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With a string of global names installed in the capital's top hotel kitchens, banqueting is in for a Michelin makeover, says Tom Vaughan
Remember the hotel dining room of old – the starchy service, the clanking beef trolleys, Franglais food that was as heavy as the drapes, and stuffy grill rooms? A catalogue of pomp and ceremony that usually compensated for inadequacies in the kitchen. How times have changed. Come autumn this year, a stroll from Knightsbridge to Marble Arch will take you past four restaurants operated by chefs with three Michelin stars to their names – quite a turnaround from 20 years ago. When did hotel dining get so starry-eyed?
Aficionados might recall the scent of revolution in the air back in 1992, with the colossal pairing of Sir Rocco Forte and Nico Ladenis. In a bid to boost his hotel’s appeal, London’s leading hotelier invited its most ambitious chef to assume control of the restaurant in his Grosvenor House Hotel on Park Lane. It made perfect sense. ‘It was a chance to take a restaurant that might be operating at a loss, and instantly turn it into a financial and culinary success by charging someone a large sum of annual rent,’ says David Morgan-Hewitt, managing director at the nearby Goring Hotel, where he has been since 1990. ‘Lots of chefs want the luxury and kudos that comes with being in a great space with great decoration, great silverware and the rest of it. But it is very difficult to do that without partnering with a great hotel.’
In 1995, with the support of Grosvenor House and Sir Forte, Laden is finally landed his third star. It was the same year that Marco Pierre White, who Forte had moved into his Hyde Park Hotel the year before, became the first Brit to pick up the top accolade, and the die was cast.
Suddenly, after years of humdrum grub, sexy cooking was creeping into hotel kitchens.
Over the next 10 years, the scene transformed: The Berkeley in Belgravia moved in Pierre Koffmann’s iconic three-starred Chelsea restaurant La Tante Claire (although it dropped a star in transit); White successfully transported his three stars down the road to Le Meridien Piccadilly; Gordon Ramsay had completed his colonisation of London dining rooms with Michelin-starred restaurants at The Savoy, The Connaught, Marriott London Grosvenor Square and The Berkeley. Meanwhile, Eric Chavot, an alumnus of Ladenis and White hotel dining rooms, pitched up at The Capital to great acclaim.
‘Pricked by Forte’s dynamism, hoteliers had finally woken up’, says David Nicholls, group director of food and beverage for the Mandarin Oriental Hotel Group. ‘Beforehand, making money from food was seen as a bonus. The real money was made on the rooms. But when external restaurants started to up their game, hoteliers woke up to the fact they were sitting on prime locations in the heart of central London. With many hotels running at a loss with their food and beverage, it was a very easy fit to bring in big-name restaurateurs.’
What’s in a name
The last five years have seen the trend grow exponentially; The Connaught, The Lanesborough and The Dorchester have all – to some fanfare – signed up Michelin-starred chefs from abroad, while Grosvenor House, Hilton Park Lane and Brown’s have recruited popular home-grown chefs in the form of Richard Corrigan, Chris Galvin and Mark Hix, respectively. However, this year Nicholls’ Mandarin Oriental Hyde Park hotel is to gazump the lot, drafting in culinary superstars Heston Blumenthal and Daniel Boulud. Blumenthal is set to open a restaurant on the Mandarin Oriental’s former Foliage site, themed around his re-interpretations of historical dishes, while Boulud has opened a branch of his wildly popular New York wine bar and bistro, Bar Boulud. ‘This is pretty much unprecedented,’ says Nicholls. ‘With the exception of hotels in Las Vegas, this is the first time you have ever got two three-star chefs in one building.’
‘The deal to bag Blumenthal has been four years in the making’, says Nicholls. The likes of Mandarin Oriental are not used to the waiting game – this uncharacteristic patience is a measure of the impact such a signing will have on business. ‘Times have changed,’ says Ajaz Sheikh, who left his position as food and beverage manager at The Lanesborough in March after five years in the role. ‘We never wanted a Michelin-starred restaurant before. We were like the Four Seasons – our simple priority was to make our clients happy. But then we realised they’d also be happy if we had a top destination restaurant in the hotel.’ Alain Ducasse was linked with The Lanesborough years ago, but the hotel finally landed three-star German supremo Heinz Beck for its restaurant Apsleys, a Heinz Beck Restaurant, last year – lest we should forget, given its lumbering moniker – while the French überchef appeared down the road in 2008 to end The Dorchester’s palpable quest for Michelin recognition.
Competition is fierce – and getting fiercer. The Dorchester worked its way through two home-trained Michelin hopefuls in Ollie Couillard and Aiden Byrne before plumping for the multi-garlanded Ducasse, while The Lanesborough’s flirtation with former Zafferano chef Nick Bell, who opened Apsleys, was short lived. Big-name foreign stars, it seems, offer a much higher profile. ‘The British talent over here is already available to the public,’ says Sheikh. ‘What’s the point of getting in a chef from one restaurant in London, just to move him to another? We want to bring in people from outside because that’s what Londoners want.’
It seems that London’s diners do indeed hanker after restaurants with big-named chefs. The Corinthia Hotel, a £270m property due to open in Whitehall later this year, has placed Italian seafood chef Massimo Riccioli (head chef at La Rosetta in Rome) at the helm of one restaurant, with general manager Matthew Dixon stating that ‘it is important to bring only the best into this competitive market’. It’s a mutually beneficial relationship. Without the support of hotels, it would have been very risky for big-name chefs to venture into London while still running restaurants abroad.
