Nobu Restaurant, One&Only Cape Town

The greatest hotelier/chef partnership in history was the one between César Ritz and Auguste Escoffier. Back in the late 19th century the duo were responsible for opening London’s Savoy Hotel and Paris’ Ritz, among other properties. Unfortunately, the next 100 years were pretty much a steady decline from those lofty heights.

Hotel restaurants, rather than the grand temples of gastronomy that they once were, became grim, depressing refuges for the most rubbery of chicken and the saddest pasta primavera, their existence entirely dependant on the captive audience of unfortunate guests.

Recently, however, hotels have begun to see their restaurants as something more than a way to squeeze a few more dollars out of their clientele and are once again turning to the world’s most celebrated chefs to run restaurants of real ambition and culinary sophistication. Combining beautiful public spaces with luxurious rooms, exquisite food and impeccable service, a new generation of restaurateurs and hoteliers are joining forces to create brands that are greater than the sum of their parts.

The same core values

These days travellers can often visit a city’s hottest and most fashionable restaurant without even having to leave the hotel. Indeed, being a guest of the hotel is sometimes the best way to secure a reservation, and it’s not only travellers who benefit from this state of affairs. Ideally, the property becomes a draw for locals as well, further establishing the brand’s connection to the community.

I recently visited the luxurious One&Only Hotel in Cape Town. When the property first opened they spared no expense, bringing international celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay in to open his first restaurant in Africa. The partnership never took off, however, and he was eventually replaced by a relatively unknown local chef by the name of Reuben Riffel. The young chef’s commitment to local produce, suppliers and knowledge of the local market has translated into a hotel restaurant that’s as popular with the locals as it is with visitors.

David Burke Kitchen and The James Hotel Lobby

On a trip to New York last month I stayed at The James in New York and was impressed by how independent the restaurant seemed from the hotel. It has its own separate entrance, in addition to one seemingly just for hotel guests.

Where the hotel lobby exudes a kind of plush, Scandinavian minimalism, the restaurant resembles a chic country barn. Sims Foster, vice president of restaurants and bars at Denihan Hospitality Group, says that such considerations are fundamental in creating a strong partnership. Foster says that, when done properly such an arrangement “should only increase the value of both brands. It’s about matching the right chef/operator with the hotel brand. They should have the same core values and approach to hospitality, and the brands, while hopefully unique unto themselves, will play to the same strengths.”

A three-legged stool

Four Seasons luxury hotels have always done a good job of incubating talent within their own restaurants, but even they are starting to branch out by adding bold-name chefs to their properties. Their partnership with Daniel Boulud at the upcoming Toronto property is their biggest foray into this arrangement to date. Chef Boulud will be opening a branch of Cafe Boulud, (the third in addition to New York and Miami) and will operate an as-yet-unnamed bar in the same property.

Chef Daniel Boulud

“The selection of the chef is always a collaboration between the owner of the property, ourselves as operators and the chef themselves,” says Guy Rigby, Four Seasons’ vice president for food and beverage in the Americas. “It’s a three-legged stool if you will. The relationship has to work for all parties.”

As Foster points out, a popular chef at a successful hotel restaurant can end up becoming the face of the hotel, so hospitality brands need to choose their partners wisely. But if it’s the right fit, these celebrity chefs can be powerful brand advocates.

“The chef should be encouraged and rewarded to be independent in thinking, marketing and getting the word out,” he says. “Two strong independent brands that complement each other well [are] powerful.”