Puttin’ on the Ritz

What does it take to keep one of the world’s most famous hotels ticking away at its five-star best? Terry Durack spends 24 hours with the staff at London’s swanky Ritz Hotel to see what goes on behind the shiny exterior and hotel’s renowned restaurants.

Since 1906, The Ritz has been thrilling Londoners, and the world, with its seductive combination of French refinement and British style. Royalty has been in and out of its revolving doors since the beginning, from King Edward VII entertaining his mistress Mrs Keppel in the Marie Antoinette Suite, to the Queen celebrating her 80th birthday with 300 of her closest friends.

By 1936, it was deemed “terrifically sophisticated and smart”, filled with “princes, diplomats, politicians, beauties, stage and film stars.” Today, the place still sparkles like a freshly polished jewel, and things go on as they always have. Perhaps fewer of us can afford to take up residence in the royal suite, but for much, much less, we can still take afternoon tea and scones amid the Louis XVI splendour.

But behind all the glamour, the gilt and the glory, there is another Ritz – a Ritz of tangled corridors, staff staircases, steamy kitchens, cool-rooms, laundry baskets and clatter. Unlike the cosseted guests tucked warmly in their beds on the floors above, this is a Ritz that never sleeps. So what does it take to keep the grandest – and foodiest – of grand hotels fed and watered 24 hours a day?

3.30am Jake Finn arrives at work, deep in the lower ground floor bowels of The Ritz Hotel. First, he switches on his techno music. Then he places tray after tray of carefully rolled croissants into the ovens. Then he starts to mix the flour, sugar, baking powder and butter for the scones.

In just a few hours, the hotel guests will be waking up, brushing the sleep from their eyes, and calling up a room service breakfast, booking lunch, or looking forward to The Ritz’s famed afternoon tea.

The pressure on the in-house bakery is invisible, but constant. Nine hundred and sixty perfect, hand-cut scones are required every day for the afternoon tea sittings alone. It wouldn’t do, at this point, to forget the baking powder.

Because this is The Ritz, the grandest hotel of them all; where the famous hotelier Cesar Ritz reinvented the very idea of a hotel, where Pavlova danced, the Aga Khan gambled, Winston Churchill negotiated, Charlie Chaplin doffed his bowler hat, Tallulah Bankhead sipped champagne from her slipper, and habitué Noel Coward was inspired to write, “we know just how we want our quails done… and then we go and have our nails done”. After all that, how could there not be scones?

6am The basement kitchen fills with the come-hither smell of sizzling bacon as Korean-born Kuy Myung Seo and the other breakfast chefs begin their shift. Behind them is a parking lot of sixteen perfectly set breakfast trolleys, lined up like dazzling white floats at a grand street parade.

7.30am Under the watchful eye of the sartorially splendid French-born food purchaser Rigobert Tamian, boxes and crates of some of the world’s finest produce are delivered to the meat and fish preparation area. The produce budget is a massive $4.9 million a year. “Most people think my job is to spend money,” he says. “It’s not. It’s to save it”. There are crabs from Cromer in Norfolk, lobsters from Scotland, eggs from a single farm in Sussex; wild salmon from Severn & Wye in Bristol, and organic beef from the Duchy of Cornwall. Premier chef de partie Heri Purnama sets to work, lining up Bresse chickens on a board, their white-feathered heads in glamorous contrast to their characteristically blue-black legs. He sharpens his knife, ready to fillet a turbot so heavy he can barely lift it onto the board. Purnama considers himself privileged to work at the Ritz. “Where else could I work with such beautiful ingredients?” he asks.

7.45am The night manager, James Illing, is about to sign off after finalising The Daily Ritz, a newsletter distributed every morning to department heads. Today’s issue lists the weather forecast for London (Cloudy, Max: 12C); the Champagne of the month (Mumm); the evening guestroom amenity (dark chocolate and blood orange macaroons); and the day’s tip (“Answer the phone within three rings”).

