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Feature Wed Jun 13 2007

Besides the Castle, the Most Distinguished Address in Ireland: Part I

I arrived in Dublin and took a shuttle into the city to the Shelbourne, my home for the next month. The hotel just completed a 250-million-Euro remodel (a third of a billion American dollars) over the last two years and had reopened less than two weeks prior to my arrival. A private Irish consortium purchased it from the Bank of Scotland as a faded, aging dowager with the intention of refurbishing it to its former splendor.

Since these are investors with little or no experience of running a Five Star Grand Hotel, a condition of the sale was that they needed to bring in a management group to oversee day-to-day operations.

For 20 years.

Marriott got the contract and they in turn subcontracted the food services to Myriad Restaurant Group out of New York. Myriad, which was created by renowned restaurateur Drew Nierporent, owns Nobu, Tribeca Grill, Rubicon, Montrachet and numerous other restaurants of note. In addition to running their own restaurants, Myriad offers "a full menu of hospitality services on a consulting basis," and Drew had asked my buddy John Mooney to take over the Shelbourne Hotel as his next executive chef assignment.

John is a former Chicagoan I'd met in India at the Taj Hotel Land's End Mumbai (another Myriad client) where he was executive chef for Michel Nischan's restaurant, Pure. When he asked me if I'd be interested in being part of a "task force" for the reopening, I jumped at the chance. Over 30 specialists from all areas of hotel and restaurant operations were brought in from all over the world to help.

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Seasoned pros from Rome, London, Jaipur, Dubai, New York, Chicago and Miami in addition to some excellent local talent and some very green recruits are making this happen. Many systems need to be created and even more need to be worked out.

Some were IT guys, some Micros savants, others were banquet people or accountants or bar specialists, we even had a breakfast buffet guy come from Manhattan. John pretty much gave me carte blanche to observe and implement any changes I saw fit.

I'd say it will take six to eight weeks minimum. I signed on for a month.

The sense of history is prevalent throughout the property. Opened in 1824, the Shelbourne was adopted by Irish society and 100 years later in 1922, it gave comfort to Michael Collins and his rebels as they wrote and drafted the Constitution for the new Irish Republic in a private meeting room upstairs at the hotel. Now, I'm having meetings in that very room with an original draft of the Constitution under glass, sitting around that same table in the very chairs they did, overlooking St. Stephen's Green, the Irish equivalent of Central Park.

The amount of anticipation and interest was extraordinary. On opening day, the headline in the Irish Times read "Shelbourne Reopens." We've not had the luxury of a soft opening and it's been balls to the walls since day one. We're already doing 60,000 Euros a night, not including banquets, mostly booze out of the two historic pubs, #27 and The Horseshoe Bar, besides the Lord Mayor's Lounge and The Saddle Room restaurant.

First day was just taking care of business, cell phone, jet lag, hotel history/magical mystery tour, etc. it quickly segued into using my eyes and brain to observe and make recommendations/changes to streamline, modify or refine operations wherever needed.

The smoked salmon on the morning buffet is dry (this particularly pains me) and needs to be misted, or put out more frequently but in smaller batches, or rolled in rosettes to cut down on the amount of surface exposure to air, but then that's why our morning buffet specialist has been summoned.

The raw bar needs its mis en place (prep) taken out of plastic 1/6 pans and placed in metal 1/9 pans surrounded by ice up to the level of their contents as per HACCP (Hazardous Area Critical Control Point) regulations.

Orders called by the expediter need to be verbally responded to by the cooks or the food runners, to acknowledge they heard and to reinforce it in their own minds as well. It's not debatable. It's standard operating procedure so just do it. We're not reinventing the wheel here. What we are doing, is attempting to fine-tune the operation with an objective eye. And, to get that bird's eye perspective, I gravitate towards the Expediter's station. Best place to see what's going on, besides which, it needed considerable attention anyway.

06132007_expo.jpg

So, from the "Expo" station, I became an active participant in Saddle Room operations. In a sense, the director of meals. In my loud American baritone, which was complained about by my delicate Irish sophisticates at times, I would call out all orders on all tickets. One voice only, as more can be distracting. I would attempt to time and execute the meal as seamlessly as possible.

