Hotel restaurants cooking with local chefs and ingredients
By Danny King
Think globally, cook locally.
That was Journal Hotels' aim last year when it took over what had been Ian Schrager's Public Chicago, which featured the cuisine of New York-based star chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten in the hotel's Pump Room restaurant.
Desiring to forge a stronger bond with locals, Journal Hotels renamed the hotel the Ambassador Chicago (it was originally the Ambassador East), then tapped iconic Chicago-based restaurateur Richard Melman and his group to take over the 145-seat restaurant. Melman's Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises group reopened the restaurant in December as Booth One, featuring classic dishes such as lobster Louie salad and rack of lamb.
"Richard knows what Chicagoans like, and his menu in that restaurant is more like a grill room," said Journal Hotels CEO Stephen Brandman. "He knows the community, and he understands what people in different age groups want to eat during different parts of the night."
Booth One is the most recent example of an effort by smaller, higher-end hotel groups to gain both local credibility and restaurant patrons by bringing in local chefs or restaurateurs to oversee food and beverage operations.
In New York, Barry Sternlicht's 1 Hotels ecoluxe chainlet hired New York-based chef Jonathan Waxman to run 1 Hotel Central Park's Jams restaurant in 2015. Long a champion of local food sourcing, which helps the environment by reducing shipping distances, Waxman features items such as roasted Long Island duck breast and Jams' eponymous chicken dish, sourced from Goffle Road Farms in nearby Wyckoff, N.J.
"Our sourcing of product really allows the New York-centric experience," said Jason Giagrande, managing partner at his and Waxman's J Hospitality Group. "Not only is it good for sustainability, but the flavor enhancement's there because it's fresh."
For the 2014 debut of the Line Hotels chainlet in Los Angeles, parent Sydell Group turned to local food-truck maven Roy Choi to oversee the hotel's food and beverage program. True to Choi's irreverence and his only-in-L.A. mashup of Asian and Latino cuisines, his Line L.A. restaurant, Commissary, features an item called rice bowl power lunch, where diners can mix and match items like pea pesto and jalapenos with tofu or Korean fried chicken.
Not one to shy away from his "stoner-cuisine" reputation, Choi also oversees Pot Cafe, which serves dishes such as congee (a rice porridge popular in Asian cuisines) with egg and ginger.
The local emphasis is a departure from the one pioneered by many of Las Vegas's largest hotels, followed by others in cities such as New York and Miami, where Wolfgang Puck, Scott Conant and Jose Andres are among the celebrity chefs who expanded their reach and aligned themselves with hotel operators like the MGM Resorts International in Las Vegas, the Fontainebleau Miami Beach and SBE's SLS-branded properties.
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At least one celebrity chef is taking note of the local approach. Renowned for his Japanese-Peruvian cuisine, chef Nobu Matsuhisa, whose Nobu Hospitality is slated to boost its hotel count to 12 from seven this year, is infusing his hotels' menus with local touches.
London's 6-month-old Nobu Hotel Shoreditch offers such dishes as a full English breakfast that includes Japanese-style sausage, shiitake mushrooms and adzuki (a small bean) with tomato-jalapeno jam.
Meanwhile, Nobu Miami Beach's in-room-only menu includes Matsuhisa's take on the classic Cuban sandwich, which mixes Iberico de Bellota ham and Swiss cheese with takuan (pickled daikon radish) and ponzu mustard mayonnaise, all on a toasted tofu bao bun.
"There are signature dishes you do not touch," said Gigi Vega, London-based regional director of Nobu Hospitality. "But [Matsuhisa] also looks for what's new and what best represents a location."
One of the benefits of bringing in hometown chefs can be an increase in local patrons, a group coveted by hotel properties to fill seats during off-peak travel times, and because hotel guests like to go where the locals go. Most of the business at Booth One comes from clients other than guests, and at Jams, almost three-quarters of patrons come from outside of the hotel.
Hyper-local, seasonal fare can mark a departure from a hotel guest's expectations, Jams' Giagrande said, and both the hotel and restaurant try to use those opportunities to better convey 1 Hotels' emphasis on environmental awareness.
"In a standalone restaurant, if tomatoes are out of season, we just won't have fresh tomatoes," Giagrande said. "But in hotels, it's hard for people to understand that when they want a cheeseburger with a tomato on it, so we've definitely worked on communicating and telling the story of why we do things the way we do it."