July 29, 2015

Having recently taken over the restaurant Julia inside New Mexico's La Posada de Santa Fe, Chef Todd Allen Hall is more than willing to illustrate his long-standing love of authentic Southwestern cuisine through dishes such as corn bread-crusted oysters with Hatch chile marmalade, tuna and lobster claw parfait with Navajo fry bread and even jalapeno sorbet.

There's one thing the two-time James Beard Award winner won't do, though: "I don't put flower petals on all of my plates," he said.

Stodgy surroundings and conservative menu items catering to the widest possible demographics are on the way out at upscale hotels in many U.S. cities, as more hoteliers look to partner with high-profile chefs who offer a distinct culinary point of view and little in the way of neutrality.

With hotel dining-room revenue at many U.S. hotels either flat or down in recent years, at a time when room demand, bar sales and even banquet sales continue to grow, more upscale hotel operators are turning to the ambitious dining concepts of higher-profile chefs, some of which are familiar to millions via appearances on cooking-competition shows on networks such as Food Network and Bravo.

The trend has long been in place in cities such as Las Vegas, New York and Los Angeles as well as through cruise-ship operators such as Royal Caribbean International (which has teamed up with Jamie Oliver) and Carnival Cruise Line (Guy Fieri, Thomas Keller).

The idea of co-branding accommodations with a high-profile chef is gaining currency this year in the U.S. outside of those three cities and picking up popularity in smaller hotel markets and even resort towns, with a number of higher-profile chefs hooking up with hoteliers this year alone.


This January, Scott Conant, a frequent judge on the Food Network show "Chopped" who in 2009 opened his Scarpetta restaurant at the Fontainebleau Miami Beach, doubled down in South Florida by debuting Corsair by Scott Conant at the Turnberry Isle Miami resort.

This spring, San Diego's Fairmont Grand del Mar, whose Addison restaurant has been helmed by Relais & Chateaux grand chef William Bradley since its 2006 opening, debuted a guest chef program, in which high-profile regional chefs work one night with Bradley to create seasonal dinners. Bradley debuted the program in April by bringing in Los Angeles-based, Michelin Star-winning chef Josiah Citrin to work with him, and he is planning to continue the guest-chef program indefinitely.

In June, La Posada de Santa Fe, which operates under Starwood Hotels' Luxury Collection, brought aboard Hall, who combines the national acclaim of two James Beard Awards with a hotel-restaurant resume that dates to 1984 at Dallas' Loews (now Hilton) Anatole.

And by the end of summer, Commune Hotels & Resorts' Joie de Vivre division will debut on the East Coast with a Miami hotel called the Hall, which will feature a restaurant helmed by Spike Mendelsohn, who has appeared on both Bravo's "Top Chef" and the Food Network's "Iron Chef America."

That trend was also slated to gain steam in Washington next year, when the Trump International Hotel Washington, D.C. was set to open with two restaurants helmed by celebrity chefs. As of mid-July, those plans had been scuttled, when Jose Andres, who has appeared on "Iron Chef America" among other TV shows and frequent "Chopped" judge Geoffrey Zakarian backed out of their agreements with the hotel operator in response to disparaging remarks hotel namesake Donald Trump made about Mexicans and illegal immigrants during the announcement of his presidential candidacy.

Granted, with the Food Network and Bravo featuring shows like "Chopped," "Iron Chef America" and "Top Chef," much of this trend is mirroring the restaurant industry, in which chefs have gained exposure and are brands unto themselves.

Spike Mendelsohn is slated to open the restaurant at Miami’s the Hall hotel in late summer.
Spike Mendelsohn is slated to open the restaurant at Miami’s the Hall hotel in late summer.

"Any town with a decent restaurant market has a celebrity-chef restaurant or two," said Mary Chapman, senior director at the Chicago-based food-service consultant Technomic. "They have their local following, and some national exposure goes a long way."

Still, the combination of greater media exposure among chefs and a more sophisticated dining approach among travelers is pushing some hoteliers to abandon the traditionally conservative approach of hotel restaurants and trust chefs with more ambitious food programs.

"The industry is responding to an audience that not only desires but expects a culinary approach that's unique," said Lana Trevison, who will oversee the Hall and its partnership with Mendelsohn as director of operations of Commune Hotels & Resorts' East Coast region. "Travelers are becoming more selective about their experience."

As a result, hoteliers in more cities are partnering with high-profile chefs in order to address food and beverage programs that to many have been a bane to their operations. Hotel restaurants have long had the stigma of being loss leaders and necessary evils that existed to ensure guests had an on-site option for morning or off-hours dining, and the statistics bear out that reputation.

According to a PKF Hospitality Research study of more than 1,600 full-service U.S. hotels, annual revenue generated by those hotels' restaurants fell 5.2% per year between 2007 and 2014, lagging the 0.6% average annual increase in total hotel revenue during the same time period. And hotel restaurants continue to lag other departments as travel spending has recovered. Last year, hotel-restaurant revenue was up 1.9%, again lagging the 6.2% total revenue increase for hotels, according to PKF.

"Hotel restaurants are one of the hardest things to open, because the stigma is that hotel restaurants suck," said Hall. He emphasized the importance of appealing to the local population by estimating that 50% of his restaurant's guests come from outside of the hotel during the weekends and 75% during the week. "You can have 100% occupancy in a 400-room hotel, and the restaurant may only have 20 guests."

