The Economy Challenges Chefs to Make the Most of Everything
By Antonio Rodriguez Executive Chef, Westward Look Wyndham Grand Resort & Spa | August 11, 2013
Like many other industries, resort food and beverage services have experienced numerous challenges over the past few years as the U.S. economy suffered. Some areas are experiencing a quicker recovery than others. Before I became Executive Chef at Westward Look Wyndham Grand Resort & Spa this past January, I was Executive Chef of the Hotel Galvez & Spa, an acclaimed hotel in Galveston, Texas. During my two years in Galveston, I made a conscious effort to support the local economy in whatever way I could. To me, this meant such things as going to a doctor or dentist on the island instead of going to Texas City or other places, as many people did.
Back here in Tucson, Arizona, I continue to focus on buying as much as I can from local companies or at least from in-state companies. We would rather buy from the local companies or at least from in-state companies. For instance, all of our bakery goods come from a local bakery. It's one way we can help to support the local economy. We are also very proud of our Chef's Garden and a short time ago expanded its footprint. You just can't serve fresher produce than what you get from your own garden. Recently, we featured the squash blossom and fava beans, which we used in GOLD, our award-winning restaurant, as the main vegetable for several days. We try to use as much as we can that is grown here on the resort.
Due to the narrow profit margins in any food and beverage operation, the biggest challenge in this economy is keeping a close eye on the budget. Labor, typically being your single largest expense, has to be kept in check. As a result, we've needed to do a lot more cross-training to give us the ability to utilize our core staff on many different tasks. I've always considered myself a "hands-on" chef and in recent years, it's meant being hands-on as part of the kitchen crew. Productivity is critical. Whatever the number of people your budget allows you to have in the kitchen, you have got to make that work and still provide the creative and quality product needed to compete. This is certainly one of the most important things I can think of that's needed today. Obviously, that means we may be working longer hours than we did before, doing whatever it takes to make it happen … that's what we have to do.
Another piece of the pie, so to speak, is your food costs. You've got to buy smart. There were times when I had to do all of the shopping. Many hotels and resorts today no longer have purchasing departments which has been a trend of the past four years or so. Now, that's part of what I need to do. I have to know exactly what I need, not what I think I may need. These days, it's no longer assuming the most expensive item is the best quality item. It is about knowing what quality product we use and where to find the best price for that product each and every week. That's how I shop. When you shop and when you create menus, you have to know who your customers are and this is more important than ever. Before, in the old days, we used to cook what we liked to cook and what we knew we could cook the best. Now, you must do your homework and know what it is your customers want.
Today's economy has created an environment where most people are more conscious on what and how they spend their hard earned dollars. The items and prices on your menu must appeal to the palate, as well as the pocket book. You cannot ignore the value to your customers. This definitely makes my job more challenging. This is especially true when you are cooking for functions, groups and banquets. We have to work very closely with each planner to make special menus, when necessary, to fit their budget. When we do that, everyone is happy. We accommodate their budget while not sacrificing profits, so we can stay in business.
Now that I've had some time to settle into the kitchen at Westward Look Wyndham Grand Resort & Spa, I've been able to start putting my own touches on the menus. We recently revised the menu in the Lookout Bar & Grille, which is our casual restaurant on the property. For GOLD, our new menus should be in place by the time you read this. I'm really looking forward to the summer and our "Tropical Escape" resort theme that will encourage Tucson and area residents to stay at the resort to experience the tropics in food, drink and relaxation. We're also hopeful to attract others to drive or fly in from nearby states. On Thursdays and Fridays, we will pick an island and present beverages, entrees and appetizers inspired by that tropical destination. We're completing a breakfast menu, for instance, that includes Piña Colada French Toast and tropical fruit platters. We plan to serve guests by the pool from carts and booths pained in bright tropical colors. One day may be Hawaii, serving Kalua Pig and Blue Hawaii cocktails, another Jamaica with jerk chicken with stamp & go and Red Stripe beer … it will be a fun time and a great experience.