• Laura

INDUSTRY INSIGHTS | Stepping Back Into The Kitchen

Hotel Executive Chef Philip Thompson is Using These 7 Techniques to Create Culinary Harmony Amongst Teams, Guests and Experiences

I [Laura Hartmann] grew up in the midwest, bouncing between our family farm in Ohio and our life in the suburbs in Missouri. Food has always been centric to my life, but growing up it was in much more of a structured way. Food was always about getting those "three squares." It was about nourishment, keeping you going, and the fare was typically a little more focused on what would stick to your ribs. Yes, you could say to this day I'm a "meat and potatoes, clean your plate" kinda gal. I can make a mean meatloaf and you better believe it means ketchup plays a starring role in the mixture and of course drizzled on top.

However, when I moved to Florida and became introduced to the hospitality industry, it didn't take long for me to start diving into a new world of exotic dishes and falling in lust with the culinary world. My first big career breaks all happened to be at hotels, where I was personally in roles where I could see the culinarians at work behind the scenes. I'd love to say it was due to the size and scale of the properties I worked at that provided such impact, but It wasn't. I've worked at properties with ~290 rooms, up to 2000 rooms, and wherever I've been, the executive chefs or the executive sous chefs and their teams have in many ways become "my people" and my muse for the work I do each day.

I've missed my people, and I've missed partnering with them on a daily basis and finding the united passion in certain projects, groups. or custom menus that we are tasked with together. I've always felt that the relationship between a hotel events team, chef, and banquets leader is such a critical trifecta for a property to emphasize being tight.

This month, like so many millions of others, I acknowledge one full year of being without a job. So to me, it's one full year of not having the privilege to work alongside my people, and my culinary team. I've been incredibly curious about what "they", industry-wide, have been up to, and how they have been re-branding offerings, changing their mindsets, and preparing for a future with live events back in action.

What are they doing to differentiate themselves?

What are they doing to maintain or create a strong culture?

How are they creating or perceiving new food trends?

While I won't be returning to my pre-pandemic property, I am gearing up for my next adventure at a new hotel in just one week as their Director of Events. So to prepare for the industry insight on what to expect from the culinary world, I turned to Executive Chef Philip Thompson for the scoop, professional guidance, and his perspective on what his peers should be doing to stay competitive and guest-centric during such an unpredictable era. To me, understanding where their head is critical to understanding how to approach leading an events department.

Most recently known for his long tenure within Hilton as an Executive Chef for a few of their corporate flagship properties, and now residing at the Hilton Aventura Miami, Chef Thompson generously offered up these seven techniques that he's been adhering to over the course of his return to work. -Laura

7 Techniques For Stepping Into the Kitchen Again as a Hotel Culinarian

From Chef Philip Thompson

1.) Focus on Developing and Motivating Your Team

One of the things that struck me right now, opening a hotel during a pandemic are the stories that every person has had over the last year of their life. Everyone has been on this rollercoaster of a year and for a lot of people, that’s been really tough. And for some people that has also meant big changes, I’ve spoken to folks who have driven Ubers, stacked shelves, helped on building sites, whatever it took to make ends meet. So my first big takeaway from the many interviews I have had with potential team members is getting to know your team and investing in them. Having been furloughed for eight months I know that feeling of stepping back in the kitchen again for the first time and it’s exhilarating but also daunting as you wonder whether you have gotten a little rusty over time. Telling people that you want to build a family here at a new hotel and they can be a part of it is a welcome relief after the struggle and training and developing people for the next steps in their career is something I have always believed in. Standup meetings and training have never been more important, understanding local rules and regulations and communicating them to the team is vital. But so is just getting the team together and talking through the current situation as it can be pretty scary for a lot of them.

"Having been furloughed for 8 months I know that feeling of stepping back in the kitchen again for the first time and it’s exhilarating but also daunting as you wonder whether you have gotten a little rusty over time."

2.) Consider Ways to Cross Utilize Staff

One of the big changes in the industry over the past year is the size of the culinary teams. Every hotel is opening/re-opening or just continuing to operate with a much-reduced team than they were a year ago. So cross-training and cross-utilizing staff are more important than ever. I’ve spoken to so many pastry cooks and pastry chefs who unfortunately are some of the first people to be cut during down periods so as a Chef how can you utilize their skill set in your kitchen.

