An increasing number of hotel foodservice operations are growing their businesses by cultivating their farm-to-table offerings—sometimes literally.
From on-site terrace and grounds gardens to expanded programs for sourcing products locally, hotel chefs are turning to so-called locavore practices to differentiate their brands by showcasing geography, reduce some costs and carbon footprints, and inspire kitchen crews.
“It gives the hotel and the restaurant an opportunity to showcase the area,” says J.W. Foster, executive chef at the Fairmont Hotel in downtown Dallas and its Pyramid restaurant. “You can come and stay two or three days, or just overnight, and you can experience Texas right here in the hotel and the restaurant.”
Foster, who was named chef of the Dallas Fairmont a year ago, says his emphasis on local products grew from his roots in Canada. But it was Texas’ weather that helped inspire the 2,000-square-foot garden on the hotel’s pool and terrace level, he says.
“When I came down here, I saw the huge potential of the garden on the Terrace,” Foster says. “We built so it’s educational for the guests and the staff. It can also support the business we do in the restaurant and for banquets.”
The garden also is cost-effective, he says.
“On average, herbs will cost you a dollar a bunch,” he says. “To be honest, cost was not my main goal. I wanted the cooks working here to experience and understand the produce rather than just pulling it out of a fridge or ordering it off a truck.
“If they grow it, they will have more respect for the product,” he continues. “It’s a good lesson for a cook to understand. I think we’re losing that. The [clients] flourish with it as well. I see them walking through when the cooks are up there picking stuff for functions and for the restaurant, they are getting stopped and having their pictures taken with guests and being asked questions.”
At the Gaylord Texan Resort in Grapevine, Texas, Joanne Bondy, executive chef of the upscale Old Hickory Steakhouse, partners with local farmers and seeks out fresh products from the local farmers’ market.
As a special addition to the Old Hickory menu, Bondy has recently launched a special “Texas Farm to Market” menu, taking produce straight “from market to table” daily.
“What is so special about our Texas Farm to Market program is that instead of creating a menu and then purchasing the required ingredients to serve to our guests, our resort chefs purchase the best locally grown produce available first and then begin to build their menus around it,” says Martha Neibling, director of public relations at the Gaylord Texan.
The resort now employs a farmers market expert buyer who is responsible for getting up before the sun rises to gather fresh produce for the resort twice a week or more.
“She is our adviser, telling us what crops look good and what we need to bring in,” Neibling says. “In addition, we do a great deal of business with Texas farmers who deliver their items to our kitchens.”
The Texas Farm to Market Chef’s Menu changes weekly and is built around the items that are in season and in prime condition.
“This week, chef Bondy was thinking of purchasing peaches from Cooper Farm,” Neibling says. “However, our farmers market buyer called chef Bondy and said, ‘You have to do something with persimmon from Cooper Farm, because they are perfect today.’ As a result, we purchased the perfectly ripened persimmon and chef Bondy made the delightful ice cream that is offered on this week’s menu.”
Like many properties with sufficient space, the Gaylord Texan has also created it own herb garden for the Old Hickory restaurant.
“It is an extensive garden, very well-maintained, that provides the kitchen with fresh herbs any time they are needed,” Neibling says. “Chef Bondy literally walks outside to the Old Hickory patio where the garden is located, picks them herself and prepares them inside. It smells wonderful!”
Kelly Patton, executive chef at the Inn at Lost Creek in Telluride, Colo., says that his 9545 Restaurant & Bar is meeting with a local rancher who produces elk and domestic lamb.
“We’re trying to source locally and certainly statewide,” he said. “Colorado has a vast variety of game meats: elk, bison, lamb.”
He adds, “Instead of a theme restaurant or chain restaurant, we can enhance the local feel and give it an identity.”
Telluride, on the Western slope of the Colorado Rockies, also has some Southwestern influence, he said, so there are many options.
“It gives you an identity that is very Telluride,” says Patton, who has been at the Inn at Lost Creek for a year.
“We are somewhat remote, but we are able to work with purveyors around the area.”
Among the locally sourced dishes at 9545 are a buffalo flank steak with a Southwest marinade and a lamb rib slowly braised with a local pilsner beer.
Patton, who from the remote reaches of mountainside Telluride recently participated in an online chefs’ seminar on the topic of sourcing locally, said many of the chefs in the discussion agreed that “you are promoting your local business and you are reducing your carbon footprint.”
“You are thinking both locally and globally,” he says.
Patton says local ingredients are not necessarily less expensive, but they do reduce loss and often provide for a longer shelf life.
Kip Clayton, vice president of business development at Parasole Restaurant Holdings of Minneapolis, says local products were top of mind when debuting the 280-seat Manny’s Steakhouse at the new W Hotel in Minneapolis, which opened in September.
“We have a lot of younger guests who are pretty health-conscious,” Clayton says. “When it makes sense financially and otherwise, we offer freshness of local products as well as the savings on energy used to transport the product.”
