It used to be the case that a hotel restaurant was a hotel restaurant, where the food was produced on a large scale by an anonymous kitchen. You got what was on offer, take it or leave it.
But the hotel food scene is changing as fast as you can say “Oui, chef”. As global food tourism gathers pace and the all-important Millennial demographic’s appetite for ever new and exciting eating experiences continues to dominate, competition among hotels is keener than ever – and the way to attract and retain customers appears to be by pinning a high-profile chef’s name above the door of the restaurant.
Macdonald hotels recognised this early by first securing Jeremy Wares to run the kitchen at Houstoun House in Broxburn in 2012, then last year luring Tony Borthwick out of retirement to give him star billing as executive head chef at the group’s flagship Rusacks hotel in St Andrews. Borthwick’s Plumed Horse in Crossmichael regained its Michelin star after moving to Leith, and though he lost the star in 2011, he remained highly respected when he closed up soon after, so his appointment was seen as something of a coup. More recently, the hotel group headhunted Paul Tamburrini, chef-director at Martin Wishart’s acclaimed The Honours brasserie in Edinburgh, to help him launch is first solo venture, Bistro Deluxe by Paul Tamburrini, at the Macdonald Holyrood hotel in the city. It’s due to open this autumn and Tamburrini’s menu will be comprised of completely new dishes.
And this month BABA opens at the Principal Edinburgh Charlotte Square, formerly the Roxburghe. Its unfamiliar name has been no barrier to building awareness that BABA is the first out of town venture by Jonathan McDonald and Daniel Spurr, the team behind the hugely successful Ox and Finch restaurant in Glasgow’s hipster Finnieston Quarter, in partnership with Robbie Bargh and Katherine Arnold of the London-based KARBS group. McDonald and Spurr’s success has been based cautious growth, first building up a loyal customer base through their Street Food Cartel pop-ups, and developing and consolidating that with Ox and Finch. If successful, the bold west-east move looks set to shake up the hotel restaurant scene in the capital, by specifically targeting the younger international customer in search of new experiences.
Simon Willis, brand director at The Principal, nailed his take on the funky new food-in-hotels phenomenon. “The hospitality world has changed with the digital revolution where everyone has an opinion and everyone is an influencer, and reputation is all,” he told Hotel Scotland magazine.
“Key for us is that BABA is not a hotel restaurant, it’s the restaurant that happens to be part of the hotel, and that is very important.
“Most millennials see hotel restaurants as somewhere they were dragged to by their parents. But BABA is for them. We want people who delight in finding new things, and exploring new flavours. It will have its own voice, its own philosophy, its own suppliers and we’re there to support and enhance what they do. We want to become younger, and to be engaged in and by the city. What Jonathan and Daniel are doing at Ox and Finch very much fits with our thinking about where the market is.”
BABA, accessible from the street as well as from the hotel lobby, will offer newly created mezze dishes inspired by the Levant, using locally sourced ingredients where possible. Booking will be through both operations’ websites. “Food is very important to the Millennial demographic, for whom provenance, food miles, animal welfare and sustainability are the new FairTrade. You can’t fudge that,” added Willis, who has worked with trend pioneer Terence Conran.
BABA follows the example set by the Principal in Manchester, where two former DJs who ran a wildly popular restaurant called Volta were invited to run the restaurant. “If we can replicate that in Edinburgh, we’ll have a hit on our hands,” said Willis.
Of course, there’s another slightly less romantic factor involved. With low interest rates – the Bank of England’s base rate has been at emergency low levels since 2009, and last year the rate was cut to a new low of 0.25pc – investors looking for a higher return on their money and buying into the hotel sector are pinning their hopes on food and drink, and looking to engage the expertise of big names to help deliver the goods.
The ensuing business arrangement can be two- or three-way. It’s as rare for a chef to risk renting space in a hotel without external financial back-up as it is for a big investor to barge in with no food and drink expertise. More likely is that the “named” chef with his name above the door is the one whose job it is to maintain a healthy – and lucrative – relationship between the owner and the management company. In other words, a risk shared is a risk reduced.
When it works, everyone is happy.
