Where have all the hotel chefs gone? - opinion

Hotels find themselves quite generally “feeding” customers for breakfasts, receptions, banquets or meetings.

 VETERAN EXECUTIVE chef Shalom Kadosh – a throwback to the old days? (photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)
VETERAN EXECUTIVE chef Shalom Kadosh – a throwback to the old days?
(photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)

When asked, most travelers will define their expectation of a hotel as a place that looks and feels modern and classy, offering a clean, pampering room with an immense shower, a great breakfast in the morning and one that is close to restaurants, shopping areas and cool attractions. Hilton, Intercontinental, Sheraton, Marriott and other global and local brands alike are constantly focusing on these needs.

Supposedly, neither travelers nor locals are fantasizing about a pampering lunch or a romantic dinner in a hotel. They leave that to restaurants, with clear intentions to eat, drink and enjoy the moment.

Hotels find themselves quite generally “feeding” customers for breakfasts, receptions, banquets or meetings. Regardless, hotels do offer à la carte quality menus in fine dining rooms to guests that in most cases would prefer to eat in restaurants. This phenomena reflects dramatically on both the culinary image of hotels and also on the reputation of the executive chefs that run them, most of them being quite anonymous to travelers.

Veteran executive chef Shalom Kadosh might be the only exception in Israel. Many will agree he is the most reputed – perhaps the only – hotel chef they recognize. A true professional that worked hard everyday of his career with true civility. How did he become so famous?

“I guess I have to thank both the peace agreement between Israel and Egypt in the late 1970s and Aliza, the wife of prime minister Menachem Begin. I was invited to cook the intimate dinner for the Begin couple and US president Jimmy Carter and his wife, Rosaline, at the prime minister’s official residence, not far from the Plaza, my hotel. The Plaza was not the leading hotel in Jerusalem, and yet I got the opportunity and I grabbed it with both hands and I guess I did good. Ever since, I have been invited to prepare dinners for kings, presidents and state leaders visiting Israel,” says Kadosh.

During that dinner, Mrs. Begin asked him secretly to help her celebrate her husband’s upcoming birthday. Kadosh agreed, big time. He walked with his kitchen entourage to carry a gigantic cake all the way to the Prime Minister’s Residence, with astonished drivers holding up traffic to have a look. A celebration he then conducted every year. 

 Food at the David Tower Hotel in Netanya. (credit: Simplex 360) Food at the David Tower Hotel in Netanya. (credit: Simplex 360)

There is more. “My professional success goes to my mentor, two-starred chef Jean-Michel Lorain, owner of La Côte Saint Jacques restaurant in Joigny near Paris. When I was young, he was the only chef in France that accepted me for training in his restaurant.”

Over the years he introduced Kadosh to elite French chefs and he kept in touch with them. When Jerusalem celebrated its 3,000th anniversary almost three decades ago, those world-class chefs agreed to cook Kadosh’s way – every dish was kosher. They arrived in Israel, paying tribute to honor the culinary master. A dream come true for every hotel chef on the globe. Could this happen to a hotel chef nowadays?

Today’s global gastronomy scene is dominated by digital platforms and reality programs like MasterChef, Hell’s Kitchen, Chef’s Table, Next Level Chef, Top Chef, Chef’s Games and Chef Swap. Good-looking chefs and restaurateurs are the ones at the forefront of those programs. Israel is no exception. This format is dominating the audience’s screens, with something on offer almost every evening. Together with food documentaries, the world of television and digital platforms created – helped by audiences – the term “celebrity chef,” a cuisinier who has become a celebrity via the media. None of the chefs that appears on TV in Israel works today in a hotel.

Naturally, this doesn’t contribute positively to hotels’ dining reputation. On the contrary. It reinforces the ambiguous reputation of eating in a hotel. Add to that the kashrut regulations in hotels and no wonder that more than a few hotel executive chefs are feeling left out of the big game of culinary public opinion.

“The classical conservative influencers always believed in hard work. Whether in theater, music or kitchens. Most of them do not know how to play by the new rules. Today’s rising stars create an explosive buzz, leading to social media followers together with TV reality shows,” says Liraz Margalit, a digital psychologist who specializes in behavioral economics and consumer behavior. “Hard work is suddenly scarcely relevant. Those who live in the old world and are still pursuing their career with hard work feel frustrated. They have been thrown from the main arena to the back stage, without an understanding of what is wrong with them. They view the world as ungrateful.”

The digital platforms are underpinning and creating a new reality in which the preparation of food has become an important factor of the culinary experience. 