3.) Be Open to Sourcing Creative Food Products That Help Labor Costs

As we are faced with an increasingly smaller culinary team, working with vendors to maintain costs and sourcing products that you typically would have made in-house has never been more important. I have partnered with Sous Vide specialists Cuisine Solutions on many products which offer a consistently high-quality product that negates the need for hours of prep and cooking time. Networking and brainstorming with vendors is something I find greatly beneficial, they get to talk to many different chefs in an array of operations and offer much-needed input on different ways they have seen chefs use products. I was fortunate enough to be asked to join the General Mills Hotel & Lodging Culinary Council last year and it's been a great way to work with a company to assist in tailoring their products to ways that can actually help your business. I never like to turn down a vendor that wants to show me a product because you never know when you are going to need it, even if it's something that you don’t think you will use, everything has a time and place.

4.) Stay Flexible in Your Market

As a chef, I think flexibility is an important skill to have right now. The business travel sector is returning slowly but the transient tourist sector continues to be the highest producing right now. But that means we often have to switch up our offerings, whereas we used to offer high-end products all week long now many hotels are looking at a model where they offer those products during the week and more family-focused products on the weekend. Pivoting on both pricing and products is essential so that you can capture as many guests as possible, it's almost revenue management for F&B.

5.) Offer Safe Solutions to Your Guests

Back in May of 2020, I worked with Bauscher Hepp to showcase how some of their products could be used to create a “touchless buffet” where everything was individually plated with a lid and guests could select the components of their meal without having to touch multiple serving dishes spoons etc. I think a lot of the manufacturers did a great job of pivoting and offering solutions that were both aesthetically pleasing but also offered “safe” solutions to serving guests. A year ago a lot of the sneeze guards on the market weren’t all that attractive and now there are some really great-looking solutions.

6.) Re-Imagine Your Outlets by Offering Creative Grab & Go Solutions and Take Out Options

One of the things I have spent a great deal of time working on for this hotel opening is the Coffee Shop/Grab & Go concept and how to bring that level of quality we typically offer in a sit-down dining environment to a quick service grab & go concept. Not just spending time creating really fun and tasty options for the guest but also finding the packaging that really showcases the product, the look, the feel, and the convenience. We are taking a dish we would normally serve in a high-end restaurant and producing it for a grab & go and you want the guest to have the same great experience. The In-Room dining experience is another area we can look to elevate, trying to recreate that full-service restaurant dining feel in the guest's room is an exciting challenge for chefs and opens up a lot of opportunities especially as its an area that we have seen the industry scale back on in previous years we are now starting to see an uptick in guests ordering in their room so we have opportunities to make it more streamlines through phone apps and more enhanced through greater culinary creativity. Ultimately I want my guest to be able to have the same experience in their room as they can have in the restaurant without compromising food quality.

"The In-Room dining experience is another area we can look to elevate, trying to recreate that full-service restaurant dining feel in the guest's room is an exciting challenge for chefs and opens up a lot of opportunities"

7.) Think Outside the Box With Your Banquet Experience

Catering and Events almost seems like a distant memory, but we are starting to see events coming on the horizon albeit in smaller numbers. Creating fun experiential banquet events has always been one of my favorite parts of my job so I am looking forward to the challenge that comes with balancing the creativity involved in these events whilst also operating in a safe environment. One of my least favorite sights in banquets was always a straight-line buffet so we had moved towards a more “stationed” or “pods” setup where different elements were positioned around the room this is greatly beneficial as it eases the flow of guests and allows for more social distancing. Smaller individual vessels have always been a crowd-pleaser and offer a great way to satisfy your guest's need for a product that is sealed and self-contained. I think space management in banquets is an important feature too, its much easier to adapt and social distance a group in 100k sq ft of meeting space than in 10k sq feet but its an opportunity to be creative and use spaces you wouldn’t normally have used for banquets especially outdoor spaces.

I'm [Laura Hartmann] grateful to Chef Phillip for providing his insight on how to prepare for the post-pandemic dining experience, and how to listen to your own team, and think outside the box for creating exceptional experiences for our guests.


Thanks for Reading! If you'd like to submit to be an H&F Redefined Industry Insights contributor message us at hfredefined@gmail.com

For the inspiring Innovator stories by H&F Redefined, visit our blog, and learn how furloughed and laid-off professionals from around the world are redefining themselves. We also offer Lifestyle content, Seasonal Solutions, and Industry Insights.