What happens when a culinary tastemaker is handed the reins of a young culinary empire with deep pockets? We're about to find out.
— Deanna Ting
As far as executive titles go in the hotel industry, it’s rare to find that of a chief culinary officer. But that’s exactly what Michael Ellis, a former chef and the former international director of the Michelin Guides, became last September.
Although Ellis’ move to Dubai-based luxury hotel group Jumeirah as chief culinary officer may have been unprecedented, he said he was moved to take the position because of the opportunity to transform an entire brand.
“[Jose Silva, the CEO of Jumeirah Group] invited me for lunch in Paris and told me a little bit about the vision he had for making the culinary experience one of the cornerstones of what the Jumeirah product differentiation would be,” Ellis explained. “It really piqued my curiosity.”
Although initially “hesitant,” he said that “the more I looked and the more I found out about what Jumeirah was about and what Jose’s vision was, the more I really got interested.”
Since joining Jumeriah, his first order of business has centered around Dubai.
“A good half of our hotels are in Dubai or the Middle East, but especially in Dubai. Of the 19 properties, we currently have about half that are wholly owned and about half that are under management contract. The ones that are fully owned are mostly in Dubai where we have six hotels, with almost 3,000 rooms and over 60 food and beverage outlets.”
Not all Jumeriah Group’s hotels and brands are necessarily luxury, either. In 2018, the company launched an affordable lifestyle brand called Zabeel House by Jumeirah, and by the end of this year, it plans to debut a new upper upscale lifestyle brand, tentatively called District.
Ellis will have to scale things accordingly for different brands and locations as he meticulously investigates menu items, just as he used at to the Michelin Guide. What he’s found so far, however, has surprised him — in a good way.
“One thing I was positively surprised about was that there’s really nothing broken. The overall level of the F&B [food and beverage] offering at Jumeirah was very good.”
Now, all that’s left is to build a Michelin-worthy hotel and dining brand. And for Ellis, that starts with the ingredients, cooking techniques, “harmony and equilibrium in the flavors,” and in consistency — or what CEO Silva describes as “amazing basics.”
“We want our guests to be able to say, ‘Wow. This is the best club sandwich I’ve ever had,'” Ellis said. “We want to basically want to spoil any future club sandwiches they ever have because ours will be the reference.”
The Modern-Day Hotel Restaurant
The symbiotic relationship between restaurants and hotels has never been stronger, he added.
“Because the hotel industry is so fragmented, I think everybody has come to the realization that the F&B offerings are a key, integral part of the hotel’s offering. You can’t separate the two,” Ellis said.
Whether a hotel decides to outsource its dining, or call in a celebrity chef of a third-party operator, as long as the restaurant is a destination unto itself, it can succeed.
“I think the holy grail for a hotel, well, certainly a luxury hotel, is to have a dining establishment, a restaurant, that is a destination,” Ellis said. “In other words, people come to that dining destination whether they’re an in-house guest or they’re staying in the city somewhere else, or a local resident. They come to that restaurant because it’s the destination. They want to go there.”
He continued, “In the past, hotel restaurants were very much people ate there because it was convenient. They were staying in the hotel they didn’t want to go out, but now we’re really seeing the arrival of the destination hotel restaurant.”
Ellis noted the success Jumeirah Group CEO Jose Silva previously had as the general manager of the Four Seasons Hotel George V, which has the three Michelin-starred Le Cinq.
“At the end of the day, ideally, you want your F&B to become a competitive advantage,” Ellis said, noting that he hopes guests choose to stay with Jumeirah because they “know that the food offering there is going to be the best.”
Technology’s Growing Role in Dining
Ellis also wants to be able to use technology to learn more about his diners, and to use that data to streamline costs and improve menus.
“I think it’s extremely important to know that when a customer comes into one of our restaurants, that we’re able to say ‘Oh, good evening Mr. McElroy. We’ll make sure that you have gluten-free pasta tonight,'” Ellis said. “Or ‘We’ll make sure that there’s no onions in your food.’ [It’s knowing] those type of things so that the client knows we recognize them, that we personalize their transactions.”
He added, “I think there are a lot of things that the data can show us, that will enable us to both make the experience a better one, but also make our overall business more efficient.”
Part of this tech-based strategy revolves around loyalty programs, not only for hotel guests but for diners as well.
“I think a [restaurant loyalty program] would be something that we want to get going and in the expat community as well, to bring Dubai locals into our restaurants, and drive that understanding of what they want,” he said.
Defining What It Means to Be ‘Local’ in Dubai
Having a large majority of Jumeriah’s properties located in the middle of a desert doesn’t make it easy to source local ingredients, but that’s something Ellis is paying close attention to.