This is hard under the best of circumstances and frankly is one of my least favorite duties as a chef, as I despise crossword puzzles and riddles, which this unfailingly reminds me of. But in a new build-out, acting as liaison between under-trained and in my opinion under-supervised waitstaff and the back of the house, it took on an air of the absurd.

The punch list for any opening contains literally thousands of items. Some are bound to be overlooked or in need of re-prioritization. Our agenda is to tighten everything up as we see fit.

Alexander the Great had a method to his military genius. Anticipate. Observe. React. Works as well in the kitchen as it does on the battlefield. Actually, there are many similarities between the two but that would be another story.

No expense has been spared on equipment. This ex-faded glory has been tricked out with the finest Rolls Royce-status equipment I've ever, or in some cases never, had the pleasure to encounter. Only the finest crystal, silver and china are in use in the front of the house. Instantly recognizable names. And the wine cellar! Fantastic. The star of the kitchen is the Bonnet Cooking Suite from France. The telltale blue and chrome is the first thing you see in the open exhibition kitchen adjacent to the marble raw bar.

The jewel in the crown, this alone costs more than many American kitchens complete.

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Gotta give your props to the French here. They know... this is by far among the best designed and well-constructed cooking suites money can buy. Me, I've never even had the honor in over 25 years of cooking professionally.

How about 2,000 Euros a week for flowers? The gold you see in the lobby really is. Gold leaf. Not paint. The chandeliers have all been taken apart, polished and restored to their former luster. The coins on the walls, like large sculpted cameos 2-3 feet in diameter are said to be valued at a million apiece. I counted a dozen in one room alone.

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This is what all of Dublin has been anxiously awaiting. We're under a microscope without the luxury of a learning curve. Open the doors and get slammed. The hotel security force is needed to close the pubs each night. People just won't leave.

For the moment, this is the spot and we are it. Quite a legacy to live up to.

I love the multicultural aspects of a European kitchen. Mongolians, Lithuanians, Filipinos, Poles, Indians, Slovaks, Italians, Americans, Russians plus the native Irish. Good hardworking people, often with a bit of an edge, which I like and relate to.

The key staff are dedicated culinarians, the rest will become that soon enough with our prompting and instruction or fade away quickly.

One of the biggest obstacles from a service standpoint is, in my mind, cultural. As gracious as the European style of service is, it lacks in what I'd describe as a sense of urgency, both in front and back of the house, although I did witness it once when it appeared as if we'd miss last call at the Pub.

Am I being too American here? It's as if everything is in slow motion or second gear. Could it be because in Europe the bill is not tip oriented but all-inclusive, and what better motivation for service is there than more money? Not that service is wonderful in America but it is a thought.

0613207_rawbar.jpg

I'm used to the hustling pace of a busy American kitchen where we have the same amount of work but with half the staff and time. As I ride them to produce the food I need yesterday, I'm chided, "This is Dublin, mate, not Chicago."

What I need or want now comes later, via turtle.

The food at the Saddle Room is upscale chop and fish house with a right turn at the raw bar. Good food? Yes. Inspired? Not really. But considering the demographics, a wise decision. I've witnessed more "extra well done" orders in a month here than my entire prior career total.

Most of the food I've sampled outside the Shelbourne has been overcooked and under-seasoned. There's not a grain of course kosher salt (a kitchen staple in the States) to be found in the Emerald Isles. Sea salts can be nice but small grain iodized is a sacrilege in a pro kitchen. You just cannot get the same results without Morton's or Diamond Kosher salt. Period.

Back home I've been known to chastise my friends if I found their pantries naked and in need of K salt. "How can I work under these conditions?" But here where you need it most, it's non-existent. I find myself fantasizing about that little girl with the blue umbrella every time I bite into another bland food product.

Salty bitch.

The front of the house parallels the kitchen. A few seasoned pros and too much dead weight. It makes my job harder than it needs to be. Their mistakes create havoc and waste our time repeatedly. Simple things like course lines on a ticket to tell you what food is to be served when, or plate positions to tell you where that food goes once it gets there are routinely forgotten. That's how we do it folks, it's not magic. Like at home though, the good dawgs are excellent, the bad, horrible.