“The audience that follows TV gastronomy reality shows is getting that big time,” she says. “No wonder they wish to complete the experience by going to those celebrity-chef restaurants. Accordingly, their restaurants are designed with an open kitchen or windows. Observing the chef and his team in action is a continuation of the experience that started on reality shows and social media, completing this unique experience.

“How many fine dining restaurants in hotels in Israel offer that experience? Are hotels in Israel there yet?”

Small boutique places are spreading the word of quality cuisine, says Erez Komarovsky, an Israeli chef, baker and author and until recently a judge on Channel 13’s Chef’s Games.

“Not a system dominated by buffets,” he says. “Culinary at its best must be meticulous and accurate.” 

Only hotels that host chef’s restaurants will be able to improve the image of hotel food, he says.

“However these restaurants unfortunately don’t number that many in Israel,” says Komarovsky. “Therefore hotel gastronomy is still questionable. This might be related to the lack of hotel chefs appearing on reality TV shows. Maybe the hotels are not interested in their chefs being represented there. I don’t really know for sure. However I do believe that a revolution is taking place globally. More and more hotels are offering fine dining by a celebrity chef running their quality restaurant.”

Respect for hotel chefs

HAIM COHEN, one of Israel’s most well-known chefs and a judge on Channel 12’s MasterChef, has a lot of respect for hotel chefs.

“Honestly, I salute hotel chefs,” he says. “They feed thousands of guests and their kitchens remind me sometimes of war rooms and factories. Their ability to handle such an operation, almost on a daily basis, is remarkable.

“It’s a profession with no glory,” he says. “The media feel more comfortable with restaurant chefs, who have created their own culinary language, with the ability to improvise and fantasize. It’s important to understand that the media are looking for charismatic, experienced individuals with an impressive TV appearance. Television has no patience to raise stars. They want them shining from day one. Furthermore, hotels want kosher food, which limits true quality gastronomy, another reason to understand who is chosen to [lead the industry].”

Cohen also agrees that small, independent celebrity-chef restaurants in hotels are the solution to improve the sector’s culinary reputation. 

Whether this is the right way or not, in most cases top hotel brands will not give their executive chefs that role, but rather to an outside celebrity chef. The hotel food will surely improve in the long run, but will the executive chefs’ frustration vanish?

Israeli-American food writer, celebrity chef and television producer Jamie Geller has worked for American networks like CNN, HBO and the Entertainment News. Known as the “Queen of Kosher,” she is in close contact with hotel executive chefs in Israel and sees things differently.

“Hotels don’t market themselves offering chef restaurants,” she says. “Their chefs are not elevated to that position in the first place. TV food programs are looking today for social media stars. They hire those that have a tremendous engagement on social media, which will naturally help to promote the programs themselves.

“Talents are discovered there. Social media is about creating communities. Hotels treat it differently by pushing commercial content to sell rooms, banquets and conventions. They are also limited to the checks and balances that their brands dictate. No prominence is given to their executive chefs. So how can they shine?”

Geller says that restaurant celebrity chefs are committed to elevating their status and their status only. 

“This is why hotel chefs disappear to the background,” she says. Keeping in mind “that a lot of them cook for international figures, while restaurants are focused on the local market, they can certainly have a significant say about gastronomy on any food TV program.” 

Thinking back to chef Shalom Kadosh, that’s a valid point.

Digital psychologist Margalit concludes with another angle of a celebrity chef’s life.

“The shining stars live on borrowed time,” she says. “Being in front isn’t forever and they know it. Celebrity chefs are living with constant anxiety as they have to re-invent themselves all the time with new ideas before another shining star will come forward. Their glory is never guaranteed. This tension is certainly not something healthy at all.”

In the real world, hotel executive chefs are just too busy. They are responsible for large-scale operations, managing sometimes hundreds of cooks and kitchen staff. While in restaurants, original ideas are organic and happen naturally as part of the daily process, in hotels it’s impossible to plan or orchestrate creativity – too much structure, manuals, rules and managers above calling the shots. 

Some try their best individually on social media, especially Instagram, with questionable results. However Israel is a country where a significant percentage of the population keeps kosher and is willing to spend a fortune for a weekend in a domestic kosher hotel, at the price of a week at an overseas hotel.

Hotel chefs, responsible for their culinary delight, should be represented on judges’ panels on popular cooking reality shows. Most of them are great, creative, experienced talented chefs, hungry to demonstrate their abilities and knowledge. They deserve an opportunity to shine there too.

The writer is the Travel Flash Tips publisher.