Food for thought12 April 2021
Despite experiencing the most challenging period in hospitality since the Second World War, London will birth an exciting crop of luxury hotels in 2021. One of these is the Carlton Tower Jumeirah, which will reopen this summer following a £100m renovation, with culinary excellence a key draw behind the reprisal of this iconic establishment. Will Moffitt speaks to Ludovic Simon, newly appointed head of food and beverage at the Carlton Tower, about the challenges of delivering formidable dining experiences during a pandemic.
The Carlton Tower has always been a statement property. When it first opened its doors on an icy January evening in 1961 it was the first modern five-star property to open in Knightsbridge and the tallest in the capital. Positioned to the right of Sloane Street, between Knightsbridge and Kings Road and overlooking Cadogan Gardens, it was a place to see and be seen. Socialites frequented its Rib Room restaurant and drunk cocktails on its rooftop bar, and fashion designers shot campaigns in its hotel rooms.
Various celebrities frequented the Carlton over the years, and there are photographs to prove it: there’s the picture of actresses Sydney Rome, Daliah Lavi and Jutta Stengsgaard posing on the hotel‘s rooftop in mini-skirts; a snap of Geoffrey Boycott bouncing on a hotel bed; another shows Mary Quant surrounded by models showing off her shoe designs – and then, of course, there’s Twiggy with the ‘new’ Mini Cooper.
It’s a history that Ludovic Simon, newly appointed head of food and beverage at the Carlton Tower, wasn’t familiar with when he went for the job. “To be honest, [I didn’t know much] before I joined,” Simon admits. “However, my stepfather used to live in London in the ’60s and he mentioned the Carlton Tower and funny stories about the place. Whenever you imagine the ’60s or the ’70s it always has this kind of shiny, elegant feel to it.”
Instead, Simon did things the old-fashioned way. He was impressed by what had seen and heard about the hotel – specifically from Aaron Kaupp, regional vice-president of London properties and general manager of the Carlton Tower.
“I was impressed by the focus on service and detail, and the food and beverage offering in general,” Simon explains. “And the project itself, which is a destination hotel that has a strong history, but we’re also trying to create a new hotel and that is a challenge in today’s circumstances in one of the most competitive cities in the world. So, the combination of these things really made it an amazing opportunity.”
It is quite the makeover – the most extensive in its history, in fact. It comes by way of UAE-based Jumeirah group, a luxury hotel chain with properties primarily located in the Middle East, along with destinations as diverse as Frankfurt, the Maldives and Shanghai.
The group lavished £100m on revamping the flagship property, which now has fewer rooms – 186 in total – but more space. Architecture design studio 1508 London was enlisted to reinvigorate the property and deliver signature and junior suites with spectacular views over the city. The brief seems to have been to find a new spin on an old classic.
The hotel’s food and beverage offering is not dissimilar. Culinary excellence, as Simon passionately explains, is a significant factor behind the reprisal of this iconic establishment. The focus is on doing simple dishes well with odd flourishes of luxury here and there. Carlton’s signature restaurant boasts a theatre kitchen for immersive dining, a private dining room and alfresco seating on Cadogan Place. The food is centred around elevated Italian classics with homemade pasta and pizza made from locally sourced ingredients. “It will be sophisticated, but comprehensible,” Simon says. There is a similar theme in the lobby, which also specialises in classic dishes, and the hotel lounge, which allegedly boasts the largest tea selection in London.
“We are trying to create memorable experiences,” Simon explains. “This is something that you hear quite often, but we want to have a kind of combination of culinary excellence, tastes, visuals and rituals, and this is what we’re trying to do at our destination restaurant.”