Andrew Fairlie, whose eponymous restaurant at the Gleneagles Hotel has been a two-Michelin starred offer to international guests for over a decade, has effortlessly survived the famous hotel’s change of ownership. And Nick Nairn, who sold his own Glasgow restaurant in 2003 and launched The Kailyard by Nick Nairn at the Doubletree by Hilton Dunblane Hydro eight years ago, seems equally content. “Having a ‘named’ chef in a restaurant can certainly make a difference to a hotel that has not been particularly renowned for its food and drink,” he says, adding that the hotel now makes a very healthy income from it.
“I think having my name over the door is a draw for diners, but it wouldn’t work if I was just a badge,” he said. “It’s a busy, busy operation and I’m there every week, unlike some celebrity chefs who only make an appearance once a year.”
Understanding and experience of the key drivers of the business – quality, cost, reputation and sustainability – is what he can bring to the table.
“I’m writing the autumn menus now and we’ll have 19 new dishes. Maintaining standards and staff training are also very important and you need to be hands-on.”
From his point of view, taking on the hotel’s wider offer of breakfasts, room service, conferences and banqueting as well as the restaurant is worth the extra work.
“You have a guaranteed clientele, whereas running an independent restaurant is fraught to say the least.”
Equally, the arrangement between Cameron House Resort at Loch Lomond and its star chef appears to be mutually beneficial. Restaurant Martin Wishart Loch Lomond, in the hotel, has retained its star consistently since 2011 under head chef Graeme Cheevers who works closely with Wishart. “Having a named chef has become a point of difference at high-end hotels and having MMLL here is huge for us,” says resort director Andy Roger. “There’s no doubt that its presence adds credence to the resort, and we’re good for him in respect of the people who stay here.” They run it very much as their own business – diners book direct via the Martin Wishart website, and Cameron House’s own website shouts it out too. “So we add to their business while they add to ours.”
Diners can be residents staying for several days, as well as non-residents who come for the Michelin star experience from Bearsden, Milngavie, Helensburgh and Glasgow. Variety and choice are key to the modern hotel dining scene, says Roger, and being able to offer residents the choice of casual option right up to
fine-dining is a huge selling point. “Not everybody wants to, or can afford, to eat Michelin star quality food every evening. For them to have the choice of going the full hog and having one of the best meals in Scotland is great for us, particularly for international guests. It’s a big message for us to give out, while also exposing MW to a lucrative customer base. They get a captive audience and all that comes with it.”
Asked if he could name any disadvantages, he responded: “I can see none at all.”
But it’s not all a bed of roses. The recent low-profile departure of The Honours from Malmaison in Glasgow suggests an irreconcilable business relationship breakdown and followed the closure of Michael Caines’ at the Abode hotel in the city in 2011, the departure from Blythswood Square hotel of its acclaimed chef Dan Hall in the same year, and Gordon Ramsay’s Amaryllis at One Devonshire Gardens in 2003.
By contrast, there’s an argument for promoting talent from within. The respected Glasgow hotelier Ken McCulloch’s Dakota hotels have menus by in-house head chef Tony Tapia, and says he has always chosen to recruit, train and promote his own staff, reasoning that “good quality does the talking for you”.
Hans Rissmann, new owner of the Strathaven Hotel, agrees. “I’m not interested in working with a named chef,” he told Hotel Scotland magazine. “I prefer to work with the existing staff here and will promote Graeme Smith as head chef.” Smith cut his teeth with Billy Campbell at the Thistle Hotel, so has vital conference and banqueting experience. Rissmann – a long-term colleague of investor Peter Taylor, most recently at Glasgow’s Blythswood Square hotel – will give him support for the newly-created stand-alone restaurant.
His view is that smaller independent hotels like his, whose clientele is mainly local, don’t need a named chef. “Bigger hotels can do the star name but it would have to be a business relationship that works both ways for it to have longevity,” he said. “Both parties have to agree to work on it, otherwise it will only ever be short-term. And it’s a costly exercise if it doesn’t work out.”
One thing’s for sure. The days of bland hotel food seem destined to be consigned to the waste bin.