I first met Chef Murray Hall at a conference last August and he enthralled me with stories of just how much the quality of foods can affect the productivity of meetings and conferences. Since that time, I’ve kept a keen eye on my own diet and how certain foods affect both mood and energy levels. Needless to say, Chef Hall is right, and during our recent chat, he offered some very valuable takeaways both for hotels and for your own dietary goals, which, believe it or not, are one and the same.
His Background with Food
According to Chef Hall, his life has always been imbued with a strong passion for the culinary arts. Growing up in the 1980s in the small mountain town of Salmon Arm, British Columbia, Canada (current population roughly 17,000), access to mass produced and heavily processed goods was always a challenge. This meant that the concept of ‘local food’ was already common nomenclature, long before it became trendy circa mid-2000s.
Chef Hall’s passion emerged from his mother. He reminisces on the days he would go strawberry or cherry picking then head home to make fresh pies and jam preserves. It was this near-constant hands-on experience that fostered his early love for cuisine.
Chef Hall attended the culinary school at Caribou College in Kamloops, British Columbia, and then completed his apprenticeship at the Banff Springs Hotel in neighboring Alberta. Taking advantages of opportunities within the Marriott organization, he worked in Bermuda and Hawaii before settling in Toronto with the Dolce Hotels and Resorts brand. This move was enticed, in part, by the appeal of helping start a newer brand from the ground up. He currently works as the head chef at the BMO Institute of Learning which subcontracts its culinary preparations to the Dolce organization.
Seeking a Brand Differentiator
With just over 20 properties mostly in the United States, Dolce Hotels and Resorts had to create unique points of differentiation to make its brand identifiable amongst a glut of bigger names. A company-wide symposium was held four years ago during the height of the recession to discuss ways to do just this. Meeting productivity quickly became a hot topic.
Known for its unique corporate retreat and conference settings, Dolce specializes in providing the best atmosphere for effective meeting time usage. Chef Hall attended the symposium and sat on a council of all the organization’s top chefs. Stemming from their talks emerged the concept of the continuous coffee break and that of ‘Thoughtful Foods’, a branded cornerstone of the Dolce culinary experience denoting their health-minded focus.
As for the coffee break system, some people need a rest at 10am, some at 10:30am, others at 11am. By having an area where snacks were constantly replenished, they could better meet the varying needs of their guests. This way, fatigued business guests can get the much-needed boost whenever their bodies call for it and not simply when the clock allows.
The continuous coffee break idea evolved into a true point of difference through a strict focus on healthy snacks. By serving foods that were more nutritious for breakfast, lunch and all breaks in between, their guests wouldn’t suffer from any post-meal bodily shutdowns. Through its exaggerated form colloquially known as a ‘food coma’, the best illustration of this being the exhausted feeling you get an hour after a intense bolus of red meat or sushi for lunch. Thus, the Nutrition Hub was introduced as a continuous provider of both deluxe coffee and highly nutritious ‘Thoughtful Foods’.
And the science isn’t too difficult to understand either. When the body absorbs a large amount of food, it sends more blood to the stomach, liver, intestine and other digestive organs – especially true for fatty cuisines. With a limited supply of blood, this takes away from the overall blood supply to the muscles, slowing you down, and the brain, which burns sugar and oxygen faster than anything else in the body. The end result is fatigue and a propensity towards inactivity – a sensation that is further exacerbated as a three, four or five day conference wears on.
However, if the body receives a consistent input of whole grains, fruits and vegetables, this lethargy never sets in. Healthy foodstuffs are easier on your digestive organs, drawing less blood away from the surrounding tissues. Moreover, because they contain a wider spectrum of nutrients, they’ll induce the perception of satiety faster – that is, portion control.
One other important science tidbit to be aware of is the glycemic index. This measurement relates to how much a given food will raise blood sugar levels. High glycemic foodstuffs are what you want to avoid and pertain mostly to refined sugars like ice cream, candy, cookies, soda pop and low-grade starches. Such foods will cause a massive insulin spike – the hormone that controls blood sugar levels by converting sugar into fat. The end result of eating a high glycemic food is that, after the initial sugar rush, you crash as the insulin takes hold.
Overall, healthy cuisine throughout a conference affords business guests increased productivity as they are able to push past the midday lull in stride. With the evidence in plain sight, it’s no wonder that Dolce chose this as a central focus to distinguish its brand. Guests could remember Dolce for not only being more contentious and considerate with their food choices, but also for the increased levels of activity granted to them by the availability of healthier alternatives.
Meet the Guests Halfway
Chef Hall remarks that the conceit of eliminating meat and high glycemic carbs from the menu is great in principle, but tenuous in reality; you have to ease guests into the wellness-minded options so that you don’t alienate them. Some people are open to new ideas and trying new foods. Others just want their meat, potatoes and a diet cola.
Either way, people have cravings you can’t ignore, especially when their mental energy is being taxed from constant meetings. Eventually, a 50-50 balance was found between nutrition and indulgence, with nuanced actions taken to make these indulgences as hearty as possible. It’s all about nudges – small changes that make a big difference.
