Dine under the Stars: a shift in restaurant management

29 June 2015

Star power has long been a proven means of attracting diners to a hotel restaurant. But with the degree of command operators have to cede to big-name chefs and restaurateurs, not to mention revenue, an increasing number are looking at developing in-house dining concepts and reclaiming control. Elly Earls speaks to IHG’s Pascal Gauvin and Hilton Worldwide’s Simon Lazarus about whether we might be witnessing a marked shift in the way hotels conceive and manage their restaurants.

When the Waldorf Astoria Amsterdam opened its doors in May of last year, comprising six historic 17th and 18th-century town houses in the UNSECO World Heritage area of Herengracht, it was one of the city's biggest hotel launches in years. In Vienna, the arrival of Europe's seventh Park Hyatt instantly signalled the advent of one of the continent's grand hotels. The same goes for the Peninsula Paris, which is among the most lavish conversion projects in recent memory and a success echoed by another ambitious renovation scheme of the previous year, the Rosewood London. Four major luxury hotels in four of Europe's landmark cities, garnering countless column inches and rave reviews, all shared a common ingredient: not one of them relied on acquiring an international superstar chef to launch their dining options.

Even in the Middle East, for many years an essential stage in any ambitious restaurateur's budding empire, things seem to be changing. From Vasco's in Hilton Abu Dhabi, one of the city's most famous award-winning establishments, to seafood restaurant Ossiano in Atlantis The Palm Dubai, where guests can enjoy 'underwater' afternoon tea, and Madinat Jumeirah's now iconic brunch, combining cuisine from three of the resort's in-house eateries (MJ's Steakhouse, Spanish restaurant Al Hambra and international all-day diner Arboretum), there's no shortage of emerging high-quality, home-grown dining options. Jumeirah has even established its own in-house restaurant division.

What's in a name?

So is the power of the globally branded chef on the wane, or do names such as Pierre Gagnaire, Gordon Ramsay and Alain Ducasse still hold an irresistible draw for diners demanding only the best from their F&B experience? And, if so, how can operators find strike up a partnership between hotel and world-renowned chef?

"The dining scene is constantly changing, and it is important that we continue to innovate and evolve our offering to stay at the forefront of it," says Pascal Gauvin, chief operating officer at IHG, India, Middle East and Africa. "Chefs and restaurant brands with international renown will always be an attractive option for guests - they've established themselves and proven their worth on the global culinary scene. But at the same time, it's fantastic to see home-grown talent and restaurant brands holding their own against international ones."

"We look to ensure that any new addition to any one of our hotels’ F&B offerings will enhance the dining experience and meet the high standards our guests have come to expect from IHG hotels."

Simon Lazarus, VP F&B, EMEA at Hilton Worldwide, agrees that superstar chefs will never completely go out of favour. "Celebrity chefs do play an important role for Hilton Worldwide as one element of a much wider offering," he notes.

Keep it fresh

For Gauvin, it's crucial that a celebrity chef isn't brought on board purely for their name. "At the end of the day, it's not about just having a celebrity name or brand, it's about ensuring we are giving our guests consistently fresh experiences and taking them on a culinary journey throughout our hotels," he explains. "Therefore, before entering any partnership it is important to consider if it is the right decision for the brand and, most importantly, for the hotel's target guest.

"Each of the hotels across all of the IHG brands has a particular look and feel that is tailored to all of our guests' unique requirements. We look to ensure that any new addition to any one of our hotels' F&B offerings will enhance the dining experience and meet the high standards our guests have come to expect from IHG hotels."

It's a similar story at Hilton Worldwide, where any new outlet must always remain authentic and relevant to the local environment, as well as complementing the existing F&B offering, and providing variety and value. "We have many partners who help us to achieve that vision, and some of our latest openings really demonstrate the variety we can offer our guests, including the forthcoming Copper Dog gastropub at DoubleTree by Hilton Dubai - Jumeirah Beach, which is a partnership with Piers Adam, a highly successful entrepreneur from London, with whom we also partnered at Whisky Mist at Zeta in the London Hilton on Park Lane," Lazarus remarks.