For Simon, the Carlton is another step in a 16-year career that has seen him work in Park Hyatt properties across the globe, including hotels in Paris, Marrakech, Sharm El Sheikh and, most recently, Cannes’ iconic Hotel Martinez. He also spent a year at The Four Seasons Bora Bora. Openings are something of a specialism it seems. Simon has helped to launch four of the past six properties he has worked at. His passion for food, he says, came early. “The first memory I have is being with my grandmothers in the holiday season, spending time with them in the kitchen. And it was simple food, family food, ‘cuisine bourgeoise’ as we say... such a pleasure, such shared moments with loved ones that I think we all have. And it started from there. Soon, I realised that with hospitality you can travel, and I was hooked.”
After years of living aboard and working with chefs and hoteliers, what has Simon’s extensive experience taught him about delivering successful food and beverage concepts?
“It’s all teamwork,” Simon says. “About 90% of your success comes from the people you work with. So that is why we are extremely specific about our recruitment. It’s [all about] teamwork and delegation, because without that you basically achieve nothing.”
As far as individual qualities go, it also helps to be flexible and open minded, Simon explains: “I think it’s essential to be adaptable. Working in different cultures, in different countries and environments, is one of the joys of working in hospitality. Few careers offer that.
“Working in an uncertain world requires a lot of humility and determination at the same time,” he continues. “I would say that creativity is one of the most important aspects of our trade today because with creativity comes innovation and that is how you can really elevate a guest experience to make it different from the rest.”
A cut above
While a decade ago a more standardised food and beverage offering would have sufficed, that isn’t going to cut it with today’s guests. After all, innovation is vital in a world where consumers crave authenticity and new experiences. For evidence of this insatiable shift, Simon points towards the move for hotel groups to partner with iconic standalone restaurant brands and celebrity chefs to enhance their notoriety.
Total cost of the Carlton Tower’s recent renovation.
The Carlton Tower
“I think that it’s linked to the way that hotel groups recently understood the fact that food and beverage is no longer just a commodity,” Simon says. “So, in order to differentiate [the hotel] from the other successful standalone restaurants in a city you need to introduce new innovative ways of thinking and break some boundaries.”
Veganism and plant-based eating is another trend that has caught Simon’s attention, although he has no desire to embrace the lifestyle himself. Even five years ago many hotel menus, particularly in Europe, were almost entirely comprised of fish and meat dishes, but plant-based food and drink is now something all successful hospitality enterprises need to cater for. Luxury operators are increasingly preparing these dishes with just as much panache and style as their more traditional offerings.
The Dorchester’s newly renovated Grill restaurant has a variety of vegan offerings, pushed in part by chef Tom Booton. At the Belmond Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons in Oxfordshire, chef Raymond Blanc has introduced five and sevencourse vegan tasting menus.
Even Parisian hotels long renowned for their stubborn adherence to steak tartare and beef bourguignon are waking up to the benefits of catering to restricted palates.
“[Veganism] is definitely growing in popularity, we have seen it here in the UK and in other parts of the world it’s also on the rise. So, we’re definitely sensitive to that,” Simon says, explaining that the menus at the Carlton have specially formulated vegan dishes. Many use tempeh, a soy-based product similar to tofu, as a substitute for traditional meat options.
With the Carlton currently set for a summer opening, the challenge of launching and maintaining a successful hotel food and beverage opening in “one of the most competitive cities in the world” is not lost on Simon. After all, even in the luxury segment, London will see a slew of high-class hotels open in 2021, including Nobu Portman Square and NoMad, based in the Bow Street Magistrates Court, which boasts renowned chef Abram Bissell.
Meanwhile, the Dorchester and Claridge’s continue to provide old-fashioned competition in the form of reliable British classics – and then of course there’s the Four Seasons Ten Trinity Square with a menu devised by Michelin star-winner Anne Sophie-Pic.
After a series of delays caused by successive national lockdowns, however, Simon is simply eager to get going and showcase the culinary experience he and his team have been planning. “We’ve been extremely fortunate to continue working on this unique project throughout the last year, and to be able to rebuild the Carlton Tower,” he says. “We are very excited to reopen soon in June, and I believe that people will be eager to travel again and to enjoy hospitality, once it’s possible. We are really impatient to reopen our doors and showcase what we’ve been preparing for.”