At Dolce properties, nothing comes prepackaged. Everything is made in-house, fresh and gluten-free. Periodic signage is used to educate guests on the benefits of wholesome ingredients and encourage them to try something slightly foreign. High glycemic grains are replaced with ones that are high in fiber and protein. Seeds, nuts and leafy greens are added to the menu wherever possible. Whenever shellfish is needed, the sourced animals are farm-raised to ensure cleanliness and a lack of toxicity or heavy metals. As well, the menu is constantly changing on a five-day cycle to make the Nutrition Hubs more active and exciting.
These are just a few of the changes implemented, but the psychology of portion control was also an important consideration. If you leave out bags of potato chips, a person is likely to eat the entire allotment. But if you present the chips (which in this case happen to be baked kettle chips made in-house, of course) in a giant bowl for people to serve themselves, the tendency is for a person to put less on their plate. On certain days in the cycle, Chef Hall’s team will dehydrate fruit chips as the afternoon treat and supply them in a large bowl. This portion control attitude pervades all aspects of the operation.
Some More Specifics
Menu design was also critical to dispelling opposition and complaints. Chef Hall opened by demonstrating this through some very delicious examples.
The first was a chocolate chip cookie. Instead of buying in bulk, Chef Hall’s version is made with quinoa flour and organic dark chocolate. You get your sugar hit through a bona fide source – that being the dark chocolate which contains fewer refined sugar – then you get your carb from the quinoa, which is known to be a low glycemic, high protein grain.
Next is Chef Hall’s turkey chili. For starters, turkey is a better meat to use than beef because it is lower in total fat content. And from there, he substitutes the red kidney beans with pinto or azuki varieties – ones with more nutrient content.
As you’d expect, a crucial aspect of the Nutrition Hub is its coffee. At its core is a machine that can make any espresso or cappuccino drink in under 20 seconds, all top of the line. From there, one of the best ways to improve is to control what sugar additives people use. A tasty sugar and honey substitute is agave nectar, extracted from cacti in Mexico and the Southwest US. It’s low on the glycemic index and doesn’t have the strong aftertaste associated with other sugar alternatives like maple syrup. Another sought-after replacement that Chef Hall uses is stevia.
From a management perspective, yes, the costs of going healthy are higher. Food has to be bought fresh and you can’t rely on goods kept in cold storage for a year. But it’s worth it. High quality food is something that guests truly remember and the evidence is in the quality scorecards. Before Dolce initiated this program, the cuisine was ranked as a 7/10 or 8/10 – not bad enough to deter loyalty, but not good enough to stand out either.
And in this business, as you know, mediocrity is death. Dolce had to make a distinction and by upgrading their food offerings in this manner – a process which is three years in the making – word is getting around. We are what we eat, and many corporations are returning to Dolce properties not because of location or exceptional amenities but because of the cuisine.
Chef Hall was also quick to point out that this shift is far more about healthier alternatives than about going organic. Organically-grown foodstuffs are more expensive, but don’t necessarily taste any better or offer a significantly greater share of nutrients. A grape is still a grape and most people cannot tell the difference in taste between organic and regularly-grown.
Chef Hall would love to go wholly organic as there are still some prevailing health benefits, but the main problem is allocation costs. In a restaurant, you’re allowed to markup organic dishes by a few dollars, but this doesn’t apply to catering. As such, Chef Hall has a very rigid budget to shuffle and, for now, organics just aren’t in the cards. One sticking point on this issue is lettuce – commercial hydroponics (that is, controlled environment agriculture) just doesn’t get it right and he insists on buying natural. The difference here, as Chef Hall notes, is immediately palpable.
Health and ‘Thoughtful Foods’ as Mainstream
The concept of healthy eating isn’t new and indeed several other prominent hotel chains have already implemented their own wholesome menus. Central to Dolce’s approach will be staying on the cusp of this trend by continually augmenting their cuisine and offering vibrant new dishes. Dolce helps their chefs by hosting regular symposiums for the council to exchange recipes and educate one another on the latest vegetarian and raw cooking techniques. On a micro level, Chef Hall is constantly searching for new local produce sources to reduce food mileage – heightening taste by increasing freshness.
In general, the principle that eating healthy reduces daytime fatigue is gaining mainstream appreciation, but it still has a long way to go – leaving plenty of room for Dolce to grow its meetings business and with ‘Thoughtful Foods’ as a prime vessel to this end. Chef Hall likens all this to a ‘slow-moving ship’ and the best way to go is to meet people halfway through smart, balanced food alternatives.
On a personal note, I love what Chef Hall and his ilk are doing. Our culture is so obsessed with what’s cheap and flavorsome that we often forget what our body really needs. Offering wholesome alternatives may be the opportunity we need to rekindle the idea that the best food in the city is at the hotel. We need culinary leaders like Chef Murray Hall to regain this reputation and help people live a healthier lifestyle in the process.
(Originally published in Canadian Lodging News on April 18, 2013)