Spotlight on Hotel Chefs - Steve Munkley

The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 21st June 2011
Let's start Steve, if you can give us an overview of the operation, operations here at The Royal Garden Hotel. I was invited 16 years ago to apply for the position of executive chef and it was a bit fortuitous because I hadn't realised that the role was up for grabs. The hotel was closed for two years for refurbishment I was ready for a move, I'd been here at the Royal Garden as a commis chef back in the early 80s and I knew the building, I got a call from a friend "telling me the job was up for grabs. The general manager called me in on a Sunday afternoon and we had the interview in a building site. We spent 5 hours talking and luckily enough I convinced him that the man he'd chosen for the job wasn't the right one and that I should be doing it. The operation has only changed a little bit over the years but primarily we have two restaurants, a lounge area, one bar, all serving food. We have just under 400 bedrooms which has 24 hour room service, function capacity for about 800, the main room will hold 400 and then smaller rooms around the building have different amounts. What has changed over the last 15 years is our fine dining restaurant on the 10th floor. It started off as a very eclectic modern style restaurant which we really believed would work and it did, we achieved three AA rosettes, consistently from year two and held them right through but from a business perspective it really wasn't as profitable as we would like it to be, so we had to make a decision. Our parent company is from Singapore and they have a signature restaurant there called Min Jiang. It's a Chinese restaurant cooking in the Sichuan style, with specialities of Beijing Duck and Dim Sum. So we took the decision to bring this restaurant concept to England. There was a lot of serious looks around the building thinking, "˜Chinese restaurant? Five star hotel? Is it going to work?' but it has. Steve  you mentioned you were here as a commis in the early 80s and at that time there were some very, very "big chefs" around, who's been your biggest influence with your career to date? It's a tough one because lots of people have asked me this question. I mean I worked under a French chef here at the Royal Garden called Rême Fougère a great chap to work for and I was a young commis chef at the time. The Royal Garden was very much a training ground for young chefs in London. I then spent a year in Switzerland working under a chef called Franz Wild he taught me to be passionate about produce. He used to handle every ingredient he ever picked up as though it was a baby and he'd get so excited about the local farmers. In Switzerland I don't think they had the same sort of rules as us,  farmers would come to his kitchen door with produce to sell and he'd buy it. So he influenced me a lot. Going to Switzerland was very big at that time as well wasn't it? Very much. You needed to have worked in Europe somewhere. And to be honest I left England as a chef de partie and was taken on as a commis in Switzerland where I spent 12 months and was invited back as a sous chef but never got promoted while I was there. Would you still say overseas travel and experience is good for chefs today? I think as much as anything it's the culture, the fact if you go and work with a different group of people you understand a different culture and the Swiss Had a great respect for food and always made time to eat. The English are getting much better, but 20 years ago in England we didn't appreciate food like we do today but the Swiss did.  Even if you went somewhere and had a hamburger the hamburger was made from quality meat, it had great flavour, good taste, the bun was fresh. Steve  you had a fine dining restaurant here it was three rosettes, that's now become a Chinese restaurant why do you think there's been a seismic shift away from hotel restaurants? Again back in the days of Mossimann, Kromberg, all of these guys were doing a hotel chef's role but they all had stars in their restaurant why do you think that's changed? I think this has changed due to the variety of choice now available to customers in the London market. They do not want to stay in the hotel to eat they wish to go out and explore more, they have more confidence. Once upon a time you always ate safe now they are cultured to many tastes. Therefore hotels have had to react to this and bring in names or brands to encourage business either to stay in house so to speak or pull in the additional business we all strive for. Steve let's talk about your role then, you mentioned the outlets banqueting, two restaurants, , how do you divide your time up, how much of it is what I would say hands on cooking and how much of it now are you a manager? 50/50 if I'm honest with you. I predominantly spend my time in the morning doing the briefings, making sure everybody knows exactly what they're doing, where they're meant to be, what needs to be done. The rest of the morning is normally taken up with meetings or ordering. I will try and always get back onto the pass at lunchtime or run a function. I have a very good set of sous chefs that have been with me a long while and between us we all know  where our strengths are and  what we like doing so we kind of share it out and if there's something that's really important then I'll be there. Afternoons will again be meetings, dealing with any issues. Often I'll get into the butchery and do some training with the boys if I can and then it's check the pass in the evenings, make sure that if there's a function then I'll stay around but if it's just a reasonably quiet night probably out of the building somewhere between seven and eight o'clock. I do work weekends I'm not one of these chefs that never does. Steve how has the role of The Executive Chef Changed in the last twenty Years? I think the role has changed immensely, we now need to be as much a strong manager as a chef. With the ever changing legislation on Health and safety, employment law, general employee issues. Much of my time is spent dealing with this or training my sous chefs to know how to deal with what confronts them. Rightly so employees have a lot more rights now so the sous chefs need to be aware of actions they take, can in the every day operation affect issues in the future. My job is to manage very large budgets and not being on top of things can have a big influence on the figures. Would you say that the hotel is now less of a sexy environment to attract new chefs into? No. I totally disagree. Okay that's good actually. For the last 14 years I've taken on two apprentices every year. So you're not competing with the Michelin starred restaurants? No and I think that's the difference and when somebody comes to me I'm always honest with them and I tell them what we do, what I offer and what I expect from them. I don't sit there and tell them I expect you to work four days a week, 14 hours a day and don't leave your workbench. I expect probably nine, nine and a half hours a day out of them, seven when we're quiet. They will get exposure to a restaurant service at lunchtime which is a brasserie. In the evenings we turn into more fine dining, we have currently two AA rosettes, I'm aiming for three in the ground floor restaurant. They will get