Holiday Tea

by Francoise Villeneuve
Antoinette Bruno and John Valls
November 2010


Pastry Chef David Nolan
The Ritz-Carlton Lodge, Reynolds Plantation - Greensboro, GA

Pastry Chef Ami Dand
The St. Regis Atlanta - Atlanta, GA

Pastry Chef Kayvon Jordan
Ty Lounge - New York, NY

Pastry Chef John Gayer
The Heathman Restaurant & Bar - Portland, OR


Pastry Chef David Nolan formerly of The Ritz-Carlton Tysons Corner – McLean, VA

Opera Torte
Pastry Chef David Nolan formerly of The Ritz-Carlton Tysons Corner – McLean, VA

Fresh Marshmallows
Pastry Chef John Gayer of The Heathman Restaurant & Bar – Portland, OR

John’s Famous Lanai Banana Bread
Pastry Chef John Gayer of The Heathman Restaurant & Bar – Portland, OR

Sample Holiday Tea Menus

The Ritz-Carlton Tysons Corner - McLean, VA

The St. Regis Atlanta – Atlanta, GA

The Heathman Restaurant & Bar – Portland, OR

The Four Seasons Hotel – New York, NY

Afternoon tea is anything but stuffy. It might bring to mind Oscar Wilde’s characters, be-gloved and powdered, noshing on muffins and cucumber sandwiches while drinking tea with their pinkies firmly held at a 45 degree angle, mulling over their latest escapade. But in today’s hospitality industry, afternoon tea is a sleeker animal. And it’s a business that’s booming. The lull between lunch and dinner service frustrates even the most seasoned business owner. Afternoon tea taps into that lull and caters to a niche crowd of peckish well-heeled socialites and their families. What better time than the busiest season of the year—from Thanksgiving to New Year’s Day—to offer two things; a service to the customer and a profitable program to your business? “[Holiday Tea] is something we do try to make profitable, but at the same time it is something we create for our guests and community,” says Pastry Chef David Nolan, formerly of The Ritz-Carlton Tysons Corner.

For hotel pastry chefs like Nolan, holiday tea is quite a feat at the busiest time of year, as he carefully balances banquets and catering, room service, and restaurant service with tea service. “Christmas time at Tysons is definitely a balancing act. It’s a challenge each time,” Nolan says. “[Holiday Tea] is something we do try to make profitable, but at the same time it is something we create for our guests and community.” But Nolan estimates that they average over 120 covers for each tea service during the peak season, and that makes it more than a worthwhile addition. The Ritz-Carlton Tysons Corner has a year-round tea program with loose leaf teas, sandwiches, delicate silver tiers stacked with French tortes, and melt-in-the-mouth shortbread discs. But during the holiday season they mix it up a bit and add a festive experience to their opulent tea program. It may cost a few dollars more than the year-round $46 tea, but a local dance group is brought in for a Nutcracker performance, and the price difference is mainly a result of that. And since the Nutcracker-draw mostly attracts a finger-painting-aged crowd, Nolan adapts the menu with more kid-friendly options.

While the St. Regis Atlanta opened in 2009 and is a newbie, the flagship hotel of the group in New York introduced tea service at the turn of the century to make families staying there feel the same ease and comfort with their afternoon meal that they would in their own homes. The comfort, convenience, and ease of tea service should include the pitter patter and crayon-toting offspring of your well-to-do customers too. Pastry Chef Ami Dand at The St. Regis Atlanta prepares a Children’s Tea with Santa as part of the hotel’s holiday tea service. Teddy bear cupcakes and embossed milk bottles for each child keep them involved, while adults can choose from more sophisticated offerings during holiday tea, with a glass of sparkling wine.

In Portland, Oregon, Pastry Chef John Gayer of The Heathman Restaurant & Bar works along side James Beard Award Winning Executive Chef Philippe Boulot. For Gayer, “[Holiday Tea] is a big money maker; from Thanksgiving to January 1st, we do 300 teas on Saturdays and Sundays, at $32 per person.” Gayer’s elaborate tea is served during the holiday season in the Christmas tree-decked tea court of the adjacent Heathman Hotel. Pillowy housemade marshmallows and Gayer’s signature banana bread represent comforting faves, but like so many holiday teas, good quality loose leaf tea elevates the experience.

Tea bags are usually filled with tea leaves that are broken up into smaller pieces, losing much of their essential oil, and as a result, flavor. Loose leaf teas are usually larger portions of the leaves, or whole leaves in some cases, and give the leaves room to unfurl when steeped. Although quality tea leaves can cost more than tea bags, you have the ability to portion them correctly so that you aren’t using more tea than the teapot can handle. In the long run you’re saving on tea cost, and the added value of an opulent tea experience is a far cry from the dubious teabag and its soggy unprepossessing mess. Luxury tea is often closer than you think—Seattle-based Northwest micro roaster Fonte Coffee and Tea Company provides the tea leaves for Gayer’s tea throughout the year. Mighty Leaf Tea Company, Harney & Sons, Tea Forté, and Devi Tea all produce high-quality loose-leaf tea, and Tea Forté and SerendipiTea both produce an elegant tea bag (if such a thing is possible) that is pyramid-shaped to allow the leaves to circulate properly.

They might not care about the quality of the tea leaves, but for kids the Holiday Tea is all about the food. What does this mean for a hotel or restaurant? If you bring the ants on the log, the animal-shaped cupcakes, and cookies to the holiday tea, they will come. Pastry Chef Kayvon Jordan of sleek, modern Ty Lounge at The Four Seasons Hotel in New York City creates a new trio of kid-oriented goodies each year. A perennial favorite is his meringue-vanilla cream-filled Frosty the Cream Puff snowman, complete with colored meringue piped cheery visage and marzipan red scarf. Not many hotels put this much energy into their holiday kids menu, but Jordan’s offerings change each year, so children have a new experience to keep them coming back each year for their Christmas Tree Tea. They vie for the best seats in the Ty Lounge, which overlooks the hotel’s biggest Christmas tree—which has to be pretty big in a hotel that decks the lobby each holiday season. And the minimalist lines of Nikki teapots and Bernadaud white cups speaks to a quite contemporary feel that leaves chintzy rose-adorned teacups a thing of the past.

The usually maudlin statement—holiday is about family—actually translates into a profitable constant when you add a little tea. But in the end, it’s all about the simple notion of hospitality. Holiday Tea is about making guests and diners feel welcome, whether they include children or not. A good portion of holiday tea customers are children, so it’s important to capture that key demographic’s attention, while offering the parents the glass (or two) of bubbly to see them through all of the excited squealing and hand-clapping. Extended pinky optional.