For many travellers, hotel restaurants are a convenient way to grab a bite when they’re on the run, arrive in late from a flight or simply don’t want to leave their hotel.
But, within the last few years, hotel restaurants have been coming into their own, pushing boundaries as much as their off-property counterparts. Hotels are starting to understand that stellar restaurants can contribute to their profits, and we’re reaping the benefits.
Say goodbye to bland burgers and chewy waffles; at these five Minnesota hotels, seven incredible chefs with seven incredible stories will serve you quinoa French toast, rock shrimp croquettes, a lentil hot dish and so many more options that dramatically expand your palette.
Succeeding in the Face of Change
Chris Blackwell grew up around barbecue. His grandfather competed in barbecue tournaments, and Blackwell would go with, camping out in his home state of Texas. From there, the current chef of the Italian restaurant Jacques at the Marquette Hotel in Minneapolis started working in restaurants as a 16-year-old, serving as a busboy and dishwasher. At age 18, he moved to line cook. After graduating from the University of Texas, Blackwell moved to Denver to attend the culinary program at Johnson & Wales University.
“By the time I graduated from The University of Texas, I had come to realize the kitchen was my true love and passion,” says Blackwell. “Despite having a business degree, I decided to move to Denver and continue working as a line cook while attending culinary school.”
While attending, he completed an internship at The Warwick Hotel, where he was hired as sous chef and then executive chef. In December 2016, he accepted the executive chef position at the Marquette Hotel—right as a $24 million renovation began. The renovation included the creation of Jacques and The Joliet House (which replaced the iconic Basil’s).
“The renovation has been both very exciting and somewhat stressful,” he says. “As is typical when opening a new concept, all the planning in the world can’t prepare you for the realities of a new restaurant and everything must remain fluid to some degree. Overall, I could not be happier with the way Jacques turned out as we begin to feel more comfortable in our new home.”
Creating two new restaurants gives Blackwell the opportunity to flex his creativity and make them his own through the menus he curated.
“Typically, when going to a new hotel, a chef inherits what is most often an older kitchen with its fair share of broken or dying equipment in addition to a menu created by a previous chef,” he says. “Staying within the corporate guidelines, I was able to help create the initial menu for the restaurant without being handcuffed by a dish that might have been a regular’s favorite or the restaurant’s signature dish.”
For Blackwell, cooking isn’t simply his job. “What I most enjoy about cooking is its therapeutic quality,” says Blackwell. “Other stresses of the job or your personal life escape your mind when you’re able to pour all your efforts into the art of creation.”
Technology Rules All
Five ingredients or less. Keep your dishes simple. Cook what’s in season and local. These are Everton Clarke's cooking mantras.
The executive chef at JW Marriott Minneapolis Mall of America has spent the past 23 years working for Marriott Hotels and Restaurants from Fort Lauderdale and Philadelphia to Desert Springs and San Francisco, and a stint as executive sous chef of banqueting at the JW Marriott Marquis Dubai Hotel. He spent his early years cooking in family restaurants along the East Coast and received his bachelor’s degree from Johnson & Wales University.
Clarke has observed an increase in talented chefs who are motivated by the ever-evolving demands of the everyday guest. “What I think is pushing the creativity in hotel restaurants are the talented chefs and our very demanding and knowledgeable guests,” he says.
Technology, too, is changing the way we as a generation eat. “Today’s guest eats with their phone first. This means your food and establishment has to be a place to be seen and where guests want to be.”
Jamaican born with a childhood spent in New England, Clarke’s cooking inspiration runs the gamut from past travel and experiences with colleagues to culinary books and Andrew Zimmern.
Trends that Clarke is noticing include pho and spicy food, as well as culinary fusion as a result of a more global population that continues to grow. A specific example he cites is a dish of roasted salmon with chickpea puree and a warm lentil salad that he serves.
For those who wish to emulate the success of Clarke, there’s no better way than education and experience.
“The best advice that I will lend to a person today is to get a two-year culinary degree and move around as much as possible to hone in on their culinary skills,” he says. “Mentor with chefs that they can learn from. Choose reputable restaurants or hotels that will challenge them and help them grow.”
The Hunter & Gatherer
Ever since he was young, Timothy Fischer —a St. Paul native and the executive chef at the Loews Minneapolis hotel—has had a penchant for using fresh, local ingredients. As a toddler, he would can all sorts of produce like tomatoes, peaches and cucumbers with his family.
Now, he continues that practice as a chef, curating a garden atop the roof’s hotel and foraging, something that came about from his wife, who requested him to teach her the skills for their wedding anniversary.
“I was ecstatic because not only was it a cool request, but I haven’t lived in Minnesota for a number of years,” he says. “It’s a really great way to be hyperlocal and give customers products that are at the peak of freshness.”
His foraging hobby is becoming more popular in the culinary zeitgeist. More and more, restaurant patrons want to know where their food comes from, how it was prepared and any other detail they can consume. It’s not just about taste anymore—it’s about experience.
“People are really enjoying the cheffollowing ingredients from picking/foraging/harvesting all the way through to the table and then taking it a step further and explaining the process,” says Fischer. “People enjoy learning about the terrain of an area, how that affects that particular plant, and why the flavors are so drastically better than what you have tasted in the past.”
Fischer, who has close to 30 years of culinary experience, was named a James Beard Award nominee for Best Chef of the Midwest in 2011 when he was the executive chef at the Hotel Donaldson in Fargo, North Dakota. He was the first chef to ever receive a nomination in the state.
