How to successfully put a top chef in a hotel kitchen

17 February 2022 by

When putting a top chef in a world-class hotel, a delicate balance is needed to achieve magic – or else the partnership will be short-lived. Ben McCormack discovers the secret to successful hotel kitchens

Y ou might think that a hotel group with a claim to immortality as indelible as the Singapore Sling had no need of any extra PR on the F&B front. And yet when Raffles opens at the Old War Office (OWO) at the end of the year, star billing will go to Mauro Colagreco. The Argentine-born chef at three-Michelin-starred Mirazur on the French Riviera will oversee three outlets at the new property when it launches on London's Whitehall.

"Mauro Colagreco is one of the leading lights of the culinary world and undoubtedly one of the most-recognised chefs, so we're delighted to see him bring this pedigreeto Raffles London," says Philippe Leboeuf.

The managing director of Raffles London at the OWO points out that with 11 restaurants and bars within the property, drinking and dining will be a key attraction for both residents and Londoners alike.

Colagreco will be responsible for a fine-dining restaurant, a private chef's table and what is being billed as ‘a brasserie with a twist'. Leboeuf is convinced of the attraction of the match to both hotel and chef. "While there is a unique set of challenges that come with star talent," he says, "the intention is that the additional effort, time and budget required to bring in a big name will pay dividends with regards to awareness, and a halo effect for the hotel."

And yet while world-famous Colagreco must feel like the safest of bets for Raffles, no dining room helmed by a big-name chef is a bigger brand than the hotel itself, and the past couple of years have seen a slew of high-profile closures. Most recently, Daniel Humm parted company with Claridge's after only two years at Davies and Brook when the hotel decided that the chef's conversion to haute veganism was not something it wished to impose on its flagship dining room.

Two years was also the lifespan of Adam Handling Chelsea, which closed at the Cadogan, a Belmond hotel in July 2021. What's more, last June saw the end of an 11-year run for Daniel Boulud's Bar Boulud at the Mandarin Oriental Hyde Park, while Marcus Wareing's Gilbert Scott shut up shop at the St Pancras Renaissance Hotel London in May.

However, achieve the ideal alignment between chef and hotel and the relationship is mutually beneficial to both parties, Leboeuf says. "The chef is given a platform and backing of a powerful brand such as Raffles Hotels.

In return, the hotel can leverage the chef's following and reputation."

Perfect fit

So what is the best way to achieve a harmonious match between chef and hotel? Shaun Rankin opened his eponymous restaurant at Grantley Hall when the property launched near Ripon in 2019. The chef returned to North Yorkshire, the county where he grew up, having won Michelin stars at Jersey's Bohemia and Ormer and fronted Ormer Mayfair at London's Flemings hotel. Rankin says that the new restaurant's success is in part due to him being involved from the outset in the planning.

"If you're going to get involved with a hotel, it's crucial to come in during those early stages so you get the opportunity to design the kitchens and the areas that you need to work efficiently," he says. "At the end of the day, you've only got yourself to blame if you design it wrong."

All is not lost, however, if a chef joins a hotel restaurant several years after opening. Northcote's executive chef Lisa Goodwin-Allen has been overseeing the Game Bird at the Stafford London since the departure from the St James's hotel of its culinary director Ben Tish last autumn. Goodwin-Allen says the key to making a success of her new role has been to approach it with humility.

"I'm not a big-headed person who is going to come in and say it's my way or the highway. I've been entrusted to do a job by Stuart Procter, who is the chief operating officer of the Stafford Collection, and he's hired me on my reputation. I like to work with people and get the best out of situations. There are some great people in the kitchen and it's my job to guide them to deliver food that they love working with." Rankin and Goodwin-Allen both stress that maintaining personal relationships is vital to making the business relationship run smoothly. Rankin was inspired by the vision of Grantley's Hall's managing director Richard Sykes and says that he shares the same goals for the property as general manager Andrew McPherson: "It's a really good partnership and definitely not a one-way street."

Goodwin-Allen had taken part in guest-chef dinners with Tish at both Northcote and the Game Bird before Britannia Hospitality, owner of the Stafford Collection, bought Northcote in 2019. She also joined the Game Bird last September, working alongside the Stafford London's executive chef Jozef Rogulski. "Making this sort of partnership work is all about synergy, understanding the outlets of the property and working closely with the teams and seeing what we can do together," she says of her new role.

In synch

That collaborative sentiment was echoed time and again by the chefs and hotel management that The Caterer spoke to for this feature. Thomas Kochs, managing director of Corinthia London, says his initial conversations with Tom Kerridge before there were any concrete plans to open Kerridge's Bar and Grill focused on their attitudes to life in general, rather than the minutiae of how a contract might work. "We very soon found out that we're incredibly aligned," Kochs says.

Beverly Payne, general manager of the Conrad London St James hotel, first met Sally Abé at the beginning of lockdown in 2020. The chef's two restaurants at the hotel, the Pem and the Blue Boar pub, are now very different to what Abé encountered on her first visit.

"Sally cycled up to meet me in an empty hotel with hardly any lights on," Payne says. "We both realised there was something that could be very special. We are 100% committed to making this work and the key to our success is that we see this relationship as a partnership rather than a consultancy. We have at all times sought solutions before allowing problems to arise. We don't disagree on anything – even when shopping for crockery."

