Heading the Hotel Dessert Kitchen in Beverly Hills
t a time when the concept of white tablecloth restaurants is imperiled in most dining scenes around the country and pastry chefs are thought to be dispensable, luxury hotels often are the last bastion for practitioners of the sweet arts.
Here, under the supervision of executive pastry chefs, pastry departments prepare everything from morning viennoiserie and plated desserts to centerpieces for banquets and bonbons as amenities reserved for the most frequent guests.
In the wealthy and touristed enclave that is Beverly Hills, California, there are at least five such venues where executive pastry chefs get to ply their trade at a high level, kept higher precisely because there are competing properties within a tight radius.
What seems to be running through the DNA of a quintet of topflight pastry chefs under consideration here is passion, knowledge, stamina and a desire to innovate daily. And a strong aptitude for keeping lots of sugary balls in the air at the same time.
From chocolate work to amenities, catering, plated desserts, customized menus for VIP clients, tastings for prospective weddings at the hotel and working within budgets (even in Beverly Hills!), the executive pastry chef (with the help of a sous chef in some cases) is involved in staff scheduling, sourcing, making purchasing decisions and setting the tone and the agenda for the day, ready to make and follow a schedule and keep everyone on task.
Hiring and training for the long haul
Talk to any of the chefs in charge and you will hear a compelling passion in their descriptions of their jobs, a commitment to perfection that comes naturally and an unshakeable readiness and confidence to tackle daily each new challenge of running the sweet side of a hotel. Organizational skills and a reliance on their team members keeping things on track and on time is key. Just listen to Deden Putra, the top sweets maker at the Waldorf-Astoria with a deep background of hotel pastry work, talk about his inherent values: “To be a leader of anything you have to believe in the inherent goodness of people. You can be friendly but not too friendly. You have to convey that you are in charge and by your actions gain respect.”
On hiring, Putra says, “I always hire based on attitude and personality first and skills second. And I’m always excited to get dirty in the kitchen alongside my staff to teach and bring new innovative things to the table.”
Echoing this sentiment is Brooke Martin, the executive pastry chef at the fabled and iconic Beverly Hills Hotel dubbed the “Pink Palace” for its distinctive pastel exterior.
What could be sweeter?
“The hotel, a member of the Dorchester Collection of luxe properties worldwide, provides a training program as part of professional development which strengthens the leadership abilities of my staff.”
Retaining staff and keeping them happy
“I get to create every day on what I consider a huge historic stage where it’s opening night every day of the week,” says Chris Ford, who helms the pastry operations at the Beverly Wilshire, also a hotel with lots of history.
“I think of my team of nine as ‘my family’ who are an integral part of my success and I never forget that. I am writing the story with them and they know how it ends. They are involved in R and D from start to finish. I try to set an example for my staff by being as much of a team player as I ask them to be.”
“Over time and with repetition of techniques and production, the staff gains muscle memory. Thanks to this, I can rely on seasoned staff to teach newcomers to the department and be confident that they are doing things in the most efficient way.”
On the dreaded subject of retaining staff and reducing turnover, Ford continues candidly: “If I can’t offer staff members a raise as often or as generous as I’d like it to be, I have to give them something else.
And that something else is allowing them to learn new things all the time. Toward that end, I rotate the staff as much as possible through the different aspects of the operation, from restaurant dessert-making and plating to banquet production, placing an emphasis on keeping all staff motivated.
Tasking them with new projects keeps them out of their comfort zone, which leads to growth and confidence-building.”
As a perk, Ford, who travels for pop-downs to other Four Seasons properties worldwide can take key staff with him to assist with production for special events, giving them exposure to working in unfamiliar kitchens, using locally seasonal products.
Innovating at the Beverly Hills location, Ford has had the opportunity to develop an outdoor venue at the hotel called the Rosé Garden, created in an otherwise previously underutilized space, overlooking Wilshire Boulevard, the main artery perpendicular to Rodeo Drive.
With its accent on that trendy summer weather wine, the pastry department was tasked with creating rose and rosé-themed items for an afternoon through evening menu.
Setting good examples
Keeping it interesting for her staff as well, Brooke Martin creates playful Hollywood-themed desserts, homages to the heyday of old Hollywood, with updates of banana splits and mile high chocolate layer cakes inspired by what has been served for years at the hotel’s Coffee Shop.
When asked to characterize her style, she points to recent examples for a catered dessert service for 350 guests which included over-the-top 18-ounce portion ice cream sundaes complete with fried Oreos and spun sugar garnish
and mini individual croquembouches. “This à la minute service required all hands on deck.
We had a kind of ninth inning ‘hail Mary’ situation where time was of the essence and despite all odds, everything came out just fine with the guests completely satisfied.”
That kind of environment is where the finest chefs hit their stride, and where their staffers prove themselves. “Heading a busy pastry program, when adrenaline is pumping, I find the hard multi-tasking work exhilarating.
Even after an exhausting production day, I thrive on rolling up my sleeves and lead by example,” Martin says. “Often, I choose to work long hours, coming in before the staff arrives and staying after they leave. Always striving for a consistently high level of work, I subscribe to the ‘I do then you do’ method of training and motivating staff. My drive and inherently competitive personality must be a bit infectious because my crew is on board 100 percent to support my efforts.”
Going from one luxury group of hotels to another, Executive Chef David Codney characterizes the Peninsula Hotel’s ethos in this way: “Our guests want to experience what we are good at, which is the art of detail-oriented hospitality. Unlike some of the other hotels in town, where catering and banquet events are the focus, our business is largely based on à la carte dining in our restaurant venues—the Belvedere, the Lobby where the ever-popular afternoon tea rules and the Rooftop which takes advantage of L.A.’s always moderate weather.
Here we stick to the classics with touches of whimsy. We don’t see the need to reinvent the classics; instead we simply add our own subtle touches to them. This is what our customer base tells us they want, and this is what we give them.”
Leading the pastry program at the SLS, a hip and high-end property on the fringes of Beverly Hills, with a title of Pastry Chef, Mitzi Reyes is the youngest one in the quintet of talented individuals profiled here. She summarizes her take on the position this way:
“I take care of my 13 people so that they take care of me. As a union shop, the staff makes good money and we in the pastry shop make classical music together throwing a bit of whimsy into the mix. It’s all about teamwork. Cheering my team on, I like to say ‘Believe in me, we can do this — we can go above and beyond and do the unexpected, adhering to the hotel’s mantra. Doing what I do keeps me humble. Giving each of the staff a voice to express input in some way, I’m open to my team and like to tell them that the sky is the limit.”
In this case, her sky encompasses stratospheric bonbons, ice creams, sorbets, brunch viennoiserie and even a recent homage to honey bees with a full range of honey-inflected desserts and confections using locally sourced nectar.
What could be sweeter?
In their sweet plum positions creating for a discerning clientele, always under pressure, Chef Putra, Martin, Ford, Codney and Reyes seem to all agree.