Omni's World Tour
Nineteen Omni Hotels executive chefs are into the third day of a week-long trip to Buenos Aires and the wine country of Mendoza, Argentina, soaking up the culture, learning about foods and wines, tasting and sipping both. They are rehearsing for a four-month celebration of Argentinean cuisine, billed as the Sumptuous Flavors of Argentina, to be held at every restaurant in all Omni properties.
Weeks before the trip, chefs and food and beverage directors are in Atlanta where they are in practice mode, paying close attention to three chefs — savvy in the ways of Argentinean cuisine — as they prepare, cook and plate customary dishes of Argentina.
They have learned the elementary features of Argentinean cooking in Atlanta; now, in Buenos Aires (and later in Mendoza), they begin to grasp its distinctions. They have moved from the virtual — the scripted cookbook environment of the classroom in Atlanta — to the reality of the food and wine business of their host country: the real thing in the real world of Argentina.
This is the fourth in a series of Omni-sponsored global foodservice journeys, the brainstorm of F&B Vice President Fernando Salazar, who left Omni a few months ago to assume a similar slot at Wyndham Hotels and Resorts. Previous trips have been to Chile, Italy and Spain.
Stephen Rosenstock, senior vice president, business development and brand standards, says next year “it might be France.” Rosenstock's in Argentina with the chefs. He tags along to share the experience with them, but also to mother-hen them, making sure they're all on the bus that takes them from one place to the next, reminding them where the bus is going, how long it will take to get there, and what to wear (i.e., chef whites for the trip to the country's culinary school).
(Two weeks after the chefs return, 20 of the company's food and beverage directors reprised the chefs' trip, rounding out representation of all 39 Omni hotels.)
The trip is a partnership between Omni and the Wines of Argentina, benefiting both. This is Marketing 101. Omni knows that, so does Wines of Argentina:
Omni exposes its chefs and f&b directors to the foods and wines of Argentina, enabling them, once they return to their respective hotels, to understand better how to pair both perfectly for the Sumptuous Flavors of Argentina menu.
The wines of Argentina are as good as any in the world (most not very expensive), but not many in or outside the hospitality industry seem to know that; ergo, Wines of Argentina's appeal to Omni to think about a partnership.
Says Rosenstock, “Wines of Argentina approached us (not the other way around) after noting the success we had with our Italian promotion. Argentina wants to continue to gain market share for its wines, so it saw this as an opportunity to penetrate the U.S. market and gain recognition for its wines. What better way than to have a chef and f&b director return to the states telling the story to friends, peers and guests about Argentinean wines. You can't put a price tag on that sort of f;word-of-mouth’ publicity.”
WHY DO IT?
So, why does Omni continue to do this: why this travel; why the expense? Although there are subordinate aims, the key is to fulfill the trip's objective: to offer guests a special Flavors menu for four months at every hotel restaurant. That's the way it's been ever since 2003 when Salazar concocted the concept.
No different this time: the scenario and strategy are the same. To wit: Omni promotes the foods and wines of Argentina at all of its hotels, in effect encouraging guests to visit its restaurants more than once (that one visit, more often than not, for breakfast). Guests discover, during their tastes of the Sumptuous Flavors of Argentina that Omni's restaurants are more than obligatory amenities that exist simply to serve breakfast; that, indeed, they are as good as — some even better than — other fine-dining establishments in the city.
“To date, we've enjoyed tremendous success,” says Rosenstock: with each Flavors promotion cover counts are up. “No reason to believe it won't succeed this time.”
The Sumptuous Flavors of Argentina, launched last November, will continue through the end of February.
Cynics in this business, plucking sour grapes from their marketing vineyards, will tell you that Omni is wasting time and money. Said one f&b exec we talked to (anonymity requested), “Why not just open up cookbooks and turn to the sections on Argentina's food and wines?” One other curmudgeonly sort volunteered this curmudgeonly thought: “These [kinds of] promotions rarely, if ever, work and ought to be left where they belong: on the drawing board.”
Not so, says Rosenstock. “This is a very big deal,” he thinks. Yes, it is expensive, but worth every penny.
The promotion works — that's been demonstrated; based on past successes, it will continue to work. Consider, also, this subsidiary benefit — extenuating, but of considerable value (cynics, take note): sufficient time exists on the trip for chefs to mix, chit-chat, exchange ideas and thoughts about kitchen planning, recipes, supervision of staff, labor/management relationships, and what they like or may not like about the company they work for. Observes Rosenstock, there is a palpable camaraderie among the chefs. “An inestimable value,” he says.
