you want to add perks, consider free accommodation, or a car or health insurance for their family, but some prefer a bigger base salary. Profit-share schemes are usually offered after a certain period, eg, three to six months, in case things don't work out.

Chess Partnership
www.chess-partnership.com
Tel: 020 7025 1888

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