I was lucky enough to be invited to the AA Hotel of the Year awards at the Grosvenor House Hotel in London.
As this coincided with my trip back to the UK to see family and friends I was delighted to accept.
These awards are some of the most prestigious national awards of their kind with winners categories covering many aspects of catering and hotel keeping. They are incredibly sought after- as I know from when I worked for the AA Hotel Inspection team.
The awards which followed gave recognition to many in the industry. Some of the most coveted awards are Hotel of the Year, Restaurant of the Year, and Chef’s Chef of the year which this year went to Cornish Chef Nathan Outlaw
The AA Lifetime Achievement award which recognises someone in the industry who has committed their lives to the pursuit of perfection within their discipline. This year’s Lifetime Achievement Award went to Ruth Rogers MBE of the River Café in west London.
Like many trades the UK Hospitality industry is incredibly small, or it seems so when one reaches a certain age and knows most people in a room of over 1000 people.
It was a fantastic evening and I was lucky enough to bump into many old colleagues and friends although I didn’t quite make it to the 5.30am finish which was when the evening allegedly ended!
Food markets were high on the agenda across the whole visit as it has been identified that this style of catering is cheap and versatile and therefore well suited to this little island.
The Orangezicht City Farm market on Saturdays has a stunning backdrop at the base of Table Mountain in the area behind the Mount Nelson Hotel.
The surrounding market gardens supply the market with dew fresh greens of all colours and sizes.
Veggie stalls are backed up by a mass of home prepared goods such as chutneys, breads, cakes and confectionary. Food stalls offer Dim Sum, Salads, Paella and plenty of coffee! One of the most interesting stalls was a guy making ice cream with liquid Nitrogen-.something I have seen done by Heston Blumenthal.
Moving on from there we then travelled to Stellenbosch where yet another market has evolved.
On Route 44, just outside of town there is a small village of tents, stalls and a stretch of grass with a stage at the end. This was the second experience of the combination of live music and food and boy does it work well.
There must have been in the region of 1000 or more people milling around, eating, people watching and generally enjoying their day. All age groups and nationalities took advantage of the warm sunshine with no one going anywhere in a hurry.
Our food experiences that day included representation from the following countries: Thai Chinese, Japanese, Italian, Mexico, USA, France, Greece, Korea and of course a Massive hit of South Africa in not only food but the massive array of wines to sample.
Monday’s visit to Unilever’s test kitchens in Century City gave us all an opportunity to sample many of the convenience offerings from one of the world’s biggest catering food suppliers.
We were shown a variety of stocks and sauces plus seasonings and magic things to do with instant mash potato!
The gang were split into teams and then were given a couple of hours to come up with a meal using a number of ingredients and the Unilever products.
There was no clear winner as all entered into the challenge with enthusiasm, butternut squash had never been cooked in so many ways in one kitchen!
The Last Word in Constantia is a small luxury hotel owned by the Mantis Hotel Group.
This was another opportunity to examine what our international visitors might expect from a hotel and why they might return to that same hotel year after year.
One of the great selling points of this place were the enormous rooms (Suites actually) with sumptuous and calming décor enhanced by massive windows onto tropical gardens. As the hotel has only 9 suites, the level of service here is naturally top notch with guests almost feeling as if they are almost family by the time they leave.
Following our Constantia visit we managed to fit in a lightning tour of Kirstenbosch Gardens. The world famous gardens had just opened their Tree Canopy Walkway; a cross between a bridge and a flyover for people to walk above the treeline.
St Helena has many valleys and even more trees, some of which are only found on the island so perhaps some day a budding entrepreneur might think that this walkway would work well.
The views from this swaying platform were amazing, look at the pictures. The fact that it swayed was communicated in the notice before walking onto the walkway and I am glad I had read it as you could see the surprise on faces of those who hadn’t.
Three more big highlights to go before heading back to St Helena! The first was a morning spent at the Cape Town convention centre at the Hostex Exhibition which just happened to be on whilst we were in town.
This is an annual coming together of the major catering suppliers across South Africa. It was an eye opener for many of our team and all came away with brochures, samples and one even bought a pizza oven!
More of these events should be visited by Saints as the concentration of information in one area is a great advantage.
Our trip to the 12 Apostles Hotel and Spa had been eagerly anticipated as we had driven past the hotel at least three times in the previous week and just wondered at the magnificence of the location.
It must be the most stunning location on the western cape as it is situated around 10 miles out of town on a pristine piece of coastline with a mountain backdrop.
What more would you need!
Numerous awards and accolades have been bestowed upon the hotel and spa in the 12 years it has been owned by the Red Carnation group of luxury hotels. We could see how well justified they are during the four or so hours we spent in the company of the hotel’s management team.
One of the most unique things about the hotel is the massive variety of South African Art on walls, floors and even a sculptured leopard in the middle of the bar.
Our finale to the visit was afternoon tea in the lounge with the stunning backdrop of the 12 Apostles Mountains just outside the window. We just didn't know where to look...was it the dainty cakes or the view which was the most attractive.
Perhaps if I return and do the whole thing again I might just make up my mind.
The final day before boarding the RMS St Helena back home was spent at the CPUT Hotel School which is one of the best Hotel Schools in South Africa.
Our team were shown the facilities, which included a working restaurant and bar area plus fabulous kitchens.
