Celebrity Chefs, well it got us thinking… 4

As is our want whilst surfing the net for inspiration, we often have a mooch around the catering trade press websites. Principally Caterersearch and BigHospitality , then we came across an editorial written by Mark Lewis from The Caterersearch.com website on the business case for celebrity chefs. He talks with David Nicholls, once Executive Chef at Mandarin Oriental Hyde Park, London now Corporate Director of Food & Beverage Worldwide for the Mandarin Oriental Group.

With the imminent arrival of Heston Blumenthal  and the already open Bar Boulud in London, the Mandarin Oriental Group clearly embrace the high profile chef. Marco Pierre White achieved his legendary 3 Michelin stars at Restaurant Marco Pierre White at what is now Mandarin Oriental Hyde Park, before moving to Le Meridian Piccadilly and setting up as Oakroom Marco Pierre White. In some of their other properties globally they have outposts from such starred chefs as Vineet Bhatia ( 1 star, Geneva), Pierre Gagnaire (1 star, Hong Kong), Carme Ruscalleda – the only woman in Spain to hold 3 Michelin stars, along with other 2 stars in Tokyo  (Barcelona), and 2 star Thierry Marx is joining Mandarin Oriental Paris (due to open in 2011) as Culinary Director.

The benefits are relatively obvious to most people, with the plethora of addition PR the host hotel will receive and extra footfall through to their bars, with the addition of not having to worry about staffing cost & recruitment for the outlet. So you’d think that it’s a no brainer then, not according to Kit Chapman, owner of the Castle in Taunton. His observations on his blog :

Those clever young hoteliers – fearful of their boards of directors and the shareholders – call it good business. I call it laziness, a sell-out, a cynical indifference towards what should be the heart and soul of any proud hotel, its kitchen.

Whilst in principle we’d agree with Mr Chapman, we’re sure he’d agree with us that he is a rare breed within the industry. Over the years there have been trail blazers & pioneers, who have set the standards & created the mould for others to follow. Names such as Francis Coulson & Brian Sack, The Goring family, The Hendersons at Gidleigh Park,  to name a few that spring to mind, along with Mr Chapman. His hotel has always ensued a traditional line, & on an associates visit was Fish & Chips for lunch. The fish was Gurnard & treated with respect, the chips were exquisite and the Tartar sauce came in a silver sauce boat. It wasn’t de-constructed, made with the finest Italian olive oil or any other faddish non sense; just quality produce cooked well & simply.

Although Mr Chapman may err on the side of caution when employing the services of celebrity chefs or giving over restaurant space to them, but he has dabbled in the past.  Both Gary Rhodes & Phil Vickery were both Head chefs at The Castle around about the time of their TV breakthroughs.

The departure of Mr Rhodes back to London to seek his fame & fortune in the media, seemed to go without a hitch. Unfortunately the same can’t be said some years later when Mr Vickery left, to say the split was bitter is an understatement. Accusations & rumours flew around the industry in a dramatic style. So is this the reason for Mr Chapman’s aversion to celebrity chefs?

Speak to any chef with a stable, accoladed background and they will tell you the same thing.

Owners / Managers of hotels would always like more. Whether it’s accolades, PR, customers or savings, yet chefs are expected to deliver in this with little or no investment in equipment. Maybe Mr Chapman’s operation is the one that proves the rule. He claims that a kitchen should be the heart & soul of a proud hotel. Is it because it functions regardless of what obstacles are put in it’s way?

We’re sure if you asked 100 chefs who have, let’s say been at, at least a 2 rosette establishment for more than 12 months, how many have had their ranges serviced. We’d be surprised if it reached double figures. The mentality in the industry is to fix it when it goes wrong, rather than take preventative measures. In the meantime a kitchen is without a piece of equipment.

Then there is the staffing costs. We’ve been told about a chef who was poached with the sole intention of raising the profile of his new employer. The brief, we’re told, was to achieve a Michelin star plus the correlating number of rosettes. The price for this? A Salary package rumoured to make him the highest paid head chef outside of London. Ok, so he doesn’t have a massive media presence – yet! But does it make financial sense? The decision must have been justified somewhere along the line, but if it was a stand alone restaurant would this salary package have been on offer – probably not.

