A Deal-Sealing Chef's Table Done Right
The sights, sounds, smells, and flavors of Hilton Anaheim's back-of-house signature carry throughout the property.
The sights, sounds, smells, and flavors of the Chef’s Table space at Hilton Anaheim carry throughout the property.
Certainly, more hotels are discovering that an intimate chef’s table in the kitchen provides a special opportunity for VIP guests and impresses prospective group clients. It’s especially true at the Hilton Anaheim, where its smartly designed Chef’s Table seals the deal—property-wide.
“In an age where everyone thinks they are some sort of foodie,” says the hotel’s Director of Events and Catering Julie Carter, “it has become our closing room for a lot of our business. It’s where we sign a lot of contracts and where things are decided on, based on this wonderful experience they’re having. Our conversion rate from site visits is about 85%, out of those we actually get here to the property.”
Created in 2015 from former storage space in the kitchen, the Chef’s Table answered a need Hilton Anaheim saw for a way to highlight the culinary team in action, instead of having them meet with clients in a meeting room or ballroom. The storage space was not in need after the hotel’s closing of three former restaurants and a nightclub, but the Chef’s Table in its place is used at least three times a week to impress visitors.
“Before, if a customer were coming in to taste the menu for a large party they were going to have, the chef would have to cook the food and then transport it, as you would for any other dining experience,” says Carter. “The Chef’s Table allows the food to come right off the line, and the customer gets to interact with the chef. In the selling process, if the client needs modifications or the chef makes suggestions, they’re able to make those changes right there and then, as opposed to transporting it on a Queen Mary to and from a banquet room.”
The experience of the Chef’s Table organically has become the crux of any client visit to the property, affecting every aspect of the property—far beyond the sights and smells of the kitchen itself.
“Even though the Chef’s Table and kitchen is a very intimate experience, it transfers to the rest of their stay—when they check in or use the concierge,” notes Assistant Director of Catering Janice Bernard.
“With any customer, potential or repeat, who we are bringing through the hotel, we make sure to stop in chef’s kitchen,” Carter says. “Whether it’s a pass-through or in fact part of their experience to dine there, we show them the venue. Our customers today are looking for a unique venue; that’s the first thing they ask. Chef’s kitchen is very unique, so we make sure they get to visualize it, and it sells itself. Even if they don’t dine there, they are already thinking of ways they can use it, like ‘Oh, this would be perfect for our board of directors meeting.’”
Cooking Up the Experience
The resounding impression the Chef’s Table makes likely comes from the life it injects into a client visit.
“It’s like when you watch a movie; you want to know how the movie was made,” says Executive Chef Frederic Castan. “The setting is different from a restaurant or banquet room. You have the noise of labor, which is more intensified, and it gives them a totally different experience. They feel kind of privileged and unique to be there.”
And it’s not just a product of Castan and his team’s interaction with clients and cooking for them. In 2015, John Gidding of HGTV’s Curb Appeal consulted on the design of the Chef’s Table and the wall of stacked, sculpted plywood that holds wine bottles, labels out. Castan recalls the cost of the renovation being in the $40,000 range, which he characterizes as an “elevated” price tag. “But for the return,” he says, “that wasn’t much.” The kitchen itself was intact, so the cost went mostly into the aesthetics of the space, which totals around 300 square feet and can seat up to 12, or up to 35 including standing room for receptions.
“We took the existing cooking line, consisting of burners, a flattop, salamanders, a couple ovens, and a nice front with heat lamps,” Castan says. “The guests can see the entire process in front of them. It didn’t take much more than that existing equipment to provide a nice five- to six-course dinner.”
Besides the work of Castan and his culinary team, a meal presentation for the Chef’s Table requires at least one server and one sommelier (to talk about and serve the wine); additional labor may be necessary, depending on how many courses and how many people are served.
Background music adds to the vibe, and Castan wears a microphone in order for his French-accented narration to be heard over the music and the kitchen noise, including the hood system.
“The noise level is a big factor. It’s cumbersome,” Castan admits. “The hood system is noisy, and as a chef, you sometimes don’t realize it. But it’s hard for guests to have a conversation at the table. You need to take that into consideration.”
Function Meets Format
Since its inception, the Chef’s Table has undergone no significant tweaks, only the menu changes, for each group. “It could be a standing-up reception, so the guests need to mingle,” Castan explains. “So, we cook small plates and hand them out to them. Or, for a sit-down dinner, it may be five or six courses with wine pairing, and a more formal setting.”
Carter adds, “It’s important to keep it flexible. When we first did this, we thought of it as being for smaller parties—the table and the chefs cooking. As people came and were so in awe of it, that’s when we thought of doing receptions. Keeping the tables flexible, you can do all kinds of different parties there. Also, make sure you have air-conditioning and ventilation.”
A big takeaway for the hotel team, from the Chef’s Table, says Bernard, is to always think about how to better utilize unique spaces.
“We are a rather large property, so there are a lot of spaces that may be tucked away that we can revamp to create those exclusive experiences,” she says. “Those are the kinds of experiences our guests really enjoy. That’s what they go home and talk about and remember from their stay with us.”
This feature originally appeared in the September 2018 issue of Hotel F&B. It is one of our Reader Favorites and is updated regularly.