|The Trajectory of a Hotel Chef: Sean Hardy on Moving from the Kitchen to F&B
by Antoinette Bruno with Katherine Martinelli
| photo by Antoinette Bruno
Sean Hardy, a Boston native, was the executive chef at The Belvedere at The Peninsula Hotel in Los Angeles when he won the 2006 StarChefs.com Hotel Chef Award. Today he has ditched the chef jacket for a three piece suit to be the director of food and beverage at Santa Monica’s high-end Fairmont Miramar Hotel & Bungalows. We caught up with Hardy on our most recent trip to California and discussed the pros and cons of going the food and beverage route, what kind of chef is cut out for F&B, and the biggest challenges facing his property right now.
Antoinette Bruno: Why did you choose to take this job?
Sean Hardy: To continue to grow in the industry because I do believe hospitality is about the whole experience. Working mostly in hotels throughout my career it seems like a natural progression for a career and as a person. And it’s more viable to be able to have a family, which I’m looking forward to.
AB: What do you like and not like about being food and beverage director?
SH: You have to brush up on your people skills. You have to get a lot more buy-in from the front of the house. Also dealing with pissed off guests—the ones that really blow up and rise above the immediate people. People will blow up about anything. Everyone has their own interpretation of the temperature of meat, and what medium-well is. [Once] there was a woman in tears making the biggest scene because the meat was the wrong temperature; they said “you ruined our whole vacation.” People are people. There’s obviously something underlying, but you can’t say that. You just have to bring people back in. What I like about it is there’s a lot more to learn. Not that I wasn’t always learning, but it’s growing a lot more than I did for a while in back of the house.
AB: Do you think it’s a good position for a chef to think about who’s at a certain point in his/her career? Who is it good for?
SH: I would say it would be the right move for a chef that is able to move on from the kitchen. The person will need to move into a mentor role versus not letting kitchen life go. They will have had to be comfortable with their own accomplishments and have no regrets. I have seen several chefs who have tried to make the transition that were not able to and cause damage in the process. For me, it is about becoming more in life, I was able to work as the executive chef in one of the best hotels in the country and wanted to continue to accomplish more in my career. There are chefs that are able to make the transition and are successful.
[Chef] Ray [Garcia of Fig] and I have a great relationship. I give him advice when he asks for it, but I know how to walk the fine line where I’m not cramping his style and [imposing] what I think a chef should be. Partly because of the economy and partly because of the evolution of the business you actually see more combination of food and beverage managers and chefs. It will evolve more and more. I certainly think for a chef that can evolve into that position it works well. Chefs are more organized and detail-oriented than a lot of front of the house people. Innately they have drive.
AB: But does everyone have the business side to be a food and beverage manager?
SH: Not all [chefs] have the business side. Again I don’t think it’s for every chef at all, but for somebody who wants to evolve and wants to move into a different chapter in the business. It opens up a lot of opportunities for the individual. For myself I have four to five years max [in this position before] I want to be a general manager at a high-end hotel. Since I’ve always been in hotels, I think the best general managers come from the food and beverage side. It’s a much different animal. It’s more unpredictable so you need to adapt and be on your toes more than on the room side. There are a lot more variables in the mix.
For me, it’s a natural progression; I don’t think it’s for everybody. If I had hit a certain stature [as a chef] I would have stayed into it. But I never wanted to be one of those chefs that fade into obscurity. [I wanted to] take on a new challenge and move forward.
AB: Let’s talk about the property, The Fairmont in Santa Monica. How long have you been there?
SH: A little over year and a half.
AB: You mentioned that it has been undergoing change?
SH: It has gone through significant change, between the service culture and obviously the operation itself. The rooms have been renovated, the lobby has been renovated, and there’s a lot more investment in the landscaping and look of the property. It wasn’t managed properly before. It was a matter of taking the high-end background of the high-end executive [clientele] and mixing that with the Santa Monica beach feel. The renovation is done but we’re still continuing to grow the service culture of the hotel and having it be guest-centric.
AB: What is the biggest challenge facing your property right now?
SH: Keeping service at the levels that we have built and mitigating the costs is the biggest issue right now.
AB: What do you like best about your job?
SH: It forces you to grow—you don’t have a choice. In the kitchen you can control your environment 99 percent of the time. Here, you don’t have a choice—you have to do it.