8am The croissants are disappearing fast in the Restaurant. Smoked salmon and scrambled eggs vie with the “full English” for supremacy, but it is the room itself, often referred to as the most beautiful dining room in the world, that wins everyone’s hearts. The Times’ restaurant critic, AA Gill, was moved to call it “the most elegantly pretty in London, a marvellous fondant of gilding, marble and airhead fresco”. It goes with the territory that Luigi Cagnin, the assistant restaurant manager, is not easily fazed. Does he have salted butter as well as unsalted? Yes. Ah, but does he have Vegemite? Yes. It arrives with a silver butter knife on fine bone china, its bold colonial colours standing out like a screechy cockatoo in the gilt-edged splendour.

8.15am Executive chef John Williams changes from civvies into full chef’s gear with the ease of an army soldier slipping into khaki. His PA, the unflappable Ildico Markus, is waiting with the first of three or four strong coffees. At the time of Williams’ appointment in 2004, most of London’s grand hotels were modernising and hiring big-name celebrity chefs. Gordon Ramsay went to Claridges, Marcus Wareing went to The Savoy and The Berkeley, while Ramsay protege Angela Hartnett took over the kitchens of The Connaught.

Williams, the son of a Tyneside fisherman, was not a celebrity. He was a classic “grand hotel” chef, a devotee of Escoffier who had served as Maitre Chef des Cuisines at both The Berkeley and Claridges. When Sir David and Sir Frederick Barclay bought The Ritz in 1995, they made a massive commitment to restore and retain the hotel’s unique atmosphere and character, and Williams fitted into their plans.

Today, he is Executive Chairman of the Academy of Culinary Arts, and last year, was awarded an MBE for his services to hospitality.

8.30am Williams is giving two of his chefs a bollocking for wearing less-than-spotless shoes. Somehow, nine of his most senior chefs have managed to squeeze into his tiny office for their morning meeting. Restaurant head chef, James Holah takes the team through the day’s menu then special afternoon tea orders are discussed: “one special vegetarian menu – no fish, no eggs, pastry’s OK”. One “no fish, but egg is OK”. One “no smoked salmon’. Three “no butter”.

With the relatively small number of guestrooms (136) at The Ritz, food and wine accounts, unusually, for half of the hotel’s income. Williams and his team of 52 chefs will cater for breakfast, lunch and dinner in the restaurant; lunch and dinner in the deliciously art deco Rivoli Bar; five afternoon tea sittings in the Palm Court; four private functions in the grand eighteenth century rooms of the adjoining William Kent House; 24-hour room service; and breakfast, lunch and dinner at Cesar’s, the staff canteen. All up, a grand total of 1180 meals. Three “no butter”.

9am Upstairs, another meeting. This time, Executive Assistant Manager and head of Food & Beverage David Collas chairs the daily F&B meeting. “It’s all about the details,” he says. “Even if one guest orders a birthday cake to be delivered to their luncheon table, we all have to be aware of it, at every level.” For someone whose wife is now four days overdue with their first child, he is remarkably focussed.

9.30am James Holah plates up the menu du jour for John Williams’ inspection; a delicate baton of pressed ham hock with salad Lyonnaise; a chunky fillet of monkfish wrapped in prosciutto; a perfect pavé of organic salmon, and a roasted fillet and breast of veal with petit legumes and sweetbreads. This is not stuck-in-the-dark-ages hotel food, but seasonal, contemporary, confident, modern British cooking. Holah has worked under both Marco Pierre White and The Square’s Philip Howard, and his pedigree shows on the plate.

9.45am Tink, tinkle, tink. In the Long Gallery, Andrew Davies, master piano tuner from Bluthner Pianos of Berkeley Square is hard at work making sure that afternoon tea guests receive a pitch-perfect accompaniment from pianist Ian Gomes, favourite of both the Queen Mother and Frank Sinatra.

10am Senior department heads meet in the office of General Manager Stephen Boxall. Only the Executive Housekeeper is missing. “Where is Josie?” asks Boxall. “Doing some urgent pressing,” comes the answer, “for the Sheik”. The Room Services Manager goes through new arrivals. One is Dame Shirley Bassey, another is delicately referred to as a “high care” guest. Restaurant bookings are run through: Lord So-And-So is in for breakfast, while a popular sports figure has booked for six following his investiture at Buckingham Palace.

