Cooking up Success (cover story) featuring Celebrity Chef Jennifer Carroll

April 20, 2012
By Marla Cimini

As more professional chefs are stepping out of the kitchen and into the spotlight, many have found themselves elevated into a lifestyle of celebrity status. Hotel chefs are major players in the restaurant world today, complete with admiring fans, packed schedules, and intense responsibilities to match their newly acquired fame. However, a chef who shifts from an independent restaurant to a hotel location can also reap many not-so-obvious benefits, such as gaining valuable hotel industry experience.

Jennifer Carroll is one chef who has chosen to immerse herself in the hospitality industry and take on much more of a commitment than simply running a local corner café. She is the chef de cuisine at The Ritz-Carlton, Philadelphia’s award-winning restaurant, 10 Arts Bistro and Lounge by Eric Ripert.
Her transition from an independent restaurant into the hotel industry officially began in May 2008, when renowned French chef Eric Ripert opened his Ritz-Carlton restaurant and offered Carroll the leading role in the kitchen. Previously, Carroll held the position of sous chef at Ripert’s New York City flagship, Le Bernadin, which is ranked among the best in the world, earning a Michelin three-star rating.  
Carroll may be a familiar face to viewers of the Bravo channel’s popular kitchen reality competition show Top Chef (Las Vegas, season six) in 2009, as well as Top Chef: All Stars. Already running the day-to-day operations at 10 Arts Bistro when she was selected for the series, Carroll’s strong passion for creative cooking, along with her feisty on-screen persona, helped to catapult her into TV stardom.

Culture Shock
Although Carroll already had a wealth of knowledge from working in several restaurants from San Francisco to Manhattan, this is her first experience within a hotel company, and the luxurious and refined Ritz-Carlton is not just any hotel. 

“I’ve always worked with indie restaurants my entire life,” she says, “so moving to a hotel was quite a culture shock.” 

Understanding that the Ritz-Carlton name and brand association would provide the restaurant with a sophisticated cachet—and a jump-start that many chefs only dream about—Carroll knew an adjustment period was inevitable. 

“As a chef, you realize that you are not a separate entity anymore,” she says. “You are not an independent restaurant and need to be always aware of the hotel guest, and the business of the hotel.” Hotel chefs are required to attend meetings on a regular basis. “I used to think the meetings were taking me away from cooking or enhancing my menu,” Carroll continues, “but it’s really about the guest experience, and it is important to learn about what’s going on in the hotel operations, sales, and everything else.”

Pleasant Perks
At her new post, she was braced for the unexpected, and found that being associated with a larger hotel company offers some pleasant perks, for herself as well as her team. Most typical restaurant employees do not have health care benefits, vacation days, or even sick time. Not so with her 24 staff members at 10 Arts Bistro.

“Our employees are treated very well,” Carroll says. “There is a huge care and concern for the team and everyone is treated like a family. We have great benefits and the employee cafeteria is truly unbelievable—it’s like no other.” 

She also learned that being associated with hotel restaurants can help advance careers. “I have a lot of young, hard-working chefs in my kitchen right now and this is their first job,” Carroll says. “They are very appreciative of the benefit system and the fact that they can transfer within the company to different restaurants all over the world, a huge opportunity that chefs at regular restaurants just don’t have.”

The topic of staffing has its own issues. Chefs who are accustomed to bringing on new kitchen employees at their own discretion must instead work with a human resources department. “At a typical restaurant, the process is completely different,” she says. “You can just hire someone and they start tomorrow. At the Ritz-Carlton, it just takes longer, and the potential candidate must undergo tests, orientation, and several interviews. ”

In the event of appliance problems or electrical outages, Carroll finds having access to a professional hotel staff gives her a sense of comfort, and more time to focus on the menu, food, and marketing. 

“We have a team of engineers in house who are on duty 24 hours a day. So if something goes wrong, I can call them and 95 percent of the time they can fix my problem right away,” she says. “At an independent restaurant, I would have to call a different off-site company to fix my oven, refrigeration, a leaky sink, or dishwasher. It’s so nice having them on hand all the time if a problem arises.” 

In addition, the opportunity to get a firsthand look at all sides of the hotel business is appealing to Carroll. Working closely with the front desk, as well as the marketing, public relations, and operations departments, has enabled her to truly achieve a multifaceted view of the inner workings of a property. 

