Bill Barnett, managing director of C9 Hotelworks Company, explores creative food menus in farm-to-table hotels.
Let me tell you a story. Growing up we did not have the internet. It did not exist. As a boy, my best set of friends would gather and talk in the schoolyard about what we had watched on television the night before. It ended up being a form of collective trending in an age before twitter hashtags.
As there were just three major TV networks to choose from, the options were rather limited. Today, there is no niche too small, no fetish left unturned or wiki too wacky. My mind spins out just trying to say that last line. Anyway, choice is everywhere, except sadly the hotel business did not get the memo.
My mood today is somewhat one of a pent-up agitated soul who needs to rant, roll and stomp out of the room in near violent disarray. Someone misplaced the door so I can’t even properly slam it. At the root of my current neurosis, sitting on two plates in a nameless hotel somewhere out there is a croissant and a club sandwich. Seemingly innocent fare you might think, but let’s turn the page and jump over to the dark side.
Despite hoteldom these days packaging themselves in shabby chic, slightly rustic new clothes that shout about being local, authentic, experiential and part of the neighbourhood, the reality is they treat their guests like idiots. Take out a menu in most hotels and yes, you will indeed find the two C’s at certain times of the day – the breakfast croissant and later in the day the club sandwich. These are two staple hotel food items but what they represent is malevolent worship of what have become food factories. Back of the house, shelves are stacked with institutional dried food or giant tins of liquid goo. Kitchens resemble factory lines. It’s ugly, tasteless and makes absolutely no sense. Choice went out the back door and never came back.
Fast forward into the present movement of farm-to-table hotels. Yes, I’m not quite sure what term best to use as a buzz saw grinds in the back of my head, be it food-to-fork, or plant-to-plate. What this exciting space acknowledges is that every hotel menu does not have to sport the same items. Be it by the season, location, culture or day of the week, foods can come and go. The menu is not something you print by the year, but by the day or by the meal.
I’ve recently been consulting on a farm-to-food resort hotel and was stressing over a huge back of house bakery that of course included machinery for making croissants. Suddenly, the heavens parted and the realisation came to convert the pizza making wood fired oven into a morning bakery. Fresh breads, local-styled rolls – after all who needs croissants? Anyone who has met me understands I am a man of a somewhat largish size and indeed love a good French style croissant, but the drastic plastic deflated miniature footballs you find at a Marriott or Hilton breakie buffet is something I can live without.
The same can be said for a club sandwich. Again, when well done it’s a thing of beauty or else totally necessary with a 3am call to room service to soak up a late night bender. But again, why can’t hotels simply use local ingredients, create their own menu and not try to mass produce the same menu time and time again in a nasty rendition of Groundhog Day. If it’s fresh, or local, I’m in.
Today, we are seeing a brave new world of farm-to-table hotels not relying on imported or shipped from far food items, but sourcing close to home. Acting sustainably and buying from smaller suppliers. The underlying connection back to the earth; from where the food is coming from and the ultimate product is astonishing. It is giving diners the chance to appreciate the craft of cooking.
While it’s unlikely that many large hotels will join the revolution and celebrate the culture of individualism in food, the current crisis and reduced numbers certainly gives the industry an opportunity to view what a better model this could be going forward. Farm-to-table hotels are indeed here to stay and given a choice of a croissant, a club sandwich or a menu that changes each time I’m there, well the later wins hands down.
It’s been said that farming is a profession of hope and I’m hopeful more hotels start understanding their customers can think for themselves and actually choose a unique menu item instead of a croissant or club sandwich.