Hotel chefs keep fare simple, patrons happy as snow falls


WHEN YOU'RE running a hotel filled with stranded travelers, one of the first questions that pops to mind is, "Where's the cook?"

That is what Hyatt executive assistant manager Marty Williams thought when she realized that last week's record 28-inch snowfall meant the hotel's 400-plus guests would not be checking out soon.

Right away Williams asked, "Is the chef in the house?"

To her great relief, the answer was "Yes." Dan Ryan, the hotel's executive sous-chef, was in the downtown hotel along with a handful of his kitchen staff.

That meant that the marooned masses could be fed. The fare would not be fancy. But dinner, along with breakfast and lunch, would be served, and morale would be lifted, at least temporarily.

"You stick to the basics" in these situations, said Ryan, who at one point was worried that the Hyatt kitchen was running low on french fries.

I heard similar stories about the shift from fine dining to simple suppers when I walked down to the Inner Harbor during last week's snowstorm and visited a handful of hotels. Hotel restaurants were among the few in the area that were able to stay open during the Sunday and Monday storm. The chefs and whatever staff they could muster cooked all day and slept in the hotels at night, then got up and repeated the cycle.

Tim Mullen, executive chef at the Renaissance, outlined the procedure he and a smattering of staff used to feed 500-plus guests and hotel staff members.

"You eliminate room service, simplify the menu and serve it all buffet style."

Rather than pheasant and foie gras, his snowstorm menu featured meatloaf, hamburgers, chicken a la king, Mullen said. "You fill them up and keep them happy," he said.

Mullen added that when it came time to wash the dishes, rank was ignored. At the conclusion of a large Sunday evening meal, Mullen and other members of the hotel's management staff rolled up their sleeves and helped three regular dishwashers attack the mountain of dirty dishes.

At Harbor Court, executive chef Matthew Laurence eventually switched to buffet service to feed the 200 or so guests and staff members who were stranded in the hotel. Unlike the other hotels, Harbor Court kept table service going Sunday. But by Monday most of the guests at Harbor Court wanted simple fare -- hamburgers and chicken -- so the switch was made to buffet service, Laurence said.

Delivery trucks could not reach the hotels during the storm. At one point, the supply of chicken fingers was running low at Harbor Court. But by Tuesday, the sun was shining, most of the roads were passable and the chicken-finger larder at Harbor Court had been restocked.

Laurence and the chefs at the other hotels said luckily they had stocked up with plenty of supplies in anticipation of a big Valentine's Day turnout Saturday night. So items originally destined to be served at tables for two on Saturday night sometimes ended up in the buffet on Sunday or Monday.

The wine cellars at the hotels were also well stocked, and that turned out to be a good thing.

"Thankfully, we never ran out of beer or wine," said Mullen at the Renaissance.

"The lounge," Harbor Court's Laurence added, "did very well in the snowstorm."

When I look back at how the hotel chefs coped during the snowstorm, I picked up a few tricks I might try at home with my family.

I like the idea of paring down the menu. During a snowstorm, there is no room for picky eaters. The cook prepares what is in the fridge. The diners eat it. There is no room for special requests. No calling out for a pizza.

Moreover, I really like the idea of everybody's helping out with the dirty dishes. The old dodge of "I gotta run" should not get anyone out of cleanup duty. When a snowstorm hits, there is, after all, nowhere to run.

Coffee update

There has been a change in Baltimore's coffee scene since I wrote about it last week. Tom Thompson is still closing the Chestnut Street location of the Coffee Mill, and Everett Ellis, his longtime colleague, hopes to reopen the business in Hampden. However, on the wholesale front, Thompson no longer represents Baltimore Coffee & Tea of Timonium. An arrangement in which Thompson had been selling for the Timonium roaster dissolved last week.

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