Hotel F&B Magazine
All Back Issues » January/February 2011

Palette to Palate

Sonesta’s Food is Art makes a passionate, profitable statement.    By Tad Wilkes

Sonesta Food is Art artful plating program
In this Cobb salad buffet, each ingredient is given its own showcase. [click for gallery]

Sonesta Food is Art artful plating program

Sonesta Food is Art artful plating program

Sonesta Food is Art artful plating program

Sonesta Food is Art artful plating program

Sonesta Food is Art artful plating program
Sonesta Executive VP of F&B Kathy Rowe credits Jodi Cross, corporate director of marketing, with coining “Food is Art” at its inception to describe the movement, which thrives on taking familiar concepts and reimagining them. Examples, clockwise from top left: a different take on shrimp cocktail and seafood tapas, a striking smaller-scale breakfast package, a fruitful pancake presentation, a salad nosh, and a lobster app.

Sonesta Food is Art artful plating program
REINVENTING THE OLD: Executive VP of F&B Kathy Rowe and property stars such as Ryan Cyr, executive chef at the Royal Sonesta Hotel Boston, push familiar concepts to innovative heights. Instead of having chopped tomatoes, onions, peppers, etc., this omelet station features local cheeses and fresh herbs.

Sonesta Food is Art artful plating program
Rather than simply presenting tenderloin with rolls and condiments, Sonesta features melonball sized garlic mashed potato servings with chives on small bread-and-butter plates, with two slices of tenderloin standing up next to two pieces of asparagus, drizzled with a portobello mushroom demi-glace.

Sonesta Food is Art artful plating program
A captivating chocolate display, part of a brand-wide signature coffee break, can be used as a sweets table for social events.

Sonesta Food is Art artful plating program
At the Sonesta Bayfront Hotel Coconut Grove, Miami, one of Executive Chef Chris Cramer’s current favorites is a foie gras and wild mushroom station: Seared foie gras with Burgundy glacé, sautéed wild mushrooms and fresh-baked, housemade crostinis. "The visual aspect of seeing all the varieties of wild mushrooms is always a conversation piece," he says. "It raises a lot of questions from the guest, because they aren’t what you’d see in your everyday grocery store—and a lot of times not even in your higher-end gourmet markets.”

Imagine a staid, still-life photograph of a traditional chicken pot pie. Now imagine Picasso’s version.

Reconfiguring the familiar as stunning, delectably fresh culinary art is the idea behind Sonesta Collection’s Food is Art concept, which runs to all Sonesta hotels, resorts, and cruise ships worldwide—approximately 35 properties (only four in the United States), and seven “floating boutique hotel” cruise ships that sail on the Nile in Egypt.

More than six years running, Food is Art is a reflection of Executive VP of F&B Kathy Rowe’s overall F&B perspective of “simple, clean, unified, and understandable.” She is a proponent of small plates, action stations, farm-to-table ingredients, and intense attention to plating aesthetics, no matter how small the food or how large the event. It’s a continual re-invention.

Maintaining and nurturing F&B passion for a program several years down the road is a result of Sonesta constantly finding interesting new ideas to execute—and to impress meeting planners with.

“Sometimes a great idea just falls in your lap,” says Rowe. “We were doing an event at the [Royal Sonesta Hotel Boston] and came up with various stations. Every station was designed to have interaction with the culinary team. A tenderloin station used to come with rolls and condiments. You’d have mayonnaise and mustard and make a little sandwich. Instead, we slice the tenderloin thin and have garlic mashed potatoes with a lot of chives, and we do little melon-ball size scoops in the middle of a small, square bread-and-butter plate, with two little pieces of tenderloin standing up and two little pieces of asparagus standing next to it, then drizzled with a portobello mushroom demiglace. It was like a petite, two-bite entrée.”

And there’s the time Sonesta did mini sundaes in Miami. “We wanted to give it a little Latin flavor,” Rowe says. “In a petite martini glass, we had a tiny piece of gooey brownie with a melon-ball scoop of tres leches ice cream, and then hot fudge, homemade whipped cream, chopped pecan on top of that, garnished with a fresh cherry that had been dipped in white and dark chocolate.”

Sonesta has its own meeting planner advisory board, started many years ago; company execs and some property personnel meet with the top planners in the country. “It’s an opportunity to find out what we’re doing well and not doing well and what their needs are—and to show them the new things we’re doing,” Rowe explains, pointing to one particular meeting held in Miami. Among the concepts Rowe showed them was Sonesta’s Cobb salad station, which included three different types of lettuces and an assortment of grilled vegetables such as beets, artichokes, and portobello mushrooms, along with various visually captivating cheeses.

“In the center of the table, instead of a centerpiece, we did this gorgeous bread display,” Rowe recalls. “We went to a Cuban bakery and selected all of these unbelievable breads. One had cheese ooze out of it when you cut into it. It was still warm. All the breads were sitting on a square cutting board, and we had a bread knife. Around this display, we had tapenade, fresh basil in olive oil, pesto, and hummus. The servers explained the breads and helped guests with all these wonderful condiments. It’s so simple, and yet they were so wowed.”

The key to Food is Art’s ongoing vitality is paying attention. “I see what the trends are in the industry—for example, garden-to-table, reinventing the old, and the small plates and tasting trends—and work within the Food is Art concept to develop things based on these trends,” Rowe says.

An illustration is an omelet station that, instead of having chopped tomatoes, onions, peppers, etc., has only local cheeses and fresh, local herbs.

“You put a bite in your mouth with all of the fresh herbs, and it’s like eating out of the garden,” Rowe says. “It’s taking something so simple and just tweaking it and doing it so much better.”