Being an integral member of a hotel property also offers plenty of cost-saving opportunities that rarely present themselves to owners of privately owned restaurants. 

 “The Ritz-Carlton has a purchasing department and preferred vendor plan, which helps tremendously with food costs; it’s a great savings,” Carroll says. “The best part is that I am not limited to ordering from certain vendors, and I have some freedom when I order specialty food products from a local farm, like produce and meat.”

Hotel/Restaurant Relationship
Not surprisingly, other chefs across the U.S. are enjoying newfound recognition as they become known for their unique hotel locations. Chef José Andrés is often credited with introducing Americans to both avant-garde and traditional Spanish cooking. Andrés is host of the PBS television series Made in Spain, a culinary journey of his homeland. He has numerous restaurants in Washington, D.C., and has recently opened a visually stunning hotspot, The Bazaar in the SLS Hotel in Beverly Hills, Calif. Currently, he has three different concepts at The Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas: Jaleo, China Poblano, and the newly-opened é.
He believes his partnership with the upscale hotels have enhanced his brand. “The projects we’ve done with SLS and now The Cosmopolitan have extended our reach into new markets, new cities, and attracted new guests,” he says. “Until we opened The Bazaar at the SLS hotel in Los Angeles, we had not ventured beyond D.C. The Cosmopolitan has done the same for us in Las Vegas. The restaurants there have elevated us to a national level since people from all over the world visit Las Vegas for business and fun.”

Andrés also views the hotel/restaurant relationship as mutually beneficial. “You do benefit from having built-in hotel guests as customers. Hotels often function like a public square, so to be in the middle of all of that is a good thing,” he says. “However, I think the reverse is also true and becoming more important every day: the restaurant often enhances the hotel. The food and beverage, along with the association with a celebrity chef, is increasingly more of a selling point and a draw for the public.”

Acknowledging that no restaurant development ever runs smoothly, Andrés says The Cosmopolitan establishments were no different in the early stages. “There are always challenges in every project, but this was also an amazing learning experience,” he says. “Not every hotel project is the same; in my case it has worked out very, very well.”

Wearing Many Hats
Carroll and other celebrity chefs frequently get a crash course in public speaking and promotions, often taking on additional roles as spokespersons. She often travels with the hotel sales team to promote The Ritz-Carlton and Philly tourism, requiring an immense amount of energy, enthusiasm and, most important, a devoted team at the restaurant. 

“I have two great sous chefs in the kitchen who I trust immensely. I know how dedicated they are,” she says. “Without them, I would not be able to focus as much on sales or ‘front of the house,’ or even travel much as I do.”

She also does not have to look very far for a busy celebrity chef role model. “I go to Eric (Ripert) for advice when I get tired or frustrated,” she says. “I ask how he handles certain situations, and things I can do to make my life easier. He’s been a great mentor and fantastic support for me.” 

From a day-to-day perspective, one of Carroll’s biggest challenges is trying to find the balance between pleasing the hotel guests and the local guests. The Ritz-Carlton, Philadelphia features a massive 140-foot rotunda lobby with soaring marble columns. The lounge is situated in the middle. The vast space, despite its architectural beauty, can be an issue for dining.

“Because the lobby is so large and formal, it may be difficult to convince a guest to stay on property and enjoy dinner,” she says. “So we worked with designers to create a welcoming atmosphere with lighting and added other elements as well.”

To help attract local business people who are seeking a quick, healthy, and elegant lunch, she created a new “lunch bites” menu. According to Carroll, it has been a favorite of Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter, as well as the fast-paced City Hall crowd. 

“You still receive the service of The Ritz-Carlton in a beautiful dining room, so you can impress your client, but not end up sitting there forever and spending too much money,” she says. “That has been the entire idea behind it, and it’s very successful. In fact, it is 80 percent of our lunch orders and been great for business.” 

While adjusting to multiple roles, Carroll has developed a deeper understanding of the hospitality world and the importance of working closely with the departments within a property. “At the end of the day, the hotel’s success depends on how the entire hotel is doing,” she says, “and not just how well the restaurant is doing.”

Note: This article originally appeared in Lodging Magazine’s April 2011 issue.

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