But the large West End properties aren’t the only ones taking the leap. Boutique Clerkenwell hotel The Zetter felt it needed to up its game, and earlier this year the management secured a return to London for the acclaimed Bruno Loubet. ‘The restaurant suffered from a lack of identity,’ explains founder Michael Benyan. ‘It needed a change of direction.’ The effects have been immediate, with favourable press joining the wide public interest in Loubet’s return.
Having renewed its contract with Gordon Ramsay, The Savoy is hoping for similar plaudits when it re-opens this autumn after a three-year refurbishment. ‘If you turn the clock back to when he first came (in 2003), the Grill was a tired restaurant,’ says general manager Kiaran Macdonald. ‘It needed a new lease of life. It is an iconic restaurant that would stand up as a brand on its own now, but with Gordon on board you get an added layer of support from Ramsay Holdings to reinforce that.’
Elsewhere, The Berkeley is to rekindle relations with Pierre Koffmann, who will open an eponymous restaurant – more informal than La Tante Claire – on the former Boxwood Café site vacated earlier this year by Gordon Ramsay Holdings; The May Fair is rumoured to be on the hunt for a star chef; while The Lanesborough admits that it is considering opening a second site in the coming years, hopefully with a big name attached.
Very few of the capital’s five-star hotels now run a restaurant without a high-profile chef, but there are still some quiet bastions of tradition. ‘When you bring in a big name chef, you hand over part of your soul,’ says Morgan-Hewitt at The Goring. ‘We’ve always felt we want to be in charge of that part of our business.’
The Ritz is another property still waving the flag for the classic hotel dining room. ‘At the hotel, we try and service the client,’ says executive chef John Williams. ‘It’s much more than just giving them a good menu. For us it’s not about John Williams, it’s about the Ritz.’
A handful of other luxury five-star hotels – Jumeirah Carlton Tower, for example – also still run their own food and beverage, but these days they are very much in the minority. ‘It’s difficult to argue that bringing in named chefs hasn’t been a successful formula,’ says Macdonald. ‘Why it has taken a foothold is obvious – it’s a great way of driving high levels of business to your restaurant and bringing a greater awareness of the hotel nationally and internationally.’
Of course, it was only a matter of time before hotel dining’s new glamour seeped through to banqueting, a side of operations that has traditionally, says Anthony Lee, general manager of The Connaught, been ‘monotonous and predictable’ compared to fine dining. When Hélène Darroze was recruited for The Connaught in 2008 she became one of the first stellar hotel chefs to oversee all food and beverage. Her refined French dishes, such as lobster ravioli with tandoori spices, citrus and carrot mousseline, spring onion and tarragon reduction with beurre noisette, now appear at the hotel’s private functions as well as in her restaurant. ‘It’s very rare to get a Michelin-starred chef coming in to do banqueting and private events, but why not?’ says Lee. ‘I think people are starting to wake up to the possibilities and the feedback we are getting is fantastic.’ Likewise, the 765sq m ballroom at the Marriott Grosvenor Square introduced signature dishes from the hotel’s Michelin-starred restaurant Maze onto its banqueting menu in autumn last year, an operation especially impressive due to the main event space’s 550-person capacity.
At Bethnal Green’s new Town Hall Hotel, it’s less about a name and more about distinctive cooking. The much talked-about Nuno Mendes has arrived on the crest of the supper club wave and been charged with introducing his creative modern cuisine both to the fine-dining restaurant Viajante, and to the banqueting side of the operation. This opportunity to bring Mendes’ innovative food to banqueting guests was a major factor in his appointment, says owner Peng Loh. ‘I wanted our banqueting to have a signature look and feel in keeping with the very grand surroundings of Town Hall. The lazy thing to do would be to recruit a safe chef from a top named restaurant to run the place and serve something fairly middle of the road.’
Most recently, The Savoy and The Dorchester have both pushed banqueting up a gear by announcing the introduction of à la carte menus, offering a choice of dishes for guests to order at the table. Having run à la carte menus at smaller functions for years, general manager of The Dorchester Roland Fasel is confident that introducing such a set-up to banqueting will be a natural progression. Likewise, Macdonald is convinced that The Savoy can pull off the notoriously challenging concept. ‘The reason
I see it as very possible is from my years in North America, where although not commonplace, many hotels do indeed offer à la carte banqueting,’ he says. ‘All that separates us is a large ocean and the will to make it work.’
Competitors, however, remain sceptical. ‘The more choices you give, the weaker the product becomes,’ says Williams. ‘I don’t think offering banqueting à la carte will make the food better. I’ve been doing this for a long time and I know what works and what doesn’t.’ And Sheikh agrees that trying to shoehorn restaurant-standard dishes into private functions is dangerous: ‘The whole point of Michelin-style food is that it is supposed to be for 70/80 covers. You can never get that standard of cooking in banqueting so why even bother?’
Whether this bid to revolutionise banqueting will send the same ripples into the hotel industry as Sir Forte did 15 years ago remains to be seen. Either way, it’s clear that not even the worst recession in modern history has dented hoteliers’ ambitions. Once upon a time, hoteliers were content to run a restaurant that broke even, now even holding three Michelin stars isn’t enough for the big boys. ‘Why not try and raise the bar?’ says Macdonald. ‘If you allow glass ceilings to exist in anything, you have been far too accepting of limitations. This constant effort to improve the capital’s dining by hotels is healthy, and where it goes, who knows?’ If ambition is anything to go by, the best is certainly yet to come.
This article first appeared in Square Meal Venues & Events magazine summer 2010