10.20am Sandwich Chef Manu Roy and his team are literally sandwiched by sandwiches. They started at 7am and have now made more than half of the 3500 finger sandwiches required for the day. The specially long loaves of bread are sliced lengthwise, and the fillings added - salmon, ham, cucumber, chicken and cheese – then repeated and repeated until there is a Great Wall of Sandwiches, to be cut by hand into 4 cm fingers.

10.35am In the Ritz Fine Jewellery shop just off the lobby, Managing Director Paul Carter takes delivery of his daily ice-bucket and full bottle of Champagne. Good grief, Champagne before noon? “We like to have one ready at all times in case a client comes in for an engagement ring,” he says. “Then we can offer them a celebratory glass without any fuss”.

10.52am At the hotel entrance, Irish doorman Michael O’Dowdall, thick white gloves pushed through his shoulder epaulettes, is conducting an orchestra of black cabs, distributing suitcases as if they are goodie bags.

11.20am The first guests arrive for the 11.30am afternoon tea sitting in the Palm Court. Some have been waiting months for the day to come.

Dapper Palm Court Manager Michael Kotb is ready for them. He knows exactly who is having a birthday, who has a gluten allergy, and who is about to pop the question. In fact, he already has the ring, ready to present to the table in a champagne glass.

11.30am Lunch service gets underway in the staff restaurant. Today is Indian day, featuring lamb and vegetable curries, rice and peas, prepared by Portuguese demi chef de partie, Luis Da Silva. “Not everybody likes curry,” he admits. Seventeen-year-old page girl Isabella Goodall, one of ten young people placed in the hotel annually by HRH Prince Charles’ Prince’s Trust, walks in for her break, looking as cute as a button in her little round ‘drummer-boy’ cap. “I can’t stand curry,” she says.

12noon Restaurant Manager, Simon Girling briefs his waiters in the middle of the restaurant. He makes special mention of a guest who regularly entertains ambassadors. “Keep his credit card aside – he does not want his guests to see the bill.”

12.20pm A mini drama erupts at the restaurant entrance, when a regular guest doesn’t want to wait until it opens at 12.30pm. He wants to dine now, dammit. He stalks off in a huff, until Matthew Rivett, Food and Beverage Operations Manager catches up for a quick chat. “If we were in the wrong, I would offer him a glass of Champagne,” says Rivett. “But if not, then you cannot just buy people’s favour”.

12:45pm Lunch service begins and the voice of James Holah booms over the kitchen loudspeaker system. “One-langoustine-a-la-carte-one-scallop-a-la-carte-one-john-dory-one-sea-bass.” The chefs involved in preparing these dishes yell back “oui” in unison. Within minutes, chefs are moving in and out of one another’s way like slithering eels in a pond.

1pm The Palm Court. The ring is presented. The answer is “yes”.

3pm The Ritz pianist, Ian Gomes, is back from a holiday in Goa. “I couldn’t wait to get back to work,” he says, laughing. “My wife thought I was mad.” He does an effortless segue from A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square to Moon River. On the last occasion that the Queen Mother dined at The Ritz, he says, she asked him to play Hello Dolly for her, and stood quietly by the piano, softly singing the lyrics to herself.

3.10 Gerrie Pitt, director of press and public relations, seems to be in all places at all times, dispensing equal amounts of common sense and charisma. She appears from nowhere to announce that David Collas’ wife Jamila has started giving birth. Everybody cheers.

3.20pm John Williams has called a meeting with his senior chefs in Cesar’s to run over the arrangements for a special four-course Louis Roederer champagne dinner. “Let’s pull out all the stops,” he says. They go through every minute detail of the salad of lobster with passionfruit jelly, raised radish and almond fluid gel; roast fillet of brill with baby leeks and morels; tournedos of beef with braised oxtail and bone marrow; and the spiced caramel nougatine pear.