To keep churning fresh notions, Rowe often looks for inspiration in magazines. “I was looking at a clothing magazine recently and noticed the trend of going back to things that feel good, that are comfortable. I look at the colors. There are ‘50s and ‘60s styles that are back, and that direction is toward comfort.”

Obviously, Food is Art requires some extra labor. Ryan Cyr, executive chef at the Royal Sonesta Hotel Boston (Cambridge), says, “It can be pretty intense. Usually when we have a big VIP event, it’s all hands on deck. As much as we love to do this, it takes time to handmake everything. For mini-burgers, we’re making the bread and cutting the lettuce, tomato, onion, pickle, and everything; that’s just for a little burger, so imagine what we’re doing for the entrée.”

“Once the team that executes it is used to it, it becomes second nature,” says Chris Cramer, executive chef at the Sonesta Bayfront Hotel Coconut Grove, Miami. “In the back of the house, many [items] require quite a bit more extensive setup. Developing it is the fun part—bringing all the potential equipment and food into the room and experimenting.”

This development includes learning their way around action stations in order to avoid being stuck in the middle of a challenging dish and to ensure the food is executed and presented in a guest-friendly, entertaining fashion.

Of course, the greatest challenge has been to adapt the labor-centric, upmarket Food is Art concept to the realities of the economy, to make sure what’s delivered is worth the effort and cost. Again, answering demand requires keeping an ear to the consumer.

“We find people want value, and they want comfort foods,” Rowe says. “We’ve developed a station where we do tomato basil soup and a four-cheese grilled cheese sandwich. People dip the sandwich into the soup, which is made with lots of fresh local basil, and you get that from-the-garden flavor. It’s all the flavors you remember from childhood, but reinvented.”

Another reimagined comfort food that impresses at first bite, Rowe says, is a four-cheese macaroni and cheese with medallions of lobster. “We’ve actually now made it an entrée in one of our restaurants. It’s one of the lower-priced items, and guests feel they are getting value because they’re getting half a lobster in that entrée.”

Each chef within the Food is Art concept is an artist unto himself or herself. However, Rowe does provide guidance from the top.

“For 2011, there are stations that [chefs] need to come up with, within their banquet menus,” Rowe says. “I give them examples and am the driving force, but I want our chefs, F&B directors, and teams to be flexible in creating from their local environments. In Boston, we’ll be doing things with lobster, for example. In Orlando, we’ll use oranges, and in Miami we’ll do key limes. We give them guidelines but let them run with the ball.”

The local sourcing trend is alive and well in Boston, for instance. “New England has a lot of homestyle or old-school cooking, so [we focus on] taking basics like pot roast or chicken pot pies and making them extravagant,” says Cyr.

“What I try to get from all my chefs here is to just brainstorm ideas,” he says. “We come up with the craziest ideas, or it could be something simple we’re just going to put a little flair on. We’ll get ideas on paper and then start thinking about the process and how it’s going to evolve.”

Balancing the need to give teams this freedom with the need for consistency and control is a challenge, but technology is both glue, keeping everyone together, and grease, keeping the machine moving smoothly.

“We’ll do something absolutely fabulous in Coconut Grove, and the next day, I’m emailing photos throughout the company,” Rowe says. “It helps me to be able to communicate not just verbally but with photographs, which mean so much more.”

Food is Art isn’t just for special occasions, and Rowe is spreading the wealth across F&B service.

“In Cambridge, we have the Art Bar, so we decided every plate needs to be art,” she notes. “We brought in some fun kinds of china. For example, a dessert in the Art Bar is three shot glasses.” One is strawberry cheesecake, one is a sundae, and the next is strawberry shortcake—all presented on a platter. The trio is $9; individuals are available for $3. “It’s a cute way to sell a dessert that you might not have sold at lunch.”

In the restaurant setting, Cramer says the priority is still on making everything “as visually appealing as possible.” This “visual consumption” results in the guest thinking “I can’t wait to match the flavors with what I’m seeing.”

“A restaurant is very different from a banquet,” says Cyr. “Just because you can do it for one person doesn’t mean you can do it for 500 people, so you have to keep that in mind. Then we evolve those brainstorm ideas into practical items we can use. I don’t tell them, ‘We’re going to come up with an idea for a restaurant.’ I tell them ‘We’re going to come up with an item, and then we’ll see where it fits.’”

And the art has found its way upstairs. “We’ve tried to take in-room dining to the next level and make guests feel like they’re dining in a restaurant,” Rowe says. “We’re using beautiful linens, battery-operated candles on the tables, flowers, napkins in silver rings. We bring out a large pepper mill. If it’s a pasta dish, we grate the cheese right there.

“For breakfast, we’re doing the great breads, offering the guest a choice, and we actually bring a toaster up to the room and toast the bread right there, so it’s hot. The hardest thing is to serve hot toast.”

Sometimes a piece of art looks a little more ideal hanging in the right spot, in the right frame. Beyond glass plates, which Rowe loves, nontraditional presentations help accent the artistic dishes.

Rowe cites an armoire at the Royal Sonesta in New Orleans. “We opened that and used the shelving and drawers for all these different tapas. In Cambridge, where it’s a more contemporary environment, we did a lot of glass shelving. It’s the same tools and concept, but done in the environment of the location.”

Ultimately, it’s the food itself making the artistic statement. “The focus is the food, and we don’t do a lot of props,” Rowe says. “We use the food as the props.”

Thurston E. (Tad) Wilkes III is managing editor of HOTEL F&B. Formerly editor of NIGHTCLUB AND BAR Magazine, he has covered on-premise bars and outlets for the past decade.

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