How can hoteliers encourage their chefs to be more creative? That’s the question we posed to a food and drink consultant, a hotel group’s cluster head chef, as well as some hoteliers of course…Here’s what they had to say. By Jason Caddy
Chef Michel Roux may have banned camera phones at one of his restaurants but diners will continue
to take pics of their food in hotel restaurants and post them on social media. Yet the taste-shaping power of social media isn’t the only reason hoteliers need to encourage their chefs to be more creative these days. Trends toward more specialist foods, veganism, more causal dining and a lower price point because of what’s happening elsewhere, like dine-in deals at supermarkets for example, are all topical considerations for hoteliers and chefs.
Global food, restaurant and hotel consultancy Baum + Whiteman’s trend report from the turn of the year highlighted the rise of multiple cuisines, greater influence of technology, the popping up of one-item restaurants (again). It also highlighted the prominence of plant-based food (vegan searches on Google rose by 90 % in 2017), Filipino cuisine (double the searches on Google since 2012) – even diners injecting food with extra flavours using a syringe. Then we have a Bladerunner-esque facial recognition payments – but that’s a whole other article.
Creativity, as we all know, is a very personal thing and in an interview with The Guardian, Jocky Petrie, formerly of Heston Blumenthal’s experimental Fat Duck restaurant and now bringing his creative fair to Gordon Ramsay’s restaurant business, said that his creativity sprang from a boring childhood on the west coast of Scotland. He credits stuff like playing football using two jumpers on a hill. He was also quoted as saying that everybody’s ears prick up the most at head-chef staff meetings whenever anybody starts talking about some new concoction or other that they’re working on. He also emphasized the absolute need for chefs to make mistakes.
Plus we’re also witnessing the emergence of new hotel models like the recently opened Edinburgh Grand that outsources its food offering via The Hawksmoor and Register Club brands so that guests are not tied to a traditional hotel food and beverage service.
Now for the main course. How can chefs be motivated to something a wee bit more creative? Colin Bussey heads up Food and Beverage Solutions, a consultancy, and he’s also worked at Glasgow’s Oran Mor and Gleneagles. He said, “ There’s good quality hotel dining at the four star level that takes in casual and luxury fine dining. These chefs can still follow trends and push boundaries, but 42 per cent of diners always order the same food, so they need to have their taste pallets challenged if they’re to be expanded. Yet they don’t want to pay to experiment. So the chef has got to keep an element of the menu concerned with classics and comfort foods, while trying to drive creativity. It can be demotivating and drive chefs mad if they see the best seller on a menu is fish and chips the whole time, and we’re seeing far more creativity with twists on classics, like seabass tempura, or the more common beer battered fish, and chips in attempt to capitalise on this.”
Colin’s also concerned about hotel menus being influenced by what’s happening in the retail sector. He explains, “The price point for the casual dining market has been affected by supermarkets ‘ dine in for two’ deals and the like. These huge retailers have cornered the market because they have the budgets to research and identify the trends that we’re seeing emerging now, like Vietnamese, Korean, low carbs and gastro food etc. Hence the casual dining market reacting by doing lunch for £5.95, say, and the pressure that this puts on food costs is nothing short of horrendous. Menu engineering like this forfeits provenance.”
Colin likewise thinks that hoteliers and chefs must also remain ahead of the curve when it comes to rising health-consciousness as well as changing appetites. He explained, “It’s no longer acceptable for hoteliers or chefs to ignore the full range of dietary requirements. It’s estimated that 15 per cent of people have food intolerances, and Glasgow now even has a low fodmap restaurant, (DRG’s Atlantic Restaurant), for people with conditions such as IBS and celiac disease.” So what, according to Colin, is the best way for chefs to navigate all of this? “The short answer is education, training and development. Nobody know everything, and 30 years ago hoteliers and restaurateurs kept things to themselves whereas now it’s all about sharing for the greater good. We must all get behind this philosophy.”
What about a head chef’s perspective? Vladimirs Kruus is Cluster Head Chef at the Apex Hotel Group. In answer to the question, he said, “Give chefs the freedom to be creative is my answer. Controlling environments stifle any kind of experimentation and you have to take the odd risk. It also helps that I have a truly international team of people, so creativity comes from all of us sparking off of each other.”
The legendary Stephen Carter is former GM at The Old Course Hotel St Andrews, where he now works in a consultative capacity. He said, “Managers need to be more flexible, thereby liberating chefs to be more creative.”
He continued, “Dining is changing, both at home and in hotels. The old starter, main, pudding combo is now not the only option. Customers like small plates. They are looking to graze. In corporate hotels the chef is under pressure because of cost constraints and price points because they need to make a profit of course. But the other side of this coin is that this can also kind of force chefs to become more creative. It’s in these kinds of conditions where creativity flourishes. “We’re also seeing a growth in high class restaurants using cheaper cuts of meats produced in more fashionable, creative styles. The Ivy in London, for example, provides the right ambience and serves haddock and chips or shepherds pie, which some hotels may still consider downmarket, yet it’s already happening in some hotels in other parts of the country.”
Calum Ross is GM at Glasgow’s Hilton Hotel on William Street, and when we posed the question to him, he said, “I think you have to make this (creativity) part of their (the chef’s) ‘purpose’. As leaders we have a real responsibility to create the ‘space’ for the reflection and inspiration required to unlock creative potential. Travel is a real source of inspiration for many and at Hilton we have fabulous travel opportunities for all team members. I see it as a personal objective to get the culinary leadership group connected to and engaged with these opportunities to travel, learn and experiment.”
Then there’s the economic uncertainty resulting from all the Brexit umming and ahhing that’s upturned the chessboard in terms of what the future of the hospitality game holds. Let’s give the final word on the impact of this to Colin Bussey, “Pre-Brexit we all wanted provenance, yet this needs to be paid for, and the price point took a bit of a lift. But now, with Brexit chaos and rising food prices, there’s uncertainty regarding where it’s going to go, so this is no longer the case. One glimmer of hope on the horizon is the tourist industry, and this has been a real success story for Scotland especially lately, and this could be the key to chef creativity in the future.”