The Challenges of In-Room-Dining

By Brad Parsons Executive Chef, The Fairmont Chicago, Millennium Park | August 05, 2012

It is a typical Thursday evening at 5:00pm with two banquet dinners for 500 guests each starting in an hour and a half, a full bar of guests and locals ordering appetizers and drinks, and ninety reservations on the books for our restaurant. Even more, the hotel's 682 rooms are occupied and any one of our treasured guests may want to order in-room-dining. The leisure travelers are looking for an experience, the locals are looking for the latest culinary sensation, and the road warriors are looking for a lighter meal after dining at restaurants and entertaining all week. With so many different expectations, it can often be challenging for an executive chef to carry out all of these areas impeccably.

Although all areas have their challenges, in-room-dining can often be one of the most challenging departments for an executive chef. From their overall experience to food quality, guests rightfully have high expectations when ordering in-room-dining. Therefore, every step of the in-room-dining process should be considered because even if the menu is designed to perfection, poor execution often comes at the cost of an unsatisfied guest. Still, as an executive chef, I believe that a flawless execution begins with a well thought out menu.

One thing is clear, different types of guests have different types of needs. For example, business guests are often looking for healthy items because they travel and dine out frequently. Conversely, leisure guests are often seeking out cuisine that is less healthy, and more in the realm of comfort food. How does a chef satisfy the diverse palates of these guests? It is an executive chef's responsibility to develop a menu that encompasses all of these needs. Chefs should stay away from obscure and unique ingredients on this menu. An in-room-dining menu is not meant to be cutting edge; it should be designed to satisfy the mass population. With that said, when writing an in-room-dining menu it is imperative to keep it well balanced with simple yet flavorful options.

Research should also be conducted in order to understand guests' dining needs. One of my favorite things to do is to reach out to guests and ask them their opinion of my cuisine. What was their favorite item on the menu? What would they like to see on the menu in the future? Gathering information from guests provides the data needed in order for the team to determine how to design a menu that will essentially satisfy a majority of the guests. For example, the last time I changed the in-room-dining menu, I reached out to our frequent guests who are part of the Fairmont's Presidents Club. The guests were able to provide me with insight on what they were looking for in a room service menu. Overall, I uncovered that the guest's perception was that we should offer both healthy and comfort food items. How does a chef create a menu that offers enough healthy items yet includes menu items that guests like to order, such as comfort food? In order to overcome this challenge, we developed a main menu with special sections like an authentically local section and a Lifestyle Cuisine Plus menu. Living in Chicago for several years, I found that Chicagoans take pleasure in eating hearty and often fatty comfort foods. Hence, I created the authentically local menu which features some of Chicago's favorite comfort food items such as artichoke dip, burgers and a Rueben sandwich. In contrast, many guests prefer items that lean toward heart healthy and vegetarian meals. Hence, our Lifestyle Cuisine Plus menu offers items such as organic field greens, grilled and steamed fish and vegetable lasagna. By creating a menu that offers a wide variety of cuisine and flavors, I was ultimately able to satisfy guests with a wide range of preferences.

Moreover, there are specific items that guests expect to see on a menu, like pizza. However, what I've found, over the years is that pizza quality is often inconsistent. For instance, pizza crusts may vary in thickness, flavor and doneness. In order to overcome this challenge, we began making our pizza dough in-house. Using a pretested recipe, our pastry chefs make the pizza dough fresh per order. Even more, we also bake the pizza on a stone in a pizza oven. By taking these additional steps, we are now able to deliver a high-quality pizza each and every time. It is also important to provide the guests with an opportunity to order menu items that may not be listed on the menu. We simply mention on the front of our menu that guests may request special menu items. I've learned that there are certain items, like steak and eggs that are not ordered frequently; nonetheless, there are guests that expect it to find it on the menu. By allowing guests special requests, we are able to satisfy them. Even more, it was quite easy to execute because we already have both eggs and steak on our menu. In addition to expected menu items, limited late night menus have also been a challenge in the past. What we found was that guests perceived that they should be able to be able to order from the all day menu items when a hotel offers 24 hour room service. Therefore, a few years ago, we discontinued the limited late night menu and now offer our all day dining menu throughout the late hours. By offering a wide variety of items throughout the day, we are able to satisfy a diverse group of guests' in-room-dining needs.

In addition to variety, ingredient seasonality must also be considered when developing an in-room-dining menu. Since these menus are usually only revised once per year, it is important to consider food items that are available year-round. In the Midwest, produce is not available year round. In turn, ingredients may change the flavors of a dish from season to season because canned of frozen substitutions may need to be used. Therefore, it is imperative to consider ingredients that provide a consistent end product year round. Tomatoes, for example, are available all year in various forms with consistent flavor and quality. During the summer months, we use fresh tomatoes for the sauce we use in our vegetable lasagna. Yet, in the winter months when the produce is not as fresh, this ingredient can be substituted easily with a canned version. On the other hand, there are ingredients that would completely change the flavors of a dish. For instance, I would never consider including morel mushrooms in an in-room-dining menu because the quality would be inconsistent. Recipes with morel mushrooms would need to use a dry version in the winter, and this would drastically change the flavor of the dish. Moreover, there are certain fish that are also seasonal, such as cod, which is more readily available in the summer. Hence, it may need to be substituted in the winter season with a more seasonal fish, like salmon. As long as ingredients have a comparable variety during the off-season, they can be used in an in-room-dining menu. Otherwise I strongly recommend revising the recipe. Considering the seasonality of each ingredient will provide a consistently flavorful in-room-dining menu.

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