Take a large shot of artisanal vodka, an eco-conscious chef and the operations director of one of the most sustainable and most highly acclaimed hotels on the planet? Answer, a right riveting discussion of the very vexed question of whether luxury and sustainability can be amicable dining partners.
James Chase of the eponymous vodka business, Ian Howard Head Chef of Babylon at the Roof Gardens and Paul Shanahan from Belmond Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons were quizzed at length by our own CEO Andrew Stephen in a lively panel session at Conscious Hospitality show this week.
Turn the clock back a few years, Paul said, and sustainability was a taboo word in luxury, fine dining restaurants and hotels. Now, he said it’s at the very centre of what is driving this part of the sector with Ian adding that there is an increased consumer demand for sustainable dining.
But while consumer appetite for high end and high principles might be on the rise, how do you go about telling your customers that you share their values, asked Andrew. With panelists representing three different disciplines, the audience were treated to a variety of answers. Marketeer, and indeed the youngest member of the panel, James, urged people to understand that sustainability and luxury share an ideal – aspiration – and that social media, and in particular Instagram is a perfect vehicle for feeding this aspiration.
From the operations perspective, Paul said that the trick was to not preach but be transparent and have the information readily available if customers requested it. He acknowledged that having a garden on site which provides a large proportion of Le Manoir’s menu’s fruit and vegetables, was a living breathing advertisement for sustainability that not many were lucky enough to share.
Meanwhile Ian, wearing his chef’s hat (metaphorically) argued that his profession had the power to communicate the restaurant’s principles and influence customer choice through their menus. He and his team travel to visit their suppliers in the UK so they get a first-hand knowledge of where the food they serve is coming from, and in turn can let their guests know.
Paul revealed another of Le Manoir’s trump cards – Raymond Blanc. He said that having a Raymond was a huge boost as it meant that staff were enthused and informed from day one. And, in turn, they pass on their enthusiasm and knowledge to customers.
That need to invest in staff is matched by the need to invest time. Quality, sustainable (in every sense of the word) brands take time to establish, said James Chase. Newcomers had come, flickered and then faded, he said, or to coin a phrase, ‘early ripe, early rot’.
We’ll give the last word to James. It is chefs that are feeding the nation’s growing desire for quality produce, he said. The aspiration being driven by Instagram and other vehicles can be harnessed to reconnect people with the true source of food and in particular the people that work it – the farmers. If we make farmers into rock stars then people will aspire to pay more for their food. If ever there was a call to showcase your suppliers – this was it.