banqueting experience and I would like to think we're one of the better banqueting venues in London. You'll get an opportunity to work with our Arabic chefs and oriental chefs so they're going to get exposure to other cookery styles and predominantly the only area in this hotel that works split shifts is the Chinese restaurant. Everybody else is on a straight shift programme. So to some people that's really exciting. That's very attractive. If a kid is interested in a Michelin star, if he's going to go to a restaurant and he's going to work on the same section for six to nine months and do six dishes, when those chefs come to me and their limitations are that they only know how to do these small amount of dishes, to a very high standard, but I ask them to do something else and it takes them a lot longer to actually get the grasp of it. S  would your advice be to young sibling chefs to get experience of both, hotels and restaurants, before they steer themselves in one direction? Yes definitely. I think chefs need to go out there and expose themselves to different things and find out what they enjoy. There's no right way or there's no wrong way of doing it and I think youngsters should get as much exposure as possible, also international experience. I think if you are somebody that was dedicated and wanted to sit in my seat it is an invaluable experience to have gone away and worked in another country and in today's world it's anywhere, whether it's Asia,  it's the Americas, or Europe"¦ We've identified the role's changed dramatically in 20 years through lots of things that you've mentioned where do you see the role of the hotel chef going in ten years? How much do you see it changing? Well I think you're going to have two types of hotel chef. You are going to have the operations where they've outsourced so we've dampened down that level of responsibility. Do you think that's deskilling the industry? I do not think it's deskilling the industry it'll be a shame because I think good sous chefs will then be fighting for replacing the top roles and it's going to get tougher for them. Do you think salaries are going to level out? I mean salaries have been reasonably flat for a while now in hotels because of the nature of the economy basically. But also you've got all of these superstars now taking a big chunk of the budget haven't you? Depends on the contract they have, I think the future will bring two types of hotel chef, the likes of myself that have still got the whole operation to run, still responsible for a £7m budget a year, spending £1m on food. And a chef that controls a much smaller chunk of the operation either working for the company or a contract caterer brought in to manage the F&B operation. But you're in quite a small market then, you, John Williams"¦ there's not that many of you now is there and that is one of the reasons I wanted to come and see you today because you're in an ever decreasing pool of what I would call the traditional executive chef. Yeah and I think it will turn circle in the end because I think owners of buildings will look towards why are we giving so much of our profits away to somebody else, they're thinking, "˜Well I'm paying him that much why can't we get a chef that can do the same thing?' and I think they'll look to younger chefs to come in and actually be a little bit more creative in their menus. I think there'll always be establishments like this that want to be different, that want to give that personal service and to a certain extent, even take the Dorchester with Henry, Henry may have two restaurants to outsource but he's got a fantastic grill room, he's got a ballroom to die for and now he's taken on responsibility of the old Playboy Club as well to oversee. And his banqueting food is phenomenal. Yeah and so at the end of the day there are enough establishments in London Do the chefs in London hotels network? Very much so. Do you cross pollinate staff? It would be lovely to sit here and say yes that happens. It doesn't not happen because we don't want it to. In reality the chefs themselves come to me and say, " I want to have a move, let's talk about where I think I should move," and then we analyse where their strengths and where their weaknesses are and knowing the different operations I'll recommend to them that they go and do a trial or they go and spend some in an operation. So on that basis yes and I wouldn't say we actively do it because to be honest we want to keep the staff we've got. Last but by no means least then every chef of every era always says that the next generation of chefs isn't as strong as they were. Do you think that's true or do you think it's down to the leaders to just train them better? The difference I would say is kids of today, and I've got four children of my own, think that work/life balance should be important. I came into this industry knowing that I was going in to work bloody hard environment and I didn't think about work/life balance. So that's one aspect of it. They've got it right and we got it wrong but they're saying to me, "Chef I'll give you nine or ten hours hard work but I don't want to be doing double shifts." Which is fair. Yes it's fair comment. I really do think here at the Royal Garden we've really worked hard over the last ten years to reduce chefs working hours that we're there or thereabouts. That has partly come about by the way technology has moved forward with the equipment we use, it's fantastic and I think our banqueting food now is far better than it was 15 years ago because I now understand how to use this equipment more effectively. The knock on effect of this is working with technology helps reduce the need for labour costs. This also brings with it the consequence of always trying to strive to reach excellence every time. I think that young people are not necessarily exposed to so much training because we are able to buy things pre-prepared. That's an element which I get a little bit frightened of. It goes back to outsourcing, outsourcing the preparation side of things so again I take every opportunity where it fits to bring stuff in from its raw state and I had a great opportunity last year to take about 14 of them to an abattoir and show them as cruel and as gruesome as it may seem literally from the field outside to being in the fridge in pieces and it was an abattoir that let us get very close and see everything that was going on and they were just absolutely blown away I think it's just different and all chefs like me have got to do is make sure that within their training, within what they do they still don't lose them original values and we take them back to basics wherever possible and make sure they've got that core values, that core training. I 100% believe in apprenticeships. I have, as I said, two or three every year. One of my Executive sous chefs 14 years ago was an apprentice with me and he's now my number two and he's a fabulous guy. What's his name? Paulo Olivera he literally went from being a kitchen porter to running all the banqueting operation for the hotel, I can rely on him entirely. Great success. Well listen thank you for your time. Thank you very much indeed.

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The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 21st June 2011

Spotlight on Hotel Chefs - Steve Munkley