Five-Star Hospitality And The ‘Egoless Kitchen’: Chef Robert Sulatycky Joins Rosewood Sand Hill
“How comfortable should I feel leaving my laptop at the table while I run out for a minute?” I asked the phenomenally well-trained waitress (and rising restaurant manager) Audrey Boisvert at the Rosewood Sand Hill, a Five Star hotel (Forbes-rated) situated on Menlo Park’s Sand Hill Road, in the heart of the Silicon Valley venture capital landscape.
“Very comfortable, because I will be here with it,” she said, moving into a standing-guard position that she was still maintaining (with perhaps a smidgeon of humorous exaggeration) when I returned.
Astounding. And that is the way that luxury hospitality ideally is practiced. Finding creative ways to do more for the guest, in ways that are actually useful, and, if possible, brightening their day along the way.
Ultra-luxury hospitality is in some ways intangible, which is why it’s so hard to train for, motivate for, and hire for. (Though I do train for it, as a customer service consultant, trainer, and customer service eLearning producer, striving to bring the best customer service practices of hospitality industry to other industries that can similarly benefit.)
On a happier note, the subtlety and near-intangibility of great hospitality is also why it’s so hard for competitors to knock off a superior level of customer service and hospitality once you get it right. And Rosewood Hotel Group, the international hotel company that boasts the coveted Five Star Forbes rating for more than 1/3 of its properties, gets it right.
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From the laptop protection incident above; to having my blazers pressed in an hour and a half the very evening I arrived, to freshen them up from travel and ensure I looked camera-ready for a video appearance the next day; to front office manager Bella Han’s engaging interactions by text even prior to my arrival; to a staggering example of proactive service: the arrival in my room of a bottle of distilled water needed (though I’d never told them this) for the CPAP machine I had set up and plugged in beside my bed; to the useful (and hilarious) weather report that Michael at the front desk delivered with my wakeup call: “Here in our lovely corner of California it’s 68 degrees and cloudless. Back home for you in Seattle, it’s 51 degrees and foggy.”
At some luxury hospitality properties, however, the culinary arts are where this attentiveness to individual guests ends and the arrogance (and, to be fair, artfulness) of the chef takes over. Rosewood, Sand Hill Road, however, has been spared this fate with the arrival of one of the more centered celebrity chefs you’re likely to encounter: Robert Sulatycky, a strong proponent of “the egoless kitchen,” whose greatest fame is actually for his collaborative efforts, as a competitor on and then coach of the team that ultimately—in a first for America—won the Bocuse D’Or, one of cooking’s most prestigious competitions.
Since May 5 this year, Chef Robert (as he of the unpronounceable last name is known) has taken over the property’s Michelin-starred Madera restaurant, which, while a destination restaurant in itself, is also responsible for the feeding and culinary wellbeing of the guests of this X-room hotel.
Sulatycky has come in to helm the Madera kitchen after a variety of ventures, all food and beverage-related but nonetheless taking him out of the kitchen. So when I spotted Chef Robert in the opulent Madera kitchen (which is wide open to all eyes in the center of the restaurant) with his sleeves literally rolled up, working the line, I thought, “Wow, that’s actual work he’s doing,” and wanted to know what had driven him back behind the burners again.
“At my core I’m a cook and I love cooking, and that’s never left me. In our industry, the higher you work your way up, the more you work your way out of the kitchen. But I love the kitchen, I love cooking, I love creating. I love the exploration of taste and textures and temperatures as it relates to food. Though each of the ventures that I’ve gone into over the last few years is related to food—I’ve got a vineyard up on Mount Veeder [Mithra Winery]; I co-founded a technology company that’s related to commercial kitchens [iQKitchen]—I was still left longing for the kitchen.”
He intends, however, to pursue his passion for cooking within the context of a hospitable accommodation of individual tastes and desires. “Ultra-luxury is about accommodation, and what I call the ‘complexity of simplicity.’ As you mature as a chef, you come to respect that a dining experience is not just dinner in the evening in a fine-dining restaurant. It’s making sure a superb experience is achieved whether it’s for a local who has happened upon us and finds us doing an exceptional breakfast or someone who’s up late at night and wants to enjoy a perfect, drippy cheeseburger—a perfectly prepared cheeseburger on a perfectly toasted, freshly baked brioche bun with local cheddar cheese and some local bacon—that one extraordinary bite, paired with exceptional service whether they’re dining in their guest room or with us at Madera. Is that any less important than a formal dinner with foraged truffles and the rest?”
And about that egoless kitchen: For his staff to focus happily and without distraction on what he calls the “complexity of simplicity,” says Sulatycky, requires an atmosphere of calm, professional teamwork. I asked him if his devotion to this was born from practical necessity, driven by the unfeasibility of loud and visible theatrics when you’re basically on display to every diner, showcased in the center of a dining room like Madera’s.
Chef Robert was having none of it. It goes far deeper than that, he says, and isn’t dependent on whether the guests are able to directly witness any temper tantrums: “I’ve worked in open kitchens, and I’ve worked in kitchens that are not open, and to me the goal is the same. It’s to craft an environment that is quiet, inclusive, and respectful of our shared mission: that we’re here to cook beautiful food for our guests. I won’t have it any other way. The days of the screaming and yelling chef is long gone–whether or not the guest is there to witness those theatrics.”