Chef Thomas Connell brings passion to each meal, upping the experience for all of his guests.
As a child, Chef Thomas Connell, vice president of culinary at Fontainebleau Miami Beach, always looked forward to visiting his grandparents' home in Solvang, California. His grandfather would be seemingly entranced in front of a hot pot on the stove cooking stew. It's no wonder Connell, too, fell under cooking's spell, accurately forecasting his future profession to elementary school teachers.
To Connell, crafting meals means far more than the dishes served. He likens it to the scene in Disney's "Ratatouille" in which one bite of the title dish transports the miserly critic back to his mother tending to him as a child. "That's lovenot just food," he says.
Connell takes each meal served at the legendary Fontainebleau personally. Banquets are even individually plated, just as any meal at a restaurant would be. That attention to detail has made the chef renowned around the world. Prior to the Fontainebleau, his career at Ritz-Carlton took Connell to Bali, Shanghai, Tenerife, Palm Beach, Hong Kong, Singapore and Laguna Niguel, Connell. All the while, he was always at home in a kitchen.
ALHI President and CEO Michael Dominguez chewed the fat with Connell about what drives his well-season approach to cooking and life as part of ALHI's "Beyond the Meeting Room" Podcast. Here are some samples of Connell's recipes for success.
Michael Dominguez: How important is passion?
Thomas Connell: I have to say it's No. 1. It's your driver, your fuel. When you are passionate about something, nothing is going to stop you. For me, leadership in a kitchen has been about inspiring people. To get people to do their absolute best is to have them do what you want them to do because they want to. You're only able to do that through inspiration.
MD: There is something beautiful about independent hotels. Large brands have moved into becoming real estate companies but independents are hospitality driven. Is that fair to say?
TC: A good analogy is being the landlord of an apartment building versus being the landlord of a B&B and bringing people into your home. We are as good as our last guest and as good as our worst meal and our most upset guest. You have to measure from the bottom up. It's easy to measure from top up. If 90% of your customers are happy, that's not good enough. What if you are one those 10%? How would you feel going home? To be neurotic is a little healthy; it drives perfection.
MD: I know you believe in the team. Can you talk about teamwork and how to make sure there is no ego involved?
TC: We all come to table with our recipes and years of experience. In this one case, I had everyone pull together their pizza dough recipe and everyone makes their recipe. We did blind tastings. In this case, the pastry chef won. Her dough was really fantasticit's the recipe I use at home now. You need to be open because there is always someone who knows something you don't know.
MD: I think our [society's] lack of civil discourse is our inability to see everyone has different views. We've lost this curiosity. What's important to me is a diversity of thought, which only comes about from a diversity of people.
TC: I've always said if kitchens were the world, we wouldn't have war because you have such diversity in kitchens. Food is history. Regional cuisine is based on where people were, and as they traveled, they brought their food. If you trace back cuisine, you trace the history and heritage of human beings. It's not about separate islands and continents. It's one place that has all these different products and brings them together and we mix and match. We're so open [in a kitchen] because it such a great learning opportunity.
MD: You used to have a butcher shop and still cut your own meat. Talk about what you do to prepare and why it so important to start with such a good product?
TC: Commercial production of food has managed to mask quality. You see so many different elements when you see products whole and you understand what a great product is. If a cook opens a package and heats something up, they are not connected to that dish. If you clean a product, stuff it, break it down; if you are the one cutting it and handling it, you develop a relationship with that product and transcends into what you do and how you cook it.
Also, it truly is a better financial model to have cross-utilization of products ways for restaurants and hotels.
MD: I would be remiss if I did not talk about sustainability. Can you talk about its importance?
TC: It takes more effort on an operator's part to be more responsible, not just the product we buy but how we use it. We have an initiative in the hotel, Blue Goes Green, and that's to make sure we analyze everything and make changes we need to make to make future is a little better than it is now. There is so much we can do. At home, we're look at solar for my roof. The reality is we all need to do this. Everything we do on this planet is going to affect everyone else and the sooner we realize that, we will be a little more cognizant about our decisions. I think in the next 30 years, there will be culture shift as people focus on what we're doing and how were doing it. What choice to we have?
This interview has been edited and shortened from the full discussion, which can be heard here.
photo courtesy of Fontainebleau Miami Beach