November 30, 2010

Why we need Visit London to bring visitors to London

VL.jpgSamuel Johnson said "there is in London all that life can afford." Two centuries on, his paean to our capital holds as true as ever.

London's charms and assets are as varied as her culture and heritage are rich. Think Shakespeare and Dickens. Chelsea and Arsenal. Elizabeth the First and Second. St Paul's Cathedral and the Gherkin. ExCel London and the O2 Arena. Ramsay and the Ritz.

It's Visit London's job to remind the world of all these riches. But this week, the future of the capital's tourist board is in doubt.

Despite London Mayor Boris Johnson's protestations that tourism remains a cornerstone of his development strategy for the city, the anticipated withdrawal of the London Development Agency's £12m funding of Visit London has left many concerned that it will be forced to close next year.

With the 2012 Olympic Games now considerably less than two years away, it's hard to think of a worse time for London to lose the organization responsible for promoting it overseas.

It's not just hospitality, conference and event operators in the capital that should be worried. London is the conduit through which the majority of the country's overseas visitors flow. By promoting London, Visit London promotes the whole country.

There's sound logic behind the calls for Visit London to live on. With the organization generating an estimated £300m revenue against its £12m costs annually, closing it would represent a false economy.

Mayor Johnson is in negotiation with the government to secure some level of funding for economic development in the capital. He must avoid taking a backward step in these negotiations; and he must apportion a meaningful portion of the funding he is able to secure to underwriting Visit London. If he does not, the full legacy of the 2012 Games will be realized.

Visit London's funding is scheduled to end on March 31 next year. If our capital's tourist board is allowed to close a year before the games, we'll all look like April Fools in the eyes of the world.

August 11, 2010

A sneak preview of the newly-refurbished Savoy

Savoy.jpgYesterday morning, General Manager Kiaran MacDonald kindly gave me a full tour of the Savoy hotel, just sixty days before its official opening date of October 10.

I'm happy to report that work is progressing steadily, thanks to the army of nearing a thousand tradesmen that swarms over the site in yellow bibs and hard hats. That's not to say Kiaran won't have a few sleepless nights between now and October. "If I'm having a bad night, I think of Terminal Five", he admitted.

Those who worried that the refurbishment project would rip the heart and soul out of the iconic hotel can rest easy: if anything, Pierre-Yves Rochon's designs have amplified its Edwardian and Art Deco architecture and fittings.

So, from the Strand and in:

The polished silver and lacquered onyx pillars and art deco canopy of the Savoy Court entrance are set to be enhanced by a fountain centrepiece of black marble and Lalique crystal. Woe betide any taxi driver who clips it on their turning circle ...

Inside, two years of French polishing have brought a lustrous sheen back to the mahogany panelling in the Front Hall; and a lick of Celadon Green paint has breathed fresh life back into the hall's eleborate friezes. A concierge desk will soon be erected to the side of the revolving front doors, but reception has been relocated to what used to be the Reading Room (formerly a private-dining space for the Savoy Grill).

The American Bar has retained its elegant curves; cobalt-blue seating is set against cream walls that bring a pleasing lightness to the room.

As we head down the stairs that lead to the Thames Foyer, MacDonald points out that the desired effect was that of a stroll along Burlington Arcade. A Savoy tea Room has been added, whose show kitchen will enable the resident chef-patissier to add a touch of live theatre to proceedings.

The Thames Foyer itself is now crowned by a glass cupola, and anchored around an impressive central gazebo reminiscent of a scale model of Singapore's Lau Pa Sat market, which will house a piano and winter garden. At night, the new Beaufort Bar will open its doors onto the foyer, bringing a darker, sexier vibe to the space.

The River Restaurant's stainless steel pillars and sycamore panels recall the hotel's art deco heritage. the emphasis here will be on modern French cuisine in the style of Scotts and the Wolseley.

