Andrew Bennett MBE, Food and Beverage Director, Sheraton Grand

The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 8th October 2010

Andrew Bennett MBE is the Food and Beverage Director at the Sheraton Grand in London.

Andrew, thank you very much for your time today. I guess the first question is - what was the rational behind moving from Executive Chef to F & B?

Sheraton Grand London
Sheraton Grand in London

Someone in HR here, who is a great supporter of mine, suggested that I should apply for the job, which I initially laughed at because I have always considered myself really as a cook rather than a glorified Executive Chef but she believed in me and said I should apply for the job. So, like all chefs, my competitive spirit is such that I was then determined to get the job as I haven't been turned down for a job that I have applied for to date, so that is really how it all came about. And it was quite a scary thought really because I am not very good on computers; I'm still not very good on excel spreadsheets.

I think that is true of a lot of Chefs, though.

Yes, but I think modern day Chefs are a lot better because they are bought up with computers. Numbers used to frighten the life out of me.

I noticed you are still in your whites, as well.

Yes, but I don't spend a lot of time in the kitchen.

Is that a comfort thing?

Yes, but why not? Why should I be in a suit? I think it's a bit like going to the Doctors, you have that little bit of respect for the guy sitting behind the desk; I think people tend to think "Well, at least he must know what he is talking about." I had no urge to wear a conventional suit - but this is my suit. I am still responsible for the kitchen and have to oversee that department and go in there, every day. So I think it works and I don't think there is anything wrong with me still being in whites. Ralph Porciani, the Executive Chef and Food & Beverage Manager at Turnberry does it too. It doesn't matter what you are wearing.

Absolutely. How did you manage the transition process? You stop being something that you have been for a number of years; there is often an accusation thrown at Chefs, that a number of them hide behind their whites and it's a little bit "Well, not many people understand the kitchen" so the Chef is quite comfortable in that environment. Move front of house and you have got a whole load of different skill sets to get your head around - how do you go about it?

I think the initial thing that I found comforting, or encouraging, is that suddenly you are not just responsible for 35 people but for 70/80 people and you look at it that everybody is treated equally at all levels. And I think that was my first thought - this has got to be a level playing field. In my new role I could see whole picture from 360 degrees, so it was breaking those walls down; breaking those departments down and working as one team.

Yes. I'm not a rocket scientist, it was just common sense. And we adopted this strategy of "One Team; One Rota", so our associates could be work across the areas we require, so we became very cost effective and more profitable as a result. Although that wasn't my initial goal, it was a case of looking at a situation with a fresh pair of eyes, and to me it was just common sense. We got off to a great start. I surrounded myself with people who are very good on Excel spreadsheets, who work with numbers, and slowly I became more confident with how to deliver those numbers. It was brilliant really, I was 49 or 50 when I took this job and it was like a breath of fresh air. I was very lucky to have a very senior team in the kitchen, who had been with me for a number of years and they deserved that chance to get me out the kitchen; they are all in their thirties and forties and they need to express and progress themselves as well. So it gave me a breath of fresh air and it also gave them a breath of fresh air. It gave them more longevity with their careers within the group.

How did Front of House see the Chef, for want of a better word, who was now going to be their boss?

Well, like a lot of Chefs I am quite blunt and I think it was a bit of a change for them, if I am honest. As I was probably viewed with some apprehension at first but the positive outcome was we worked better as a team and a lot of barriers are eliminated as there is only one point of contact.

Was there any - "what do you know about bedrooms?"

Straightaway we started a weekly meeting where everybody was involved. It very much a meeting about "Well, talk me through that..." "Describe how you do that particular ..." "How do you run your department ..." and you just ask questions; go through it and understand and learn from them. It's a two way street. I'm learning; year three in this role and I am still learning. They understand that I am here to move the departments forward.

Andrew, why do you think it is, predominantly in the four or five star market, that the Director of F & B role has come about? I mean, it has been trialled by various groups, if we are honest it has probably been just a cost saving exercise. Do you think it is important to have a strong team and structure around you to be able to move into that role as opposed to "Let's combine two roles and reduce it to one person and save momey?"

I think if it's a cost saving exercise then you are going about it the wrong way. That is totally the wrong way to look at it. You have got to have the right person to do that; the right personality to do that because you are now responsible for a lot of people. You have got to become inspiring to them. We are surrounded by young people - a lot of my managers are in their mid-twenties and you have got to be very inspirational and that is where you gain the respect because you have got experience; you have got that knowledge and if you are quite creative, which most Chefs are, I think you can pass that down and it is very uplifting for them.

Do you think it has now given Chefs in a certain size of operation something else to aspire to? Because there must come a time as an Executive Chef that there is only so many banqueting menus you can write. Do you get to the point where you are, in the nicest possible way, kicking your heels a bit?

Yes, I think you could be. It probably came to that point for me. Starwood is a great company to work for; the opportunities within the group are immense - there are over 1000 properties throughout the world; you could travel, but it's not for everybody. I happened to enjoy it here and my days just flew by; my months, my years just flew by and I was continually learning every day but somebody over the road believed that I should give it a go. But I think the day you lose that enthusiasm and you are just coming to work because the money is great and the benefits are great you are just fooling yourself.

Have the group looked at your role and taken that as a blueprint and rolled it out elsewhere?

I wasn't the first to do it. Ralph was the first one to do it at Turnberry, to my knowledge, so I took his advice initially. Is it a blueprint? Yes, maybe. A couple of other people have gone that route within Starwood's North West Europe division. I think it is a growing trend but it's not just because you are a Chef you naturally fall into that role - I don't believe that but this position has given me confidence to stand up and do things. I am part of the Food and Beverage Council for the division - that's amazing, I have been able to travel and we have set up and F & B Academy and it's a great sharing opportunity. But if you had asked me to do that three years ago I would have crawled under the table and said "No thanks!". So I continue to learn. It has been a great opportunity for me.

Fantastic. Last but by no means least; are you still protective over the kitchen? Is there a case of you can take the Chef from the kitchen but you can't take the kitchen from the Chef?

To a degree, but I let Tony Fitt manage the kitchen, he has got to be his own boss. He has been here eight or nine years and he is learning how to motivate his own staff; I guide him and I still do the appraisals but they manage themselves. I don't do a lot of menu writing any more. They are old enough, big enough and wise enough to do that themselves. There always has to be a focus; a goal - maybe Skills for Chefs; last week it was cooking with the kids; next week it's the Charity event in October and so on. There has to be a target - it's good to have a little bit of stress, those butterflies in your tummy, it keeps you focused and moving on.

Andrew, thank you very much for your time. It has been wonderful to talk to you.

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The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 8th October 2010

Andrew Bennett MBE, Food and Beverage Director, Sheraton Grand