“Dubai is in the desert, of course, but there are now some local suppliers of food, notably egg producers and certain vegetable producers that are starting both organic earth and organic hydroponic production of fruits and vegetables. I’d like to partner with them so we can use local tomatoes, zucchini, or carrots.”
And he hopes to be able to better define what local means in terms of Dubai’s cuisine.
“I also want to explore what’s going on. No one really knows Arabic cuisine. It’s mainly thought of as Moroccan, North African. You think of, obviously, Turkish food, Persian food. Lebanese food is obviously the big one in Middle Eastern cuisine, too. But does Dubai have a cuisine of its own? Is there a Dubai dish, is there something that goes back hundreds of thousands of years that was eaten locally? And if there is, can we take that dish and maybe elevate it to something that’s really, really sublime? And put a spotlight on that?”
On the Cult of Celebrity Chefs
Ellis doesn’t see the trend of installing celebrity chefs in hotel restaurants ending anytime soon, although he’d prefer Jumeirah nurture its own culinary talent.
Ellis “has no problem” with appointing a celebrity chef to open a restaurant in a hotel — especially because it’s a “quick, simple, effective way of getting a well-known restaurant up and running in your property,” although “not the cheapest.” However, he added, “Most of the business risk falls on the hotel, not the celebrity chef.”
“We think there’s a space for us to really develop our own chefs and bring them on, and have them under the Jumeirah umbrella,” Ellis said. “Let a chef become a celebrity chef in a Jumeirah hotel. But maybe a celebrity chef who’s in the kitchen cooking. We’d welcome that. We would be thrilled to have, to create, and to give birth to a celebrity chef in one of our establishments. “But in order to do that, of course, we have to give him the right visibility, the right tools, the right kitchen, and the right products.”
He elaborated, “We want our food to be personalized and to be personified and that means giving a chef and his team the rightful place under the sun and saying, ‘Hey, this is our chef. This is what he’s doing. This is a personal expression of what he and his team are doing, and it’s something you can’t find anywhere else.'”
On Room Service
While a number of hotels in a range of categories have minimized or pared down their room service menus, Ellis sees room service as a mainstay of the luxury hotel experience.
“Room service is a critical part of our offering,” he said. “Room service is essential and we have to have great room service. I want to have room service that’s as good as everything else. Room services has got to be going back to the amazing basics. Going back to that omelet or that club sandwich or going back to that spaghetti Bolognese you want to have as room service. We want our guests to say, ‘Hey, I’m going come back and know I can have a great meal in my room because our room service is fantastic.'”
In other words, travelers shouldn’t expect Jumeirah to follow the lead of hotels like the New York Hilton Midtown, which delivers room service via paper bags.
He added, that all too often, hotel room service has been neglected. “Room service has often been, in my experience, kind of not forgotten, but well, not as much attention has been paid to room service. Just like the all-day dining or the lobby dining. We want that to be absolutely a critical part of what we’re doing. All of our food and beverage should be at the same level. So, whether you’re in the fine dining restaurant, the casual dining, the all-day dining, the room service, everything should be the absolute best in class.”
Where Michelin Guide Experience Comes In
At Jumeirah, Ellis said he would rely heavily on his “Rolodex” of contacts gained not only from his seven years at the Michelin Guide as its international director, but his years as a chef, to recruit chefs from around the world who can not only cater to hotel guests, or even locals in Dubai, but to expatriates living in Dubai as well.
Additionally, he said he wants to apply the “Michelin approach to dining and to food.”
“It is the five Michelin criteria that I deploy with my inspectors around the world, like looking at the ingredients,” Ellis said. As an example, Ellis said that if there is a superior ingredient or product, he’d prefer that all of Jumeirah’s restaurants source from the better supplier.
Another important factor is “to make sure that the flavors work. That the combinations work. Sometimes, chefs can be very creative and make all sorts of different combinations, but not all of them work.”
Consistency is also essential. “I’ve seen that in many, many cases in Michelin-starred restaurants where you have a great first course and a weak second course and a great dessert,” Ellis said. “Or it’s a weak first course, a great second course, and a weak dessert. When restaurants are really able to execute at the highest level, they’re able to get the consistency throughout.”
As for his personal preferences, Ellis described himself as “more of the traditional diner. I like [having a] first course, main course, dessert, and cheese — that kind of thing. I’m not really a big fan of having 25 little bites of food. That’s not my thing. Some restaurants do that. I’m also not a big fan of 12-course tasting menus where you’re sitting down for four hours.”
Regardless, however, he said, “If customers want that, then by all means give it to them. Make that an option. It’s all about choice. It’s all about what people want. I personally like when a chef who knows how to make the simple sublime. When they’re able to take a piece of meat, a piece of fish, whatever it may be, and just cook it lightly, season it lightly, and make it absolutely fantastic.”
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