Hotel Online  Special Report

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Chef In a Suit
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Christian Abell explains why he hung up his chef's whites
and put on a suit and tie to take over as F&B
director at the JW Marriott Hong Kong

By Steve Shellum, Publisher/Editor, HOTEL Asia Pacific / February 2004

When award-winning chef Christian Abell decided to hang up his chef's uniform and don a suit and tie to become F&B director of the JW Marriott Hong Kong, there were mixed reactions among his culinary contemporaries. Some of the old-word breed of chefs almost went as far as calling him a "traitor".
 

But, says Abell, most comments have been highly positive. "The reaction from most of my friends in the industry has been, 'Good on you, I'd love to do that!'. 

"But I can also understand the traditional way of thinking, which says simply that a chef is a chef.

"The old-style chefs look at anyone moving from the kitchens to corporate management as kind of like a poacher turned gamekeeper. 


Christian Abell

"I've not had negative remarks from many people, but it happens."

Abell, 40, was confirmed as the hotel's F&B director after more than three years as executive chef at the same property. 

He admits: "It's still a little challenging for everyone, because when I walk around the hotel, the staff still call me 'chef'."

Abell's deep passion and finely honed culinary skills have won him many awards during his 23-year career. In 2001, he was named Marriott's Executive Chef of the Year, beating intense competition from chefs from the group's more than 2,000 hotels worldwide.

"I had a pretty good profile with that, but I was always interested in moving on and up," he says. 

"During my annual performance appraisal, I stressed that I wanted to do some cross-training in the F&B department - to see if I liked it, more than anything else. I wanted to get a feel for it." 

However, the planned cross-training was put on hold after 9/11 and, later, Abell's extensive experience was in demand for new openings across the region. He eventually began his cross-training last March, but it only entailed one day a week. After four weeks, GM Mark Conklin called him into his office and said: "Your cross-training is over". 

Recalls Abell: "I thought, 'Oh ****, I've screwed it up pretty bad'." His fears were ungrounded. Conklin explained that the then F&B director, Rolf Gut, had been appointed acting GM of a sister property in China, and he wanted Abell to take over his position in Hong Kong. 

Groomed

"I put on a suit and tie and spent four more days with Rolf, who was also being groomed for promotion."

Abell admits that the move "came a little faster than I envisioned". "I thought that after finishing my cross-training here I would apply for an F&B director position at another, smaller property in the group."

Then SARS hit - and all staff promotions were put on hold. Instead, Abell took a sideways step and took on the role of F&B manager, rather than director. "In hindsight, that was a very good move, and it gave me a little bit of a buffer before jumping right in the deep end."

He points out that the JW Marriott Hong Kong is the group's biggest property in the region, with annual F&B turnover of about US$32 million. 

"That's a huge responsibility for any F&B manager," he says. "When you are director, you have responsibilities for finances and profit, so I had a little time to better learn the ropes." 

He learned the ropes fast, and was confirmed as F&B director on August 1. "I think it upset a few people, because there was a queue for this job among my colleagues throughout the region. 

"I respect Mark [Conklin] for having the confidence in me and giving me the chance. 
"He took a gamble. It would have been easier for him to transfer the F&B director from, say the JW Marriott Bangkok - which is a great property but only does a quarter of this property in terms of F&B - and moved me down to Bangkok.

"It would have been easier for him, but he thought I had potential. I respect him for that - he gave me the break I needed."

Then came the question of who was going to replace Abell as executive chef - and he and Conklin quickly agreed that the answer was already there, in the shape of executive sous chef Thomas Rebler. 

"I had been grooming him and he was ready to transfer to a smaller property as executive chef," says Abell. "But we realised he was the right man for my old job, so why transfer him?

Compatability

"We were already comfortable working together, and I know what wavelength he is on. "There's a lot of compatibility between us - I'm probably more the creative, off-the-wall type, while he is more the conservative workhorse type. The right balance is there."

Having so recently been in Rebler's position, surely Abell finds it difficult to keep out of his way and let him get on with the job in his own style?

"That was my realm for several years, and it is very tempting to say, 'I wouldn't do it that way'. But I try not to dictate to him. "When we were both promoted, we sat down and set some ground rules - basically, that he works on the food and I work on the creative side of it. "I gave him my word I would never correct anything he did in front of anyone - if I wasn't happy about something, we would talk later."On the other hand, when I make mistakes, he's free to pull me up on them."

Challenges

What are the biggest challenges of his new role? "The fact that I now have overall responsibility for the success of all the hotel's F&B operations. I make the decisions, and I rise and fall with them - and I like that. 

"If it works well I'm a hero; if it screws up, I'm going to be unemployed and will only have myself to blame."

The self-analytical Abell quickly identified his own strengths and weaknesses. "I'm a back-of-house guy, king in the kitchen. I know the kitchens backwards, and I know what I'm talking about there.

"But the most service experience I'd had was during my college days several years ago, so I had to rely a lot on common sense rather than my background. "I spent as much time as I could during the first three months in the restaurants talking to customers and getting comfortable on the floor. 

"I don't want to be the kind of F&B director who is not hands on, and just sits in the office and signs checks. 