For her part, Abé admits the financial security of her new role is part of what tempted her from her position as head chef of Fulham's Michelin-starred Harwood Arms to become consultant chef at the Conrad London. "There's a security that comes with a hotel," she says. "If I'd opened my own independent restaurant with my own money, and then Covid happened, it would have been a completely different story for me. There's also a structure that comes with working for a company like Hilton. At the Harwood Arms, the HR department was basically me, whereas now I have support for that side of things, which means I can focus on what I'm good at, which is the food and the menu."

Kochs says that while it is a reduced-risk business model for a chef, it is also an extremely attractive proposition for the hotel: covers, revenue and footfall have doubled since the Corinthia replaced Massimo with Kerridge's Bar and Grill in 2018. "Of course, a celebrity chef comes with additional expenses," Kochs says. "But the hotel becomes so much more attractive if we put fascinating experiences together. I think the Corinthia is way more interesting as a hotel with a Tom Kerridge restaurant than without it. And that brings in money."

More than anyone working in London, Kochs has experience of collaborating with the most famous names on the hotel dining scene, including Marcus Wareing at the Berkeley, Gordon Ramsay at Claridge's and Hélène Darroze at the Connaught. Which means he knows more than anyone why the union of hotel and chef is not always a match made in heaven. For every Darroze, after all, there is a short-lived Fera by Simon Rogan. Why does the relationship not always last?

"I would always assume that when things don't work out that expectations were not made clear at the very beginning," Kochs says. "If you have those conversations early on and find out there's something in the DNA of your partner that really doesn't suit your DNA, then it's probably best to walk away from it." Longevity should be a subject of those early conversations, Kochs suggests.

"Especially in London, things change really, really quickly," Rankin says of his four-year involvement with Flemings Mayfair. But ultimately, says the Stafford's Stuart Procter, a hotel's focus should be on the restaurant and not the chef.

"As a hotelier, you need somebody who can come in and add value to you, not the other way round," Procter says. "The focus for me running the Stafford is I need to have a restaurant with a great ambience serving delicious food. Unfortunately, there is a good chunk of chefs who start believing the PR and get carried away with the cookbooks and the TV and they're not focused on the restaurant. When that happens, they've got to go."

Food, not fame

Of course, the easiest solution might be to do without the services of a famous chef altogether. When the Cadogan reopened its dining room as the LaLee last November, following the departure of Adam Handing, the launch publicity focused on the all-day food offering rather than the chef team cooking it.

"When Adam left, we thought, should we go with a celebrity chef?" says general manager Xavier Lablaude. "Or is that what our locals really want?

The hotel is run and managed by Belmond but owned by Cadogan Estates. It was especially important to them and to us to make the property a neighbourhood hub for Chelsea residents who might not want a fine-dining restaurant for a select few diners to have a 10-course menu. They want somewhere they can go on a regular basis throughout the day."

Is it less stressful not having to work with a big-name chef? "If anything it is more stressful because it is now me who is 100% responsible to make this restaurant a success, whereas in the past I could say it's down to the chef," Lablaude laughs. "What's nice though is that we're a small, 54-room property and it's good to have a common vision throughout the hotel to empower the staff."

And yet the allure of a famous chef for a famous hotel shows no sign of dimming. Earlier this month [14 February], French pastry chef-cum-Instagram sensation Cédric Grolet opened his first outlet outside France, in London's Knightsbridge. Cédric Grolet at the Berkeley combines an eight-seat counter by the open kitchen offering a £135 tasting menu of the chef's signature trompe-l'œil fruit and flower pâtisseries alongside the new Berkeley café serving a French take on afternoon tea.

"I first came to London 15 years ago and I would see the Berkeley and it always made me dream about one day opening here," Grolet says. "The location is incredible. I'm 36 and, at my age, I would not have had the resources that were required for a space like this."

For Grolet and many chefs like him, working with a hotel is still the best way to have your cake and eat it.

Matching chef with hotel

"In the current environment, labour and food cost are very important factors that can have huge financial implications if not managed correctly. Both parties need to be on the same page at the start of concept development to ensure they see eye-to-eye in all aspects of the operation." - Philippe Leboeuf, Raffles London at the OWO

"Always listen. If you're running an independent restaurant, sometimes you can get too involved in your own head and make selfish and frustrating decisions. A hotel team gives you a structure of like-minded people and you end up with a better product." - Shaun Rankin, Grantley Hall

"If a hotel has a chef with a supersonic ego and all they care about is TV, it's not going to work. But if you have someone who loves food and who wants to work collectively with the team, it should be a success." - Stuart Procter, the Stafford Collection

"The relationship needs to be owned by the chef and a very senior person at the hotel. If that relationship remains intact, then everything else will fall into place." - Thomas Kochs, Corinthia London

"Make sure everything you want is in the contract. Autonomy was the most important thing for me, and having control of the menu." - Sally Abé, Conrad London St James

"Think about the purpose of your restaurant. In some cases, it's fantastic to have a celebrity chef, and in others it's fantastic to work with younger chefs with the potential to become celebrity chefs themselves." - Xavier Lablaude, the Cadogan, a Belmond hotel

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