A superb lunch was enjoyed which was cooked and served by the first year students….. so a big thank you and credit to them for achieving such a lovely meal so soon into their training.
Our voyage back to the island gave all time to reflect on the array of experiences and learnings of the three weeks. There is great excitement to share new knowledge and skills back home and there will be plenty of opportunity to do this. St Helena being in such a remote location has many challenges ahead.
I hope that this trip will enable some to consider other solutions to problems and new ways of achieving results. Time will tell!
We have just returned from the long awaited Hospitality upskilling visit to Cape Town. The objectives were varied although to caption them I would say we were looking at all aspects of the industry with a view to bringing back information, inspiration and a way forward. This ranged from health and safety through to customer service and food styles.
10 Saints from all aspects of the industry joined me on the adventure.
Our expedition was a great success, to the extent that I didn’t have time to update this blog whilst on the road. The sheer variety and volume of experiences have intrigued, enticed and inspired our group.
To say the trip has changed lives might be a tad overstated, however the initial signs are pretty positive.
Cape Town in May can be cold and damp. This is a point many of us forgot and I for one spent much of the first week wishing I had packed warmer clothes and especially my socks!
Day one covered a trip down to the Two Oceans Restaurant on Cape Point, this restaurant serves up to 1000 very high quality meals a day in a fantastic setting, miles away from anywhere (sound familiar?). The difficulties of getting supplies and staff were discussed and comparisons made with St Helena.
We also spent a morning at the Cape Grace Hotel on the Waterfront. This was a highpoint for me as we have had a special relationship with the Cape Grace team and three of my sudents were spending part of their visit working in the kitchens of the hotel.
The morning commenced with breakfast in Signal, the hotel’s main restaurant. There was much to be impressed with as the hotel has been voted one of the best in the World! We didn’t even start to dent the buffet which contained fruits of all varieties, cakes, pastries and breads, cereals and yoghurts, meats, fish, fresh juices and much more. The choice of main courses is no less impressive with the full breakfast including steak being a favourite!
The tour of the basement whiskey bar and bedrooms gave the group some idea of the quality at which international Five Star Hotels operate. The talk by Barry Ross, the Head of HR was inspiring with an insight into why the hotel is one of the busiest in Cape Town and why it receives so many accolades: it’s all about the customer.
Weekends in Cape Town are all about food and getting out and about. The Old Biscuit Mill is one of the most popular destinations and rightly so.
. It certainly gave our visitors ideas on how to start a small food business with next to nothing and what quality can be achieved even though the stall is a couple of planks resting on boxes!
Wish we had more of these places in the UK although I guess the hygiene police would put a damper on the proceedings………..I didn’t see many coloured chopping boards!
Having been an AA Hotel Inspector for nearly 10 years, I have stayed in the whole gamut of accommodations offered in the British Isles.
Favourite visits include the Dorchester and Mandarin Oriental hotels in London who rightly hold their places at the pinnacle of high end hospitality and service. Lesser known favourite visits were usually to small privately run and owned properties when the owner’s passion to please the customer is reflected in the whole stay. its the type of service that many corporates dream of achieving!
There was one place I remember in the New Forest where the owners switched the water heating on for the swimming pool so I could have a swim in late September. They then served me with a fabulous cream tea in response to a spontaneous offer of a hot drink. Another place I remember well was in Callendar Scotland where the owner offered to iron my creased shirt and served the most amazing Scottish breakfast including home made jams and bakery products. He then called ahead to a store in the nearby town to check that they had a pottery jug which I had admired. These places remain strong memories, whereas others have faded into the past.
We will always remember the fabulous place with the WOW factor. Will we remember the place that was just OK?
Here are two places that I have stayed in Cape Town which will be remembered long after my time in St Helena is over.
The Cape Town Guest Accommodation scene is alive and well with an abundance of choices across the Western Cape. There seems to be a higher standard of accommodation, service and hospitality than in say the London or Edinburgh areas. This is good news for any visitor who would possibly prefer a more personal stay than one in a hotel.
There are two particular guest houses that I have been lucky enough to stay in. They stand out as exceptional in many ways: The quality of the accommodation itself and the friendly unobtrusive service offered to guests are probably the most important.
The Bluegum Hill Guesthouse is perched on the highest road in the Green Point district; this might mean a £3 taxi ride whenever one needs to go to the waterfront, but that slight inconvenience is blown away by the staggering views across the city from the two patios. As guests arrive and enjoy their welcome drink you can see eyes drawn through the floor to ceiling windows to the view and the pool on the patio below.
Air conditioned bedrooms are fairly spacious with very good bathrooms. Beds offer sumptuous comfort with fine cotton. The patio breakfast served by some lovely local ladies gives guests a great start to a days touring.
Hujis Haerlem Guest House in Sea Point is actually two houses with the gardens fused together giving guests a green space to relax and enjoy when the weather is fine which is most of the year. Johan, one of the proprietors has an encyclopaedic knowledge of the Western Cape and will gladly spend time helping visitors get the most out of their visit.
Nothing is too much trouble here; bags are carried, tours are booked, wifi connections checked, Laundry, ironing, I have even had a lift to somewhere when a taxi didn’t turn up done. Breakfast is a highlight of any stay with Johan ensuring that the team retain his high standards. Coffee is a passion here with a state of the art cappuccino machine in pride of place in the breakfast room. The whole philosophy here is “my home is your home”.
I cant wait to return!