Golden Plates 2020: “Hotel restaurants” offer stylish dining experiences in Vancouver

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      Hotel restaurants sometimes get a bad rap. Granted, the quality of these dining rooms varies wildly from one to the next; just as with regular restaurants, some are exceptional and some most certainly are not. Vancouver, being the food city it is, however, is home to some fantastic hotel-based places for wining and dining.

      What exactly is a hotel restaurant? We ask the question, because it seems there’s some confusion. Some, like Hawksworth and Mott 32, are in fact wholly independent businesses that just happen to be situated on hotel property (the Rosewood Hotel Georgia and Trump International Hotel and Tower, respectively). Others, like Botanist at the Fairmont Pacific Rim and Notch8 Restaurant and Lounge at the Fairmont Hotel Vancouver, are fully part of a brand’s operations. Call them what you want: the city’s top “hotel restaurants” are delivering some of Vancouver’s most sublime dining experiences.

      For those working the line or the floor, being associated with a hotel has its pros and cons.

      David Hawksworth loves his eponymous restaurant’s location in the heart of Vancouver. However, Rosewood Hotel Georgia employees went on strike earlier this year, picketing outside for 59 days—the longest hotel workers’ strike in the city’s history. His business took a hit, despite it not being officially affiliated with the hotel. It was a situation the chef entrepreneur (who also runs Bel Café at the same address) never anticipated.

      “It was awful,” Hawksworth says during an afternoon interview with the Straight at the restaurant. “It affected business horrendously. If I was to ever get involved in a hotel again, I would know how to prepare myself businesswise. That was rough.

      “But there’s so much upside to being where we are,” he’s quick to add. “We have a captive audience. Guests just have to put on their slippers and come down for dinner. That’s fantastic. And, I grew up in Vancouver, and being right on the corner of Howe and Georgia—that’s centre ice.”

      When Hawksworth thinks of hotel restaurants, places like the Savoy come to mind, the luxury London institution being an establishment he aspires to emulate. At Hawksworth, you might find items prepared with modernist techniques; consider crab-and-prawn toast with celery and green apple dusted with sour cream that’s been frozen by liquid nitrogen—the ingredient ending up looking like powdery snow. But even in the Instagram age of fine dining, he attributes his success to a commitment to the basics—seasonality and provenance—and to a deeper, more personal motivation.

      “Food is getting better across the globe exponentially faster than ever before,” he says. “Chefs can forget it’s maybe less about tweezers and more about real ingredients. I love working with great products.”

      He's still the man—once again, Georgia Straight readers have voted for David Hawskworth as the city's chef of the year.
      Chris Mason Stearns

      What drives him? “Fear of failing,” he says. “School was a nightmare for me. I’m dyslexic. I want to succeed. We’re highly critical of what we do. Vancouver is a tricky place to do business, but it means more to me than anything to do this in Vancouver.”

      Working at a Fairmont hotel, Notch8 executive chef Dennis Peckham says he sometimes gets asked if he feels boxed in, restricted in terms of ideas in order to align with the international brand. The answer is “Not at all.”

      “It’s like a painter: just because the canvas is this one size doesn’t mean that a painter can’t do his own work,” Peckham says in an interview in the lounge just as happy hour is getting under way. “We’re encouraged to be creative. It doesn’t stifle your creativity; you just find your way within the borders.”

      Peckham, a Top Chef Canada finalist, describes the approach at the iconic Vancouver hotel as “approachable sophistication”. Take wagyu steak frites with red-wine jus as an example. On one hand, it’s a simple dish people can relate to. On the other, it boasts the kind of premium ingredients that so-called foodies crave. “It’s still sophisticated to keep with the brand, but it’s also accessible,” Peckham says. “Anybody staying in the hotel, no matter their culinary knowledge or experience, will find something on the menu that will satisfy them.”

      Other current dishes Peckham is especially proud of include roasted duck breast with shiso-braised red cabbage, and pickled currants and beets; and sablefish with roasted Delicata squash, pickled mustard seeds, squid ink tuile, and black garlic purée. Both have depth of flavour and a stunning presentation, “but at the end of the day, they’re simple dishes,” he says. “We push ourselves creatively to build dishes that people will appreciate but not be intimidated by.”

      Botanist executive chef Hector Laguna likes to say his restaurant offers "happy food".

      Botanist is the first hotel restaurant executive chef Hector Laguna has ever worked at—and he’s loving it. Born in La Estación, a town of about 500 in the Mexican state of Hidalgo, he got his start at a small Vietnamese restaurant in San Francisco. He went on to work in Miami with Michelle Bernstein, a James Beard Foundation Award–winning chef of Jewish and Latin descent, who “took his like of cooking to a whole new level” with her enthusiasm and dazzling flavours.

      Eventually, Laguna moved to Vancouver via Toronto, joining the crew at Hawksworth before getting a call from the management team at Botanist. He admits he had preconceived notions of hotel dining.

      “Hotels aren’t known necessarily for their cuisine,” he says. “I came in for a chat with the GM and the executive chef at the time, and we just talked and talked about food and what we like to eat and how they wanted to run Botanist as if it was an independent restaurant. Half an hour turned into two-and-a-half hours. It was easy to say yes.”

      Laguna describes the menu in terms not often heard from top chefs: “It’s happy food.”

      “I cook what we think is good food,” he says. “I think of something, I play with it, I use local as much as possible; the farms here are amazing.

      “They trust us,” he says of the hotel’s higher-ups. “It has to run as a business, but it doesn’t feel like a hotel restaurant.”

      Mott 32's décor can match the most upscale dining establishments in Hong Kong.
      Mott 32

      When Mott 32, the upscale Chinese restaurant run by Hong Kong–based Maximal Concepts, opened in conjunction with the Trump International Hotel and Tower in 2017, the only thing that left a bitter taste in some people’s mouths was its association with the hotel’s namesake. In February 2019, the restaurant separated completely from the hotel, and it has since been independently owned and operated. Mott 32 wine director and general manager Robert Stelmachuk says that although some people may have an issue with the hotel, they’re often quickly won over by Mott 32—particularly by the organic, expertly executed Chinese cuisine, including dim sum made fresh to order, Ocean Wise seafood, and Peking duck (Brome Lake fowl produced specifically for the restaurant), and the gluten-free, vegetarian, and vegan options, all offered with topnotch service and one of the most impressive wine and beverage programs in the city.

      “I’m in the business of food and beverage, which has no politics,” Stelmachuk tells the Straight during an interview on-site. “The experiences we create here are done in this room by us. The people who dine with us are really quite amazed that this is available to them in Vancouver; there’s nothing like it. The ambiance, the décor, is world-class. The style of service we do is geared to five-star-style dining; we guide guests and explain dishes to them, we announce food when it’s placed on the table.

      “We don’t just try to operate Mott 32 as a fine-dining Chinese,” he adds. “We want to be competitive as one of the best restaurants in the city, regardless of the ethnicity of the food we’re serving.”