3.45pm The lunchtime linen is sent to the laundry. Every day, 800 napkins and 300 tablecloths are washed and pressed.

4.18pm The Ritz extended family has officially grown by one. Raphael-Zachary Collas is born at St. Thomas Hospital, weighing 3.7kg. Mother and baby are doing well. Father is over the moon.

4.45pm Simon Girling is allocating tables for the dinner service in the Restaurant; a tricky job given that table number one is always kept for Baroness Thatcher, and table number nine for royalty (it was the Queen Mother’s favourite) and the directors of The Ritz.

5.10pm In the pastry kitchen, Perth-born Marion Collins is working on her crème patissiere. Trained in IT, she threw in a sensible well-paid job five years ago, to retrain as a pastry chef. “My boyfriend put on 15 kilograms when I started this job,” she says laughing.

5.15pm. You can feel the kitchen start to rev up. A tall young chef de partie hunches over 16 kilograms of fat green asparagus, shaving the stalks and popping the spears into iced water. Others peel potatoes, trim back celery, scrape carrots. Back of House Manager, Antonio Mouzo, wanders through the kitchen with his bulging workbook, looking worried. Apparently, he always looks worried.

5.45pm Rivoli Bar manager Alan Cook, a handsome former model resplendent in white jacket, strides past the patisserie kitchen. He swoops, and moves on. There is one less perfect little petit four for the dining room.

6.30pm The Rivoli Bar – all Lalique glass, onyx marble, leopard print chairs - is jumping. A legion of charming Italian men shake cocktails, ply guests with salted almonds, freshly fried crisps and fat, juicy green olives stuffed with real pimento. The bar’s signature champagne cocktail is the Courvoisier Esprit with Mumm, angostura bitters and brown sugar for £120. That’s quite a Ritzy price. “Oh yes,” grins the debonair Cook, adding, “but you do get olives and crisps with it.”

8.45pm It’s pressure cooker time. James Holah loses patience with one of the waiters, his voice turns to thunder, and four-letter words pepper the air. It’s not exactly Hell’s Kitchen, but it’s enough to make John Williams look up over his glasses.

9pm: Back in the Restaurant – or should that be the Theatre – Ian Gomes is doing his Sinatra thing on the piano, sommelier Thomas Sorcinelli decants a vintage Burgundy, and Simon Girling is in his element, carving a whole roast Bresse chicken for two at one table, seguing to another in time for the crepes suzette: melting butter, adding caramelised oranges, paper-thin pancakes, Grand Marnier and Cognac, and serving with perfectly chilled ice-cream. “In some hotels, the waiters just put the plates down” he says. “We like to do more than that.”

9.30pm Regis Beauregard, the French pastry chef is adding the final ribbons of gold leaf to his kalamansi lime and blood orange sphere with coconut nougatine.

11pm As the chefs wipe down the kitchen and prepare for home, night chef Ivaylo Gyurov reports for work. For most of the evening, he will be on his own in the kitchen, ready to respond to whatever room service order might come through, be it for tea or truffles.

2.45am Gyurov leaps into action. An order for an Aberdeen Angus hamburger with French fries, onion rings and salad has come through. He looks relieved to have a job to do. “It can get lonely,” he admits, “but it’s worth it, just for the opportunity to work at the Ritz.”

For all its classicism, its gueridon (tableside) service, it’s coat-tailed butlers and exquisite antiques, The Ritz is no old-fashioned dinosaur. It may be the last of the truly grand English hotels, but it still feels fresh, even a little racy. In the private rooms, gleaming lacquered Queen Anne bureaux hide the sleek paraphernalia of modern conference technology, while in the same manner, the kitchen conceals a light, modern touch, within its traditional frame.

While function bookings may be down, it is weathering the economic storm as well as it did two world wars and a depression. As one diarist wrote, The Ritz will “always thrive in wartime, as we are all cookless”. It is an increasingly rare experience to sample classicism with such charm and personality; to glimpse what was, while still able to revel in what is.

The Ritz London, 150 Piccadilly; +44 20 7493 818; www.theritzlondon.com



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