"As a chef, if there was ever a guest complaint, my attitude was if it wasn't about the food, then it wasn't my problem. Now any guest complaint is my problem, whether it's about the food or the service. In the kitchen, you're kind of shielded from that. "Now, I'm just another suit in the hotel - that magical aura of the chef's uniform has gone. I was a bit nervous the first couple of weeks about seeing a guest and not being able to remember his or her name.

"I deliberately did things I was most nervous about. I worked behind the bar on Saturday nights to learn and understand what was going on. It was not difficult, but it was a bit scary. You have to face your fears."

Having been a suit-and-tie guy for a few months now, Abell realises the pressures faced by F&B directors - something that did not particularly bother him in his chef days.

"As an executive chef, you sometimes get frustrated or even annoyed if the F&B director does not allow you to do something. 

"You almost get angry, and think he does not understand - but now I know why I was not allowed to do certain things in the past because of budget constraints or other reasons. 

"Now I'm in these shoes I understand perfectly why some things cannot be done, no matter how much the chef complains. 

"You see it in a whole different light. Sometimes, I still have to argue with myself in my own mind and have to say, 'Don't do it for food reasons, do it for business reasons'."

Beverage sales

One of Abell’s immediate challenges is to increase the hotel's beverage sales, which are probably the lowest of any 5-star property in Hong Kong, accounting for just $6 million of the total $32 million F&B annual turnover.

He is totally revamping the hotel's master wine list and developing several creative promotions to boost drinks sales. 

"You can't be just a good chef when you have that type of money and responsibility. You must be a good businessman - you have to buy right, cost right and manage right," he says. 

"I wouldn't be sitting here today with this tie around my neck if I did not have those skills and attitude. 

"I've still got tons more to learn, but I have a real passion for the job. I love my wines - and this is starting to come out in my new role."

He adds: "More important than anything else these days is how you manage people.  "The old days of the mad chef throwing the frying pan have gone. They used to get away with that as part of their image, but these days they wouldn't survive a week with Marriott."

After 23 years as a chef, can Abell put his hand on his heart and say he gets the same satisfaction outside the kitchen? 

"Being a chef is a great job, and I will always be a chef in my heart," he says. "But I don't want to be 55 and still putting eggs on the stove - I couldn't do it.

"My philosophy as a chef has not changed: it's not only food but also service and ambience, packaged together. I thought like that as a chef, and still think like that.
"But I knew that if I didn't make the move now, I never would. You can perfect the art of being a chef but, if you are ambitious, you really have to drive yourself with new challenges. 

"No matter which hotel you go to or which kitchen you work in, eventually they are not challenging you enough. "The only way you can do that is to do something like this, and go off in another direction."

But he confesses: "Everyone still looks at me and thinks, 'Chef in a suit'. That image is taking a long time to change, and it probably won't until I move on to another property or role."

Respect

Where does Abell see himself 10 years from now? "I don't see myself as a GM," he says. "Not because I don't respect GMs or think it's not an important job, but they spend a lot of time doing PR and sales/marketing-driven work and I prefer to see myself more hands on and operational. 

"I see myself more as a VP of operations or working in hotel design. "Having said that, five years ago I said I would never be an F&B director, so I'm ruling nothing out ..."

When asked what he misses most about his old job, he answers simply: "Cooking". What does he miss least? "The hours."

The best thing about being an F&B director? "Having total control of the department and steering its direction." 

The worst? "This bloody tie!"

But, he adds: "Just because I have put on a tie doesn't mean I'm choking the passion out of myself. 

"If I wasn't happy doing it, I wouldn't do it. Life's too short."

A chef’s progress – from kitchen to corporate

Christian Abell was born in Wales and emigrated to Perth, Australia, when he was four. His father – a lieutenant-commander in the navy – wanted him to go to university to study to be a doctor or lawyer, but Abell would have none of it.

“I always wanted to be a chef, but my dad’s perception of that was a cook in the navy.”

He left school at 16, joined a restaurant, finished his apprenticeship then, in 1984, headed for London, where he got his first break in a 1-star Michelin restaurant.

“The rest of the kitchen staff were all French or German. I stayed there for two years, cooked my ass off and worked my way up through the ranks to executive sous chef,” recalls Abell.

At 25, he left to travel through Europe, working without pay in various Michelin starred restaurants for the experience. He then took six months off and went to Greece to work in a small taverna for food and board and as much rough vino as he could drink – but, again, no pay. 

“I ended up doing a full year there and I still say that, although it was not high class, it was a really good foundation for learning the old-fashioned art of cooking.” 

But after a year, he thought he had better get serious, so he applied for a position back in Australia with the Ramada Renaissance group. 

He was appointed executive sous chef in a Ramada Gold Coast property and promoted to executive chef after 18 months, before transferring to the Sydney Renaissance.

The company transferred him to South Korea, where he spent four years and met his wife, Jini. While there, Ramada was purchased by Marriott, and he was transferred to Hong Kong in January 2000.

© Copyright HOTEL Asia Pacific
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Hotel Asia Pacific
Steve Shellum
158 Wong Uk Tsuen
Yuen Long
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Hong Kong
Tel: +852 2882-7352
Fax: +852 2882-2461
http://www.hotelasiapacific.com
steve@hotelasiapacific.com

 
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