To the bedrooms and guest corridors: according to MacDonald, these were previously a slightly jarring blend of Edwardian and Art Deco. This has been rectified, with each now working to just one architectural style. All guests will have their preference, but both styles are beautifully realised, with many original details retained.

Suites boast Murano chandeliers, commissioned artwork and stagering views of the Thames, from Canary Wharf to Westminster and beyond.  

Finally, the Ballroom is once again a big, dreamboat of a room, in Wedgewood Blue.



June 12, 2010

Gastronome and food critic, Egon Ronay dies

Egon Ronay.jpg

I was so sad to hear that Egon Ronay passed away this morning at the age of 94.

I was privileged to lunch several times with Egon at his favourite table at London's Goring Hotel. On each occasion, he was fascinating company and a true gentleman. It was a pleasure to watch him scrutinise the menu and wine list, and then taste his choices and pass judgement when they arrived.

Egon would often call me to tell me what he thought of the restaurant business's issue of the day, whether it was tipping, bottled water or service levels. And he was a great letter-writer, both to the Caterer and the nationals.

This afternoon, Marco Pierre White offered me the following tribute to Egon.

"This is a sad day. Egon was a great man, a heavyweight who'll be greatly missed. I had lunch with him very recently. He was still very agile, and his mind was very alert.

Egon did more for British gastronomy than anyone else. He was here long before Michelin. He gave us all something to work for. He was a genius - his knowledge of food, wine and restaurants was enormous.

As a boy of sixteen working in the kitchens at the Hotel St George in Harrogate, I sometimes assisted the porter with polishing guests' shoes. One day, I found a book on the chair where I sat to polish. It was called the Egon Ronay Guide to Hotels and Restaurants in Great Britain. This was the first time I realised restaurants were awarded stars in Britain as well as hotels.

My fascination with gastronomy was born. That's when I started dreaming of working in a starred restaurant. I decided I wanted to work at the Box Tree, which was then the very best restaurant in Britain.

Then when I opened Harvey's in 1987, Egon was the very first restaurant critic through the door. I was Marco White, but he was fascinated by my middle name. He wrote a review in the Sunday Times in which he called me Marco Pierre White.

I'm indebted to the great man. If I had a flagpole I'd lower my flag to half mast."


May 14, 2010

San Fransisco hotel falls victim to people power


Check out this clip of a flashmob descending upon the Westin St. Francis hotel in San Francisco to perform an adaptation of Lady Gaga's song "Bad Romance." The event was organized to draw attention to a boycott called by the workers of the hotel who are fighting to win a fair contract and affordable healthcare.

It shows the power if the Internet to galvanise people power,

May 1, 2010

Heston Blumenthal to develop the flavour of hospital food for the elderly

heston.jpgThree-Michelin-starred chef Heston Blumenthal has joined forces with a team of scientists at Reading University to develop hospital food recipes.

According to the BBC, the host of Channel 4's Heston's Feasts series and owner of the Fat Duck in Bray is contributing to a project to improve nutrition on elderly care wards.

The Reading University team has been experimenting with introducing umami into British staples such as shepherd's pie to enhance the taste. The long-term aim of the project is to develop a series of recipes that revive older diners' palates. The project is also hoping to work towards combating malnutrition among the elderly. 

Dr Lisa Methven, lead researcher, told the BBC that older people suffering from a deterioration in taste don't get an extra taste bud, while they can be fitted with a hearing aid or a pair of glasses. "Our hope is that we can develop foods that older people can get more pleasure out of and enhance their nutritional status," she said.

Continue reading "Heston Blumenthal to develop the flavour of hospital food for the elderly" »

April 20, 2010

The fallout of volcanic ash on hospitality

ash.jpgOver the past week, the nation's response to the volcanic ash hovering far overhead progressed from amused surprise ("Mount What"?) to worried concern, as grounded flights left hundreds of thousands of air travellers stranded here and abroad.

Yet again, the elements have politely but firmly reminded us of our place in the natural world order.

