Beyond the buffet: the rise of New Zealand's hotel food scene
Ever since the first licensed restaurants were allowed to open in 1961, we've turned our collective back upon hotels, typecasting them as safe but not very exciting places to eat. However, this stigma may soon fade as our burgeoning hotel industry offers ever more sophisticated choice.
Consider the stereotype of the hotel executive chef. He wears the classic tall hat and is somewhat rotund, if not downright fat. Striding about the kitchen with a clipboard, he grunts stern orders in some undefinable central European accent. His uniform, festooned with pens on one sleeve, is ironed and spotlessly white, mainly because he spends all day in his office doing paperwork. Most days he's out the door by 3pm.
He's very efficient on costings and profit margins, but low in creativity. Unsurprisingly then, his all-you-can-eat buffet selection is only slightly fresher than the concepts that drive it.
While this may no longer necessarily be the reality, it's still the perception many New Zealanders have of hotel chefs.
At one time the archaic licensing laws in this country meant you had to dine at hotels to legally drink wine with your meal. Hence, ever since the first licensed restaurants were allowed to open in 1961, we've turned our collective back upon hotels, typecasting them as safe but not very exciting places to eat.
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However, this stigma may soon fade as our burgeoning hotel industry offers ever more sophisticated choice.
Tourism has boomed in recent years and New Zealand Trade and Enterprise predicts that by 2022 expenditure will increase by 65 per cent. Hence, they say New Zealand needs 26 new hotels to cope with increased visitor demand over the next decade.
Already, three prestigious international hotel chains are in the process of bringing luxury to these shores – Park Hyatt, Sofitel and QT. Almost by definition, all three will be expected to deliver superior cuisine.
The foundations for Auckland's $200 million Park Hyatt are currently being laid on the old Team New Zealand site at the heart of the Wynyard Quarter. Its Beijing-based owners, Fu Wah International Group, also have plans for a second $300 million hotel and apartment complex a couple of blocks away.
In Auckland, Wellington and Queenstown, the French brand Sofitel has recently spread its wings. Sofitel So is nearing completion in the old Reserve Bank in Customs St, Auckland, featuring a luxury rooftop restaurant.
Meanwhile there's Lava, the high-end restaurant at Sofitel's other Auckland property, Sofitel Auckland Viaduct Harbour. Executive chef is Sebastian Hindrich, who for seven years headed the kitchen at The French Café.
His current menu, with mains priced from $40-$46, includes seared scallops (with sweetcorn, pancetta, parmesan, black truffle and tarragon) and Savannah eye fillet (with cheeks, parsnip, confit carrots, Pedro Ximénez and sorrel butter).
Before being closed by fire soon after it was launched late last year, the Jardin restaurant at the new Sofitel Wellington was magnificent: you sat at enormous, plush banqettes beneath a wrap-around mural of feminine flowers, framed within iron grilles as if to emphasise the masculine wood-burning grill (perhaps a little more fiery than Sofitel might have liked).
Recently Australia's hip, quirky QT Hotel chain bought Chris Parkin's equally offbeat Museum Hotel and rebranded it the QT Museum Hotel Wellington. They've spent $12 million refurbishing the foyer and the rooms, but apart from tweaking the paint scheme and re-upholstering and re-gilding the Louis Quinze chairs, they have left the one-hat Hippopotamus Restaurant alone, allowing chef Laurent Loudeac to maintain his creative freedom.
"Never once have I told Laurent what to do or when to arrive," swears the incoming GM Steven Oakley.
This was Chris Parkin's approach too, which possibly explains why Hippo, unusually for a hotel restaurant, has always set trends with its modern French style rather than followed them. Accordingly, on weeknights 70 per cent of its customers are from outside the hotel, climbing to 90 per cent during the weekends.
Oakley is making his mark by extending into the carpark with Hot Sauce, a small Japanese-Korean tapas and cocktails bar.
At QT Queenstown, meanwhile, while the accommodation side of the hotel is not due to open until later this year, they have already launched Bazaar Interactive Marketplace featuring seafood, cheese and charcuterie bars, Asian and grill stations, Italian wood-fired pizza ovens and a dessert bar. Chefs stand at these stations and chat with customers as they cook.
One solution to the hum-drum hotel restaurant problem, championed most famously by Gordon Ramsay in London, is for a premium hotel to bring in a named chef. This has already been shown to work at SkyCity in Auckland, where Peter Gordon has put his name to The Sugar Club and Bellota and Sean Connolly has given his to The Grill and Gusto at The Grand. Al Brown, meanwhile, heads up Depot and The Federal Deli, while Nic Watt is at the helm at Masu and Huami.
In Wellington, the recently opened Park Hotel has gone a step further and partially contracted out its restaurant. Sterling Woodfire Grill is owned by the hotel in conjunction with operators Simon Pepping and Stephanie Myers of the well-respected Egmont Street Eatery. Chef Ben Convery is able to put his own spin on things in addition to bowing to the constraints imposed by unadventurous business travellers. In other words, there's "pork fillet, tuatua, popcorn bisque, rainbow chard" in addition to the rack of lamb.
Pepping says guest breakfasts are charged to the hotel, albeit at a low rate, while room service, which entails training hotel night staff, is fully charged for.
Hotels face a conundrum – they need to offer house guests somewhere to have breakfast, lunch and dinner, but seeing empty breakfast bars at dinner only reinforces the customer stereotype of hotel restaurants as boring places.
However, hotels with a small breakfast trade can easily disguise their buffet table, and even where breakfast is important, solutions have been found. Wellington's InterContinental recently refurbed their Chameleon restaurant, cleverly hiding the breakfast bar behind a long panel of marble facing the kitchen pass, and it has received a hat in this year's Cuisine Good Food Guide (see page 54 of the guide that came with this issue).
So great hotel restaurants do exist, and some, like Pescatore at The George in Christchurch, have maintained high standards for decades. Furthermore, there's a layer of haute cuisine spread right across New Zealand's luxury country lodges, albeit inaccessible to locals with average incomes.
Interestingly, New Zealand's prejudice against hotel restaurants is by no means shared the world over – in cities like Madrid, Barcelona, Hong Kong and Singapore, certain hotel restaurants enjoy very high status. In many ways, hotels offer trainee chefs the perfect opportunity to discover their niche, doing the rounds of the formal restaurant, the casual coffee shop and banquet catering. Moreover, these lucrative income strands offer hotels financial scope for sending chefs off to competitions, and more importantly for in-house culinary experimentation, which is sorely needed.
But while hotel restaurants do need to attract more outside talent, such as chef Paul Limacher at Chameleon, even old-school hotel chefs could turn their own situation around.
According to Laurent Loudeac, the solution is simple: "They need to get out of the office and spend more time in the kitchen!"