We also know of an Executive Chef who once claimed that he had held 5 rosettes & 3 Michelin stars. How? Was he right?

No, he wasn’t . Just because he was Executive Chef at Le Meridien Piccadilly he thought that he could put these accolades on his CV. In actual fact he only over saw room service, banqueting & spa, the restaurants that were housed in the hotel were actually run by Marco Pierre White (fresh from Hyde Park with 3 Michelin stars) & Michel Rostang (with his eponymous  3 star restaurant in Paris) running the terrace.

Whilst Mr Chapman may be right for provincial hotels, in London it is a different market place, and at the moment Mr Blumenthal has been cautious with his expansion. We’re surprised that this is his first foray into London, maybe a lesson Mr Ramsay could learn (although we’ve recently heard a rumour about him looking to open an outlet in Egypt, yet to be confirmed though).

There is no doubting that the Mandarin Oriental is the place to be seen this year, with the past 2/3 months of PR being devoted to Bar Boulud and we’re sure the tail end of the year being focused on Mr Blumenthal’s new outlet (which incidentally we posted the name of it on April 23rd, a full 6 weeks before anybody else) ‘Dinner’.

In conclusion, Mr Chapman may have a point about a hotel losing some of it’s soul & in smaller hotels yes he may be right. But what about the entrepreneurial spirit? Give your guests a polished product, Wareing, Ramsay, Blumenthal, Boulud & co don’t claim to know how to run a hotel, but they do know how to run restaurants. So everybody wins.

Leave a Reply

4 thoughts on “Celebrity Chefs, well it got us thinking…

  • Please God No!

    Sounds like a touch of churlishness from Kit Chapman who has been a ceaseless self promoter for more years than I care to remember. Every business has shareholers or directors, in some cases it just happens to be your bank! On a recent visit to his once fine hotel I was underwhelmed by what used to be a place of culinary excellence. Is the Castle being left behind? Coulld explain his comments I guess?

    Whilst i am at it, in my opinion the heart and soul of any good hotel should be the people who work in it not just it’s kitchen, which is certainly one important factor. Could explain the Castle’s indifferent Tripadvisor reviews?

    I think the recent openings all bring colour to an already wonderful scene and can only raise the bar. Why should the provinces be left out of thses exciting developments? Some of the best cooking in this country started outside of London.

    Have to agree about investment though. You cannot ask for miracles and not be prepared to stump up the cash. So many broken dreams happen this way. In many ways these ‘star’ chefs only have themselves to blame though. I wouldn’t risk my reputation on a promise of a new kitchen or wonderful piece of kit (no pun intended) as we all know that a promise is a comfort to a fool!

  • Chumbles

    Interesting piece. However, I know Basques feel that they’re not part of Spain, so I guess “Carme Ruscalleda – the only woman in Spain to hold 3 Michelin stars” is OK, otherwise Elena Arzak might have a few words to say!

    A digression: I think it’s fair to say that the existence of hotel/resto combinations is going to become de rigeur in country places, simply because we will not be able to have a glass of wine or two and drive thereafter; I reckon that although that proposed new legislation hits pubs hardest, the independent country restaurant is also likely to face some problems. So it’s not surprising that long-headed restaurateurs are also looking to open in hotels – especially in places with good public transport links like city centres.

    • chefhermes

      Good point about Elena Arzak, but would you say Clare Smyth is a 3 star chef. In our opinion no she isn’t and so the same rule applies.
      Interesting debate though, may feature as a post nearer January when the red book is released in the UK. As Clare Smyth said in an interview when she became Head Chef at Royal Hospital Road & was asked about her and Angela Harnett.

      I really hate it when people compare me to her because, in all honesty, Angela is a one-star Michelin chef and I’m a three-star one

      • chumbles

        I wouldn’t honestly know, but I’m guessing that you regard the 3 rosettes as ‘borrowed’ from the headline chef – i.e. Arzak pére in Elena’s case or GR in Clare’s case? As you say, an interesting argument and not one which could easily be resolved, I think. It’s similar with Le Becasse and Murchison/Holland. Or even more explosively La Gavroche and the Waterside!!! I’m staying out of this one!