Elizabeth Blau, CEO of Las Vegas-based hospitality consultant Blau+Associates, said that such a gap speaks to both the innate challenges of a hotelier running a restaurant and the marketing opportunity such well-known chefs present.

"When you bring in a celebrity chef, you're not just bringing in a name; you're bringing in a restaurateur," Blau said. As a former executive with Mirage Resorts (now MGM Resorts International), she helped lure high-profile chefs such as Todd English, Jean-Georges Vongerichten and Michael Mina to Las Vegas' Bellagio.

"Where the [hotel and restaurant] businesses seem similar, running them is apples and oranges," she said.

Indeed, such agreements suggest that the trend of hotels adding chef-driven restaurants is moving far beyond the trifecta of North American cities (Las Vegas, New York and Los Angeles) when it comes to the celebrity chef-hotelier marriage.

Las Vegas gave birth to the hotel-restaurant celebrity chef concept in the mid-1990s when high-profile chefs such as Wolfgang Puck, Charlie Trotter and Emeril Lagasse opened restaurants inside hotels along the Strip. Since then, everyone from Bobby Flay to Mario Batali, Joel Robuchon and Tom Colicchio has opened hotel restaurants there, with Food Network personality Giada De Laurentiis opening her first restaurant, at the Cromwell, last year.

Las Vegas was also home to the first Nobu Hotel, a Japanese-themed property named for celebrity chef Nobu Matsuhisa that debuted within Caesars Palace in 2013.

Meanwhile, in New York, Daniel Boulud has made his name, in part, by running well-regarded restaurants inside or adjacent to New York hotels for more than two decades, while Robuchon, Alain Ducasse and Geoffrey Zakarian debuted hotel restaurants within the city in 2006, 2008 and 2010, respectively. Most recently, Andres announced earlier this month that the SLS New York, which is slated to open next year, will include one of the chef's Bazaar outposts.

Puck is widely considered to be the original celebrity chef, and in the Los Angeles area, his name is on restaurants at both the Hotel Bel-Air and the Ritz-Carlton, Los Angeles at L.A. Live, in addition to his Cut steakhouse at Beverly Hills' Beverly Wilshire hotel.

Andres' Bazaar opened at the SLS Beverly Hills in 2008, the same year Gordon Ramsey opened his Boxwood restaurant in the London West Hollywood hotel. And a year later, Thomas Keller opened Bouchon Beverly Hills adjacent to that city's Montage luxury hotel. That property also boasts Scott Conant's Scarpetta.

Of course, the restaurant business is known for both its high mortality rate and its rapid chef turnover, and chef-driven restaurants haven't been immune to such trends, especially when it comes to hotel-restaurants in some of the country's most competitive markets.

In New York, Robuchon's L'Atelier closed in 2012 after six years in business. That same year, Ducasse closed Adour after four years. And earlier this year, Ramsey shuttered his West Hollywood locale after eight years of operations.

Outside of those markets, other examples abound. For example, Eric Ripert, whose television appearances include four seasons as a "Top Chef" judge and repeated visits to Anthony Bourdain's shows, is going on his seventh year running Blue by Eric Ripert at the Ritz-Carlton Grand Cayman, but in 2012 he cut ties with the restaurants at the Ritz-Carlton hotels in Washington and Philadelphia.

Chef Todd Allen Hall.
Chef Todd Allen Hall.

The prolific Vongerichten opened Bank restaurant at Houston's Hotel Icon in 2004 but left that post three years later. By 2009, he had opened Market restaurant at the W Boston, but that operation shuttered in 2013.

Then there's Washington, where the mix of high-profile chefs Jose Andres and Zakarian and an even higher-profile hotelier in Trump had turned combative earlier this month. Zakarian in particular took issue with comments last month by Trump that the chef said violated his "personal core values." The Trump Hotel Collection responded to Andres by threatening to sue him for damages equal to unpaid rent for the chef's 10-year lease term. As for Zakarian, Trump Hotels noted that the chef committed a nonrefundable deposit of almost $500,000 that the hotelier indicated it had no intention of returning, should Zakarian back out.

Regardless, some of the higher-profile chefs working outside of the largest U.S. hotel markets this year are already saying their work has been well-received. Todd Allen Hall, who quipped that Julia's predecessor, Fuego, offered cuisine that "was slightly upscale from Taco Bell," estimated that his average dinner covers have doubled since taking over, while the check average has surged to about $50 a head from $19.

And William Bradley noted that the dinner he put on with Citrin at Addison, which charged $275 a person, not including an additional $200 a person to include wine pairings, sold out of its 70-diner limit.

"It showed that we can bring more culinary notoriety to the San Diego region," said Bradley, whose upcoming guest chefs will include James Beard Award winner Barbara Lynch in October.  

Additionally, the trend continues to spread this year to some of the most visited cities outside the U.S.

Matsuhisa, whose Nobu restaurant opened in Dubai's Atlantis the Palm resort in 2008, opened the Nobu Hotel Manila in May.

And last month, Richard Sandoval, who's helmed La Hacienda by Richard Sandoval at Arizona's Fairmont Scottsdale since 2010, was brought in to oversee the four restaurants at the Fairmont Mayakoba on Mexico's Riviera Maya. Also debuting this month were two restaurants at the Four Seasons Resort Dubai helmed by Vongerichten.

"Hotels finally realize that they do need top-end chefs, and not just at the Ritz or Fairmont," Hall said. "They've got to have someone they can market. Chefs are more famous than they've ever been."