When Troy Knapp started as Executive Chef for the Driskill Grill at the historic Driskill Hotel in Austin, Texas, he noted a cluttered, stuffy storage room right outside the kitchen. Knapp took one look at the disorganized, un-air-conditioned space, and his self-proclaimed obsessive-compulsive nerves started to twitch. In less than a month, Knapp had cleared the space, ordered new flooring and an air-handling unit, and decorated the office with a sense of place. It’s now much more than an office; it’s become a special and intimate space for entertaining potential and existing clients, media, and other VIPs.
Hotel F&B: What is the background of the space?
Knapp: The space actually functioned as a group chefs’ office when I started at the hotel three years ago. It was full of boxes, and there were lots of high-backed desks, with shelves covering the walls. It wasn’t climate-controlled, so it was very humid and not a space anyone would really want to work in. There were two archways in the room, and we researched and found that an entire wall of the office was once on the outside of the original building, built in 1886 (in the 1930s, a towered extension was added to the hotel). In keeping with the rich history of the hotel, this room is a legacy in itself.
The hotel’s GM at that time and I began cleaning up the office, but as we went along, we started thinking this would be a fun space to share with clients. The office is right next to the Driskill Grill’s kitchen, so if we entertained in here, it would be an organic approach, and it wouldn’t have to feel like a business meeting. It could be like a social gathering among friends.
Hotel F&B: How did you renovate and redesign the space?
Knapp: In stripping the room clean and uncovering the walls, we found it was better than we imagined. We brought in a contractor for the tile flooring and used another contractor we hire on a regular basis at the hotel to bring in pieces such as cabinetry, a butcher’s block, and a small wine fridge for under my desk. The only other things we ordered were a flat screen TV for running a slideshow of old photos from the hotel, our computers, and office equipment, as well as the string lighting and a chandelier for the table. All told, it was about a $25,000 renovation, but keep in mind that $15,000 of that was the air conditioning alone.
After the groundwork was laid out, the room started to take shape with the idea of a sense of place and having real meaning. I brought in pieces from my own home that were meaningful to me, such as cookbooks by Terry Thompson-Anderson, who wrote Texas on the Table and Texas Hill Country: A Food and Wine Lover’s Paradise. These books were really important to me and helped me get integrated when I came to Texas. A colleague’s father made me guitars out of cigar boxes to thank me for a dinner, and those are hanging on the wall. I’m a musician, so the guitars are symbolic for me, but they’re perfect in this space because Austin is known as the live music capital of the world.
I was adamant about the lighting; fluorescent lighting would’ve been terrible for a social, communal place. So we have string lights in the ceiling and a chandelier over the table, with a dimmer switch. I wanted to be able to create a more casual mood with the dimmed lights and the music running in the background, so it becomes a party instead of a business meeting. I put small design touches on the desks, such as the pencil holders; I took wine bottles and cut and smoothed them and made a pencil holder for each of the chefs.
For symbolic historic value, we have a framed book of matches from the hotel that dates back to the 1950s, pictures of the three different coffee regions that our importer uses, and a cookbook written by Helen Corbitt, who was the culinary director at the Driskill in the 1950s and was sort of like the Julia Child of Texas.
I consider this room a venue that embodies the spirit of this place. It’s the food and the beverage, it’s the history, it’s the hotel, and it’s the people.
Hotel F&B: How is the space a revenue generator?
Knapp: If a group is thinking about booking with us and comes here to explore, I bring them in here to talk. Inviting them into this intimate space is like inviting them into my home in a way; it quickly brings them into a deeper, connected conversation instead of a business meeting. Most times, there will be something in here on the wall, or the cookbooks, or the wine bottles, or some other piece of interest for them in here—something they connect with—and it helps open the door to a great dialogue. This room itself says a lot about me, and I’m proud of what it says. I don’t feel that I’m “selling;” I just feel like I’m telling our story in a comfortable, organized, beautiful space, and it’s pretty easy to be attracted to that, I think.
Hotel F&B: How do you keep the space organized?
Knapp: I get laughed at and poked fun of, but everyone knows I’m OCD. I like an uncluttered office with everything in its place, but this is so much more than an office. It needs to be ready to “show” at any given moment. Many of our client visits are impromptu, and I like that. With a couple minutes’ notice, I can cue up the slideshow on the TV, maybe dim the lights a little, and be ready. If we had to go into a frenzy cleaning everything up whenever a client or someone from the media wanted to drop in, we’d be taking the joy out of interactions like that. So I jokingly set up a point system with the other chefs. If you leave your chair pulled out or pens or papers out on the desk, you get a point. And points are like strokes in a golf game; you don’t want them.
Hotel F&B: What does entertaining in the space entail?
Knapp: It doesn’t need to be a highly orchestrated event, but we can host anywhere from two to 20 people. I’ll always have some Champagne chilling, and I ask the kitchen for a couple of hors d’oeuvres, which will either be passed or laid out on this amazing antique cheese scale we have. Depending on the time of day, I’ll bring out some wines to taste as the evening unfolds. I’ve had clients who have said, “I don’t like Texas wines,” and that’s a perfect time to pull out a bottle from my wine fridge and say, “Well, how about we change your mind about that?”
Hotel F&B: Can you describe an example of a VIP event in the space?
Knapp: The meeting planner for Emmi Roth USA cheese came in to book her multi-day meeting, and she loved the space so much, I suggested that we have a cocktail party right here for the meeting’s opening night. We wrote this fun, intimate program for their group of 14. We had passed hors d’oeuvres and Champagne. The film reel was scrolling with music playing softly in the background, and they just hung out and talked. You know how everyone gravitates towards the kitchen? It’s just like that—a fun, informal space where people can socialize. Another fun VIP event was when Andrew Zimmern (from the Travel Channel’s Bizarre Foods with Andrew Zimmern) was in town shooting a Yahoo video, and he asked if we had a space where they could shoot. He loved the office. So we hosted the episode, and we brought out our most bizarre menu item, a crispy soft-shell crawfish, and he tasted and talked about it. We also had some local products that were brought in for him from farmers’ markets. It was a really cool experience.
Hotel F&B: What advice would you give other chefs looking to carve out this kind of space?
Knapp: Every hotel is different, so just think about what makes sense for your property. You don’t have to spend a fortune. Start out simple, get the bones of the place, and build the personality in from there. Keep it organized and have a system in place so it’s ready to go at any given moment. I hope you enjoy it as much as I do.
Ashley Allen is an author and writer based in Leesburg, Virginia, whose work also appears in The Huffington Post.
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