Instead of learning of the honor himself, a server of his shared the news during a staff retreat.
During dinner, the server asked Fischer if knew of the James Beard Award. After a quick chuckle, he asked why, and the server told him he was nominated for Best Chef of the Midwest.
“My arms were instantly covered in goosebumps,” he says. “I almost put the truck in the ditch.”
Now well into his career, Fischer, who describes his cooking philosophy as “hyper-local cuisine with a global twist,” is excited most when he helps instill knowledge and excitement in future chefs.
“What I truly enjoy about the craft is watching young minds grow,” he says. “It is always a pleasure to take a young mind, or an old mind, and watch it flourish with excitement upon getting a new dish, knife, or food item that they may be exploring for the very first time.”
A Leap of Faith
Before Eric LeClair became the executive chef at the Hyatt Regency Minneapolis, he had never visited Minneapolis, but as soon as he touched down, he knew it was a great city. That, combined with the opportunity to take his dream job, convinced him that the hotel was the place he needed to be.
“I’d never been to Minnesota or seen it before I came here,” he says. “I applied to fulfill my dream and be in a great place with a great opportunity.”
In early October 2017, LeClair celebrated his one-year anniversary—both with the restaurant and with his wife. He started his job only three weeks before he got married in Denver.
LeClair’s interest in cooking started at the age of 15, when he worked in the bakery of a family friend through college. He attended culinary school at Johnson & Wales University in Rhode Island. After graduating, he worked as a line cook for the New England Patriots, eventually moving to sous chef. He then worked in a number of hotels and restaurants, joining the Hyatt brand in 2007 as a restaurant chef in Cambridge, Massachusetts, then the Hyatt Regency in Denver in 2011. The executive chef position was the next logical step.
Much of LeClair’s inspiration comes from his Northeast roots and the memories he has of cooking with his grandmother and mother. He also combines the Southwestern style of cooking he picked up in Colorado and blends that into what he’s found in Minnesota.
“I really enjoy the cuisine out here,” he says. “There are so many different styles, ethnicities and super creative chefs all around.”
For LeClair’s part, he, too, is becoming known as one of Minneapolis’ creative chefs, making sure that Prairie Kitchen and Bar is a destination—not just a convenient stop for weary travelers. “The way we approach it is that we don’t want to be called a hotel restaurant,” he says. “We want to be known as a restaurant that just happens to be in a hotel.”
“We try to diversify our menu with a lot of options without it being too big and inexecutable,” he says. “We make sure everything we’re serving is high-quality food, good value and a little bit outside the box so we can compete with some of the best restaurants in town.”
A Seasoned Chef and His Partner in Crime
When he graduated high school, Julian Grainger —the executive chef at Hilton Minneapolis—headed to the University of Wisconsin-Stout. But after a year, he realized it wasn’t for him, so he traveled 2,000 miles to a San Diego country club where his brother-in-law served as a chef.
“I never thought of cooking at that point, but I seemed to have a knack for it,” he says. “Within a year, I was pretty much overseeing all production in his kitchen.”
Eventually, he made his way back to Minnesota, attended a technical college and then got a job at a country club. He then moved to Hotel Sofitel where he worked in butchering and then moved to the Hilton Minneapolis for its soft opening in January 1992. In 2001 he moved to the DoubleTree by Hilton Minneapolis - Park Place, and then to the St. James Hotel in Red Wing. Eventually, he made his way back to the Hilton Minneapolis, serving in his dream job since 2007.
The hotel just underwent a $27 million renovation, adding the full-service, grab-and-go Ten 01 Market as well as the Ten 01 Social. The restaurant’s menu was created by the 27-year-old chef de cuisine Michael Beck who attended the same St. Paul technical college that Grainger did.
When he created the menu, Beck knew he had a lot to live up to. “We had to have a wide variety of different food and techniques, which was fun for me because you can showcase a little more, but we also wanted to showcase what Minnesota has to offer because you have people from all over the country and world that come here,” says Beck. “We wanted to show that you don’t have to go see the city to have the whole taste of Minnesota, but in the same aspect we wanted to show the different cultures of the city.”
Borne From Necessity
After a month-long trip to Europe, Kris Koch—the executive chef at The SIX15 Room in the Kimpton Grand Hotel in Minneapolis—came home hungry with no job or money. Luckily, his best friend worked as a kitchen manager and needed a busboy/kitchen prep cook. The gig would provide him with food and much-needed cash. At the time, his friend told him, once you join this industry, you’ll never leave.
That was 23 years ago, and he never did. “I spent three years working there until my friend moved on to another establishment,” he says. “I followed like a loyal hound dog.”
Originally, Koch wanted to be an artist, but making a living in that industry can be difficult. In more ways than one, though, the work Koch does is art. He’s preparing something from nothing, something that people can admire and enjoy, perhaps not even knowing how he did it.
“At the time, I didn’t realize cooking is an art form,” he says. “I love to work with my hands and love to make people happy.”
Koch notes that hotel restaurants have become more competitive as a way to stay alive. As consumers tune into social media and watch chefs on television, they become more cognizant of the food options and high-quality, creative meals they deserve to eat. To try to compete even in the slightest, hotel restaurants need to tune into the elevated knowledge guests have about the culinary world.
“You need to stay current, or you’re going to lose a guest to the latest restaurant or food truck down the street,” he says. “Guests want to get an authentic local experience without going far. Hotel restaurants have taken notice and they are providing this for their guest.”