This sharing of thoughts and ideas carries particular weight with Bernd Mueller, exec chef at the Omni Orlando Resort. “You absorb as much of Argentina's culture and traditions and the work ethic of its food and wine people,” he says, “and share what you learn with your peers. You think about how you might apply as much of that to your own work ethic. It's inspiring, intoxicating.”
To the cynics' charge that you could offer the identical promotion merely by leafing through cookbooks, Rosenstock argues that “if we did that, our Flavors programs wouldn't be authentic.” Implication? Fake it and you risk duping guests, which defeats the purpose of the promotion: to persuade guests that Omni restaurants are as good as any other on the planet. Furthermore, adds Rosenstock, “many of our guests are well-traveled and would spot pretense in a minute.”
There is also this: the trip tells foodservice employees that Omni values their commitment and contributions. Detractors might wish to overlay that on the basic mission: it is, say some of the chefs, just as important.
“Don't kid yourself. It's also about retention of some of Omni's best paid and prized employees,” says Jon Dornbusch, exec chef of the Omni Shoreham in Washington, DC.
“When education and training are ongoing — never force-fed, mind you — we see strong retention,” says Rosenstock. “Our chefs are learning, but they never feel as though they are being taught.”
It's about guest retention, too.
Rosenstock explains. “Guests experience what our foodservice people come back with. It's not just a meal. Chefs transfer what they experience to the guest — it is about the dinner, the special foods and wines, but it's more than that. Our guests are curious about what we do and how we do it. When they sip that glass of Malbec and combine it with one of our courses, they take away information they wouldn't have if they went to some other restaurant. It's education for our foodservice staff that they share and pass on to our guests who become informed about the foods and wines of Argentina and about the manner with which we go about our business. We take the care and feeding of our guests seriously.”
On this third day of the trip, the chefs find themselves at the national cooking school (Instituto Argentino de Gastronomia), minutes from downtown Buenos Aires, where 35-year-old foodie and culinary wizard Danny Bramson is bubbling over, cooking up a storm for the chefs who lean forward (curiouser and curiouser), taking in his every instruction and direction. Danny is having some difficulty with his English, but not to worry: many of the chefs are bi- and tri-lingual and a chorus of them volunteers translations when he falters. He is all smiles, overjoyed in his work, demonstrating the skills he uses to create everything from a Patagonian potato salad to smoked venison-stuffed empanadas that are the best the chefs have ever tasted. Bramson is teaching and the chefs are lapping up everything.
Bramson is the culinary point person throughout the trip. No one is better suited. He owns a catering company, is a consultant, a master sommelier, and on-call as a chef and wine instructor at any number of culinary schools in Argentina and the U.S. Whenever an organization needs a knowledgeable and good-natured host/guide to explain the myriad twists and minutiae of Argentine foods and wines, it's Bramson who gets the call.
The day before (i.e., the second day: the first a bust for more than half of the chefs whose 10-hour flight from Dallas — Omni's headquarters city — to Buenos Aires was delayed for 12 hours), the bus hauling the chefs arrives at a suburban gated community in Buenos Aires, complete with guard, armed with a single-barreled shotgun.
We are told, although we're a friendly bunch with advance notice of our friendliness, we must park the bus and walk about a quarter of a mile to the luxurious and splendidly appointed home of Dr. F. Gustavo Gercovich, one of Argentina's top oncologists.
There we find Bramson and the good doctor hosting a traditional Argentinean asado: an extraordinary feast of lamb, pork, beef, goat (together with beef, a local favorite). Bramson and Gercovich are grilling everything in the most extraordinary indoor combination grill/roasting/barbecue pit fired with woods, coals, and branches of herbs the chefs have ever seen. Gercovich insists the chefs sample everything from the ordinary and the expected to the extraordinary and unexpected. (The discarded spare parts that we would detail here were this not a wholesome publication.) It is an indoctrination on why not to waste offal and how to cook it.
Everything the chefs taste and, for the most part, relish, is washed down with extraordinary wines, a preview of what they'll swirl, sniff, taste and spit when they visit, in the next three days, six of the finest wineries in the country. Gercovich and Bramson have served and described a most splendid asado.
Says Gercovich, “We deliver culture through our food,” a metaphor that is preamble to the trip, echoed time and again wherever the chefs go.
We ask Rosenstock, “So, why don't other hotel companies do what Omni does?”
“I'm not sure,” he says.
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