We spend too much time replating food they don't need yet or hustling (or trying to) food that they do need, but neglected to tell us. The same mistakes day after day. I've had more enjoyable visits to the dentist. It's irritating and frustrating.

No one likes to do things twice, especially at half speed. I'm good, but I don't read minds.

After dinner service tonight, a few of us went for a pint and some Indian. I'm not a beer drinker but around here, I'm told that would be Guinness. When in Rome, or in this case Dublin, so... decent, but I can live without it. I just never developed a taste for it and preferred the hard cider on tap.

The Indian we fancied was closed by the time we got there, so we settled at some toilet of a diner for the poorest excuse of a doner kebab run through the deflavorizing machine I've ever had.

Lukewarm gyrolike processed pressed meat product with tasteless cabbage slaw and ketchupy badness.

We were hungry. Maybe we just weren't drunk enough? This very well may be the root of the problem or at least offer some insight. This city likes to drink. Very much so. Dublin drinks. So when they do eat, the food quality doesn't matter as much. But I don't really drink much, so I'm too sober and know the food is shite (their word).

I've written a food test on the menu and will give a class to the waitstaff to reinforce the descriptions and terminology of the food. What are the four different types of oysters, where do they come from and how do they compare in taste? What comes with the tiger prawns and how many to the order? (Sautéed fennel w/ prawn stock and Irish sweet butter, two to the order.) How is the foie gras prepared? (Deglazed with brandied cherries, mounted in the pan with caramelized goat milk and garnished with sliced almonds over egg-battered brioche.)

No more coming back to the kitchen and asking. Pass the test or don't work the floor.

A waste sheet for the kitchen needs to be created and posted so I make one. Anything thrown out needs to be documented by date, item, quantity and reason. Otherwise it appears that we have 100% yield and inflates the actual food cost. It also helps us target reoccurring problem areas.

The ticket printer — or in Dublinese, "docket" printer — that as expediter I read and call out orders to the cooks to start, fire or pick up food is a nightmare. Because multiple food outlets in the hotel are being serviced by the main kitchen, certain items, crab cakes for instance, appear differently on the printer. While the Lord Mayor's Lounge gets four to the order, #27 where they are called "Mini Crab Cakes" gets two. In the Saddle Room or in Room Service you may have two or four depending on whether it's an app or entrée.

Confusing.

The idea is to streamline and simplify, not complicate what is already extremely difficult. All I want to see on the printed ticket (docket) is CRAB APP or CRAB ENTREE. Once ordered correctly, it can be fired and sent to its proper destination with minimal effort. End of discussion. In crunch time, and for that matter just about anytime, less is more. Unless you're talking about intentional excess, which I've, been known to support. After all, Oscar Wilde, one of Dublin's finest homies, once said, "Anything worth doing is worth overdoing."

I've taken it upon myself to go to each outlet and have them list whatever Micros related problems they're having so I can begin to address them with a Micros bitch ASAP. So far the list is over 70 items long. Just chipping away putting systems in place to help the overall flow, or in some cases recovery time so we may correct problems easier and more efficiently.

The system will do pretty much whatever you tell it to do. You just need to modify it to your needs. Micros set it up weeks before the opening, stuck around a couple useless days and left prior to the actual opening, which is ridiculous and is why we're experiencing this particular Hell at the moment. The manager they imparted the Micros knowledge to before they left has been ineffective at best in dealing with the issues, but I will correct that. Everyone has their priorities and now that this has become one of mine; I'll make sure it becomes one of theirs as well or I'll sick em like a pit bull.

Guaranteed.

Read Part 2.

~*~

Alan Lake has been a professional chef for 25 years and has won numerous awards, professional competitions and distinctions. He's mainly consulting now, setting up projects like kitchen design, menu development, hiring and training staff, research, etc. He has also been a professional musician most of his life, coining the term "jazzfood" to describe "solid technique based upon tasteful improvisational skills." Just like the music.

 
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Feature Thu Dec 31 2015

The State of Food Writing

By Brandy Gonsoulin

In 2009, food blogging, social media and Yelp were gaining popularity, and America's revered gastronomic magazine Gourmet shuttered after 68 years in business. Former Cook's Illustrated editor-in-chief Chris Kimball followed with an editorial, stating that "The shuttering of Gourmet reminds...
Read this feature »

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