Manny’s serves breakfast at the hotel, using local brown eggs from Litchfield, Minn., pork from a fifth-generation farmer in Waseca, Minn., blue cheese from Faribault, Minn., and sprouts from River Falls, Wis.
“It’s a good fit for the crowd that comes to our restaurant,” Clayton says. “Younger people tend to be drawn to more natural, organic foods as well as the farm-to-table movement.
“When you are in downtown setting in a city, whether it’s Minneapolis or Manhattan, you get locals who dine out and are looking for healthy dining options,” Clayton continues. “We would not exist if we relied only on travelers.
The hotel guests are very important to us, but 80 percent of our business comes from the local market.”
Local guests, he adds, take a special interest in local products.
“There’s a local pride that goes with that and a belief that not only are you supporting local farmers but the quality of what you are getting is better,” Clayton says.
Hotel chefs also take special pride in growing their own products.
“A chef is only as good as his ingredients, and fresh, homegrown ingredients elevate the quality of a dish,” says John Tesar, executive chef of Rosewood Mansion on Turtle Creek in Dallas.
He convinced the hotel this summer to install a large herb and vegetable garden on the grounds.
“Since arriving at The Mansion, it has been a dream of mine to grow fresh ingredients right here in the backyard of this historic estate,” Tesar said.
He enlisted his friend and local produce grower Tom Spicer to create the garden, and they plan “to nurture the garden and rotate vegetation based on the season,” he says. More than 30 varieties of edible vegetation have been planted, including exotic herbs, baby lettuces and olive trees, he says.
In addition, the perimeter of The Mansion Patio is now lined with lemon grass plants, fennel and a variety of colorful, edible flowers. The Provençal-style garden also thrives with chocolate mint, orange mint, lemon verbena and red-stem sorrel.
Brandy wine heirloom tomatoes, Black Jack zucchini and watermelon radishes also have been planted, and those dining at Tesar’s chef’s table enjoy a front-row seat of the growing garden. The Mansion’s bar also uses produce from the garden in drinks and as garnishes.
Many chefs say they are inspired by European traditions, and sometimes location, to seek out local products.
Stefan Bünning, executive chef at the Sheraton Hacienda del Mar in Cabo San Lucas in the Baja Mexico, says because of the hotel’s remote location, he relies on many local products.
“The seafood and lobster here are exceptional,” Bünning says, “and the guests seem to love that we give them the local flavor.”
In addition, some hotel properties through the years have developed a reputation for “sameness,” which the dependence on local products quickly dissipates.
“Local produce emphasizes the ‘freshness brand,’” says Foster of the Fairmont in Dallas.
His garden is planted with about 600 herb plants, such as rosemary, three types of thyme, sages, oreganos, basils, chives, lavender and eucalyptus.
“We’re also using the eucalyptus in steaming fish, laying it down with the striped bass on top of it,” Foster says. “It gives it a nice little extra flavor to the fish itself.”
The garden also has seven different kinds of chiles, including poblanos and habeneros, four varieties of tomatoes, eggplants, zucchini, and watermelons.
“I have these beautiful 10-pound watermelons,” he says with pride.
The garden has trimmed the costs for most herbs, Foster adds.
“We don’t buy any herbs except for cilantro, because of the volume we go through, as well as chives,” he says.
The garden supports the entire banquet and restaurant kitchens.
“I wanted a functional garden,” he says. “We use everything.”
Many chefs note that local sourcing can help with efforts to be environmentally sound as well.
“I believe in reducing your carbon footprint by buying as much as you can locally and supporting your local purveyors and artisans,” says Foster, who gets buffalo, wild boar, venison, antelope and cheeses from two different suppliers in the state.
“We even have a Texas Parmesan cheese,” he says. “The biggest surprise was Texas olive oil. It’s new. He’s gaining ground with it. It’s important when you come to our restaurant, the Pyramid, or come to a function, we can offer something that is grown or raised right here in Texas. When we see that reaction, we push even harder to find more.”
Foster is currently seeking a source for lamb and duck for a large-volume restaurant and is in talks with a turkey producer.
“Producers are excited about it, and they want to produce more,” he says. “The guest wants to experience the local flavors.”
The effort to buy locally has not been easy, he says, but he’s nearing his goal of casting most of the menu locally. About 70 percent of the menu at the just-reopened and renovated Pyramid restaurant is locally sourced.
“I can’t fulfill 100 percent of the menu yet, but we’re getting closer,” Foster says. “There’s excitement that’s building on its own among farmers. What I enjoy the most is getting out and meeting the suppliers, purveyors and the people who are actually making this stuff. It’s as much in its raw state as possible. I try to give you the purest version of antelope or steak so you can experience it for what it is.”
As for his own part of the product, Foster foresees expansion on the horizon.
“By next year, I’ll probably add another 1,000 square feet to the terrace garden,” he says.