Culinary experiences have become an integral part of modern culture and, in high-end travel, intimate access to world-renowned chefs can set a luxury hotel stay apart.
Luxury hospitality operators have become enchanted with chef residences as a way to introduce new culinary concepts, celebrate openings and, of course, stir up media coverage.
Luxury resort operator Soneva, for example, recently marked the opening of an intimate sushi counter and overwater dining room at its flagship Maldives property with a two-week residency by Michelin-starred chef Kenji Gyoten.
Guests can skip the usual six-month long waitlist at his restaurant in Fukuoka, Japan to vie for one of five seats at his lunch and dinner service.
Soneva’s CEO and co-creative director Sonu Shivdasani is passionate about the value that chef residencies bring for all involved.
“We have always encouraged great chefs from around the World to visit us for a week or two of holiday in return for their cooking for our guests on a couple of evenings,” Shivdasani said.
“This has worked well over the years as our guests have enjoyed the possibility of experiencing the food of a chef that has a great reputation, but which they may never have the opportunity to try because of long wait lists or the fact that the chef operates in a city that they would never visit.”
Soneva’s dining experience known as Once Upon a Table, sits eight guests at the chef’s table in a space designed to open to the sunset and stars for aperitifs and dessert.
The chef residencies have proved successful on several fronts.
Between October 2018 and May 2019, Soneva’s busiest season, more than 35 visiting chefs — with more than 55 Michelin stars between them — will stay.
Guests are now starting to book their vacations depending on which chefs hotels have scheduled to appear, and new guests are booking a stay for access to the unique opportunity.
Refslund, referenced as one of the most creative chefs in the world, designed a tasting menu specifically for his stay. The hotel team specifically scheduled his stay for the first week of January to cater to guests who stay past the holiday celebrations.
“These days, our discerning guests are so well traveled and have different expectations. It is our pleasure to introduce a paradigm shift from traditional dining experiences,” said Marco Syrbe, executive assistant manager of food and beverage at Soneva Fushi.
Chef residencies vary greatly in length, access and style around the world. At Soneva, for example, residencies usually last ten to 14 days depending on the chef’s availability, occupancy levels, the style of cuisine and profile of the in-house guests.
At Swiss luxury hotel Baur au Lac, the time frame of chefs’ residencies depends on multiple factors including how long the “pop-ups” can be successfully maintained to keep demand high, said general manager Wilhelm Luxem.
Baur au Lac has, however, proved the staying power of chef residences. It hosts an annual chef residency with chef Nobuyuki “Nobu” Matsuhisa for more than a decade.
Although the hotel already had an enviable return rate, Luxem said that the residencies play a role in attracting new guests.
But chef residencies don’t only benefit guests – in-house chefs often learn from visiting chefs thus boosting morale, developing skills, and establishing a higher standard of delivery.
At Soneva, each visiting chef even teaches the in-house team a “comfort dish” that they can bring home and make for their families or friends.
“Gastronomy is now one of the most important factors when deciding where to stay, especially in the luxury travel segment when ‘good food’ is no longer enough. We focus on creating rare, lasting experiences for guests, and part of this is welcoming these incredible chefs to create their renowned dishes using our organic and locally sourced ingredients,” said Shivdasani.
In a day when exclusive access and intimate experiences get more praise than material goods, a meal prepared by world-class chefs in spectacular settings is something that luxury consumers are willing to travel for.