When a partnership is agreed on, it's then critical to develop a close, collaborative relationship between the hotel and the restaurateur from the outset. "It's not about one ceding control to the other. Planning a signature restaurant starts before any foundations are laid, and certainly far before any ingredients are added," Gauvin explains. "Like cooking, the secret to a great restaurant is all in the preparation, making sure that everything fits together and all the elements complement one another."

Know your target

Ultimately, it begins and ends with the guest. "If all parties are clear on who the target guest is and what kind of experience they want them to have, then there is a clear framework," Gauvin continues. "And it's important to have those conversations up front. Ours and our partners' ideas of what a successful end project looks like and who the target guest is need to match. With that as a starting point, everything should be agreed and consulted on collaboratively, from the design to the kitchen, and production to cutlery and uniforms, with the end goal of making sure the guest has a seamless experience."

This is exactly what the IHG F&B team has already started doing with Jason Atherton, with whom they are partnering to open the Marina Social in the InterContinental Dubai Marina in September.

"Jason Atherton has become renowned for his simple yet elegant spaces - a quality that chimes perfectly with the InterContinental Hotels and Resorts brand," Gauvin believes. "We are working extremely closely with him and his team to ensure the highest standards of excellence for InterContinental Dubai Marina and Marina Social, and we are confident that Marina Social's restaurant offering will be the perfect complement to the luxury look and feel of the hotel, and a welcome addition to Dubai's culinary scene."

Establish a signature

Yet big-name restaurants are not the only way hotels can benefit from the international experience and knowledge of well-known chefs, as IHG is currently demonstrating with its Culinary Panel, which it launched in 2014. "It's an initiative that sees renowned chefs develop an array of signature dishes for guests dining in our hotels. The five IHG culinary ambassadors on the panel are all acclaimed, award-winning chefs and represent a diverse range of dishes, from Thai cuisine by Ian Kittichai and modern Australian cuisine by Ross Lusted to bread and pastries by Dean Brettschneider," Gauvin explains, adding that what he really likes about the programme is the development opportunities it offers to the in-house F&B team.

"We are committed to delivering extraordinary dining experiences and place emphasis on working with the best culinary talent in the industry." 

"Not only does the IHG Culinary Panel programme provide our guests with spectacular food designed by renowned chefs, but our own F&B talent also benefits from the training and ongoing guidance from IHG culinary ambassadors," he stresses, adding that fostering internal F&B talent will always bring rewards. "For instance, Theo Randall's fame has grown rapidly since he first joined InterContinental London Park Lane almost a decade ago. He worked alongside Annabel Karmel to develop the InterContinental Planet Trekkers Children's Menu, which is available globally, and he's a member of the IHG Culinary Panel, representing Italian cuisine."

Lazarus also believes that developing great concepts in house can provide wider benefits for the global brand. "We are exploring ways to take successful concepts and transport them to other destinations," he says. "A great case in point is Puro Beach at Conrad Dubai, which was the first urban Puro Beach concept. Next month we will be opening our second Puro Beach in Barcelona."

At Hilton and IHG, as well as many other global hotel operators, superstar chefs remain an important, if relatively small, part of a varied F&B offer, something Gauvin is adamant is unlikely to change in the near future, at least not at IHG.

"We are committed to delivering extraordinary dining experiences to our guests and diners, and place emphasis on working with the best culinary talent in the industry, which we will continue to do going forward," he concludes, adding that Marina Social is a case in point. "We see this stand-alone-style of restaurant as a key attraction for guests and residents in a hyper-competitive market, and [we will continue to focus] on driving more revenue through F&B by enhancing the dining experiences of our guests and the locals with new programmes and partnerships."

Theo Randall’s profile has grown rapidly since he joined InterContinental nearly ten years ago.
The Bank chef’s table at Park Hyatt, Vienna.

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