BE­YOND THE BUF­FET

ONCE STIGMATISED AS BLAND AND BOR­ING, HO­TEL DIN­ING IN NEW ZEALAND IS FI­NALLY COM­ING INTO ITS OWN,

Cuisine - - CONTENTS - WRITES DAVID BUR­TON.

David Bur­ton pon­ders the state of ho­tel din­ing in New Zealand

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-caneat 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.

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 pre­mium French brand Sofitel has re­cently spread its wings. Sofitel So is near­ing com­ple­tion

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.

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 wood­burn­ing 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 Ja­pane­seKorean 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 wood­fired 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 in­house 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!”

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