For Hospitality, the resulting chaos presented first opportunities and then difficulties. Some hotels enjoyed a mini-boom, as foreign tourists extended stays. But as the days passed, and the business and leisure tourists who had exited by rail and sea were not replaced by a fresh influx, a crippling and ongoing bout of cancellations of rooms, tables, conferences and events began.

The worry now is that the problem could continue for several months and badly dent volumes of foreign travel - especially so for operators in cities dependent on tourist income, such as London, Bath and Edinburgh. Talk of staycations is all very well, but we always assumed they would form a welcome supplement to inbound tourism.  

With every cancelled flight, the supply chain has stretched a little tauter - a reminder of just how quickly our highly-geared, "just in time" economy can veer off course.

Optimistic talk of the cloud sparking greater interest in local sourcing seems naïve: UK producers could never hope to fulfil the fresh produce needs of the country's hospitality and retail sectors. What's likelier is that prices could rise substantially. Meanwhile, you have to fear for those producers in the developing world whose crops are withering on the vine.

Back home, if the cloud's economic impact on hospitality continues into the medium term, we should expect from government the same support it offers to other industry sectors that fall on hard times.  

Meanwhile, our national tourism marketing boards must quickly focus all of their energies on maximising domestic tourism.

How is the ash affecting your business? Let us know.

March 9, 2010

Top London chefs unite in support of Leuka

chefs © John Swannell blog image.jpgLast night 20 top London chefs gathered in the kitchen's of The Langham hotel, London to prepare a dinner in aid of Leuka, the charity for the leukaemia care unit at Hammersmith Hospital.

The annual event, Who's Cooking Dinner? is now in its 11th year and was set up by chef Peter Gordon (who's sister was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukaemia) and restuarateur, Chris Corbin (who was diagnosed with chronic myeloid leukaemia in 1990).

Chefs cooking for the 200 guests included: Tom Aikens (Tom Aikens Restaurant), Jason Atherton (Maze), Rainer Becker (Zuma), Brett Graham (The Ledbury), Angela Hartnett (Murano) and Chris and Jeff Galvin (La Chapelle).

Guests were treated to a gastronomic feast which included dishes such as: Poached Native Lobster with cardo lardo, celeriac mousse, lobster vinaigrette and parsley mousse (Tom Aikens); Wagyu beef sirlion with wafu sauce and Japanese mushrooms (Rainer Becker); Guinea fowl cooked in hay with hay butter emulsion (Claude Bosi); Soft pistachio meringue with blood oranges and spring rhubarb (Sally Clarke) and warm PX prune and hazelnut cake with white chocolate mousse, baked rhurbarb and a chocolate chilli wafter (Peter Gordon).

The event last night raised almost £430,000 for Leuka, including a post-dinner auction of many of the chefs' services for private dining, either at the chef's restaurants or the bidders' home.

The Who's Cooking Dinner? event has been raising money since 1999 and has raised in excess of £3m to date. The monies raised provide funds for clinical trails to study new therapies, buy specialist equipment and modernise clinical facilities.

Last night's chefs included:

Tom Aikens - Tom Aikens Restaurant
Jason Atherton - Maze
Rainer Becker - Zuma
Claude Bosi - Hibiscus
Sally Clarke - Clarke's
Richard Corrigan - Corrigan's Mayfair
Hélène Darroze - At The Connaught
Mark Edwards - Nobu
Chris & Jeff Galvin - La Chapelle
Peter Gordon - Providores
Brett Graham - The Ledbury
Angela Hartnett - Murano
Mark Hix - Hix
Philip Howard - The Square
Tim Hughes - Le Caprice
Giorgio Locatelli - Locanda Locatelli
Michele Lombardi - Harry's Bar
Julian O'Neill - The Wolesley
Bruce Poole - Chez Bruce
Tong Chee Hwee - Hakkasan

If you want to know more about the Who's Cooking Dinner? event or about Leuka go to 

Happy tenth birthday to the London Eye

London Eye.jpgThis evening. fireworks will light up the skies over London, as the London Eye celebrates its tenth birthday. There's no more surefire way of making a magazine sub-editor wince than by casually aggrandizing someone or something by applying the word, "iconic".

Overuse has cheapened the currency of the word to the extent that a Google search reveals iconic status being conferred upon Katie Price, Bernard Manning's World Famous Embassy Club and even the Countdown TV theme.

In the case of the London Eye, though, the term is surely applicable. In ten years, London's south-bank Ferris wheel has morphed from zero to hero.

Ridiculed during construction for problems hoisting it into place ("British Airways can't get it up", was Virgin Atlantic's gleeful dig at the Eye's original sponsor), the Eye was then hit by technical problems that delayed its public opening for many weeks after its official launch by then-Prime Minister, Tony Blair.

But these teething problems were quickly forgotten once the public experienced the wonders of the wheel. Today, the London Eye is the UK's most popular paid-for visitor attraction and its 32 capsules treat more than 3.5 million people a year to an up-close view of the capital. This extraordinary success won Managing Director, David Sharpe, the Leisure and Tourism award at the 2008 Cateys.

If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, the Eye must at times struggle to keep from blushing. The Singapore Flyer, the Wheel of Perth, the Great Dubai Wheel and the Beijing Wheel - all are striving to replicate the magic of our London landmark.

The Eye stands as an emblem of the power of innovation. In ten years it has woven itself into the fabric of London life, and is now closely linked with the international image of London.

Can your business boast its own equivalent of the London Eye? Have you conjured a new and game-changing asset with the power to transform your customer offering?

With the onrush of visitors to the London Olympics just two years away, now's the time to set your creative powers to the challenge.

February 28, 2010

Twitter reports claim River Cafe co-founder Rose Gray has died

Rose Gray and Ruth Rogers.jpgRose Gray, who co-founded London's River Cafe with Ruth Rogers in 1987, has died after a long battle with cancer, according to reports circulating on Twitter. Gray and Rogers were awarded MBEs in the New Year Honours List for their services to hospitality, and had recently released their eleventh recipe book, the River Cafe Classic Italian Cookbook.  

Chefs to have graduated from the River Cafe kitchens include Theo Randall, Jamie Oliver and Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall.

Earlier this evening, Guardian food critic Jay Rayner tweeted: "marking the death of Rose Gray of the River Cafe. A woman who with Ruthie Rogers had a huge impact on British restaurants."

Fergus Henderson's St John Restaurant responded: "Terribly sad news about Rose. A great friend of St. John and will be sorely missed and fondly remembered."


February 24, 2010

Fancy a spot of afternoon tea in the heart of Mayfair darling? Why not try Wild Honey?

Will Smith and Anthony Demetre

You might feel that you've got your hands more than full running lunch and dinner service, but Anthony Demetre and Will Smith, the men behind Arbutus and Wild Honey, feel there's a gap in the market - for afternoon tea.

Earlier this month, the two-times Michelin-starred pair launched afternoon tea at the Mayfair outpost, Wild Honey.

"It's just at Wild Honey," Will Smith tells us, adding that he doesn't think afternoon tea is a Soho (read Arbutus) thing. But Smith's thinking behind the concept was that people are often pushed for time and that a later, lighter offering might just do the trick.

The menu, called Sweet and Savoury, available from Monday to Friday from 3pm-6pm, includes a selection of Prosecco, Champagne and Champagne cocktails, savouries such as croque monsieur (ham, Gruyere and toasted sourdough), £5.95, a board of charcuterie (speck, finocchiona, coppa and five-year bellota), £12.95, and warm potato soup with chive cream, £5.50.

Continue reading "Fancy a spot of afternoon tea in the heart of Mayfair darling? Why not try Wild Honey?" »

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