Why hotels have a back story
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Why hotels have a back story

Is it necessary for restaurants and hotels to have a back story? Wouldn’t that make for places that were more interesting and different from each other?

india Updated: Aug 13, 2011 15:37 IST
Vir Sanghvi
Vir Sanghvi
Hindustan Times

A back story is an essentially cinematic concept. What it means is that the events you see on screen have a background, a story that explains their provenance, even if we don’t have to confront that back story in the actual plot. Let’s take an example. Alfred, the butler, is an important part of the Batman legend. In the comics, Alfred Pennyworth has an extensive back story developed over years of Batman and Detective comics. But on the screen, Alfred is a minor character. In the Batman TV show, we did not really care where Alfred came from or what his motivation was. In the first few Batman movies (the franchise developed by Tim Burton and wrecked by his successor), Alfred was just a butler.

Michael CaineBut then, Christopher Nolan took over the task of re-booting the Batman franchise and cast Michael Caine as Alfred in Batman Begins. Caine – who is a multiple Oscar winner – was not content with playing a butler with no background. So, he created a back story for himself. In his portrayal, Alfred is a former British army soldier from the SAS (an elite commando wing) who took up cooking during difficult postings and who went to work for Dr Thomas Wayne when he retired. So not only does he understand Bruce Wayne’s motivation, but he also understands the world of violence that Bruce plunges himself into when he decides to become Batman after Thomas Wayne is murdered by a robber. Moreover, because of his SAS background, he can actually help Batman as he goes about his task of fighting crime.

Judging by the interviews Caine gave in the run-up to the release of Batman Begins (there has since been the more successful Dark Knight sequel) nobody, including the director Christopher Nolan, told him to find a back story for his character. He just made it up because he reckoned that nothing made sense without a back story. I had no idea that the same principles applied to hotels and restaurants till I interviewed Jeremy King a month ago. Jeremy was here for the huge Diageo drinks spectacular that involved journos, restaurateurs, barmen and the like from all over the world but which, curiously, seems to have made little impression on our domestic media even though it has been written about extensively by the international press.

The IvyIf you are an average reader of Rude Food and have never heard of Jeremy King, then don’t worry, he is not quite Michael Caine yet. But if you are in the hotel/restaurant business, then you should have some idea of who he is and what he does. Along with his partner Chris Corbin, Jeremy has created the greatest English restaurants of the last 30 years: The Ivy, Le Caprice, J Sheekey and The Wolseley. Many years ago, Chris Corbin and he sold Le Caprice, the Ivy and J Sheekey to pizza entrepreneur Luke Johnson who sold them to Richard Caring, a sharply-dressed, rag-trade tycoon who added Mark Birley’s operations (Annabel’s, George, Harry’s Bar etc.) to his empire, and then added some of his own (the revamped Scotts of Mayfair) to create the UK’s largest chain of upmarket restaurants.

Though Jeremy’s former restaurants are the jewels in Caring’s crown, I don’t think that either Jeremy or Chris Corbin really approve of what Caring is doing to the brands they created. They are horrified by Caring’s attempts to turn their ex-restaurants into global franchises (“the New York Caprice is a disaster,” said Jeremy of the restaurant that Caring runs in partnership with the Taj at the Pierre Hotel) and are horrified by the thought of the Dubai Ivy, the first of many global Ivys.

Though I have been a fan of Jeremy’s restaurants ever since my friend Willy Landels first took me to Le Caprice in the 1980s, I believe that the Wolseley, which he now runs (post the sale of his other restaurants) is far better than any of Caring’s restaurants. Though the Wolseley remains among London’s most fashionable restaurants and is a celebrity dining room, it is distinguished by excellent service.At any given time, nearly 30 per cent of the tables cannot be booked in advance and if you turn up as a walk-in, you have a good chance of getting in. (The other 70 per cent are booked weeks ahead.)

I asked Jeremy what his principles were. Being English, he was deliberately vague, but here’s what I could gather.

There will always be gastronomic restaurants that do excellent food (Alain Ducasse etc.) at fabulous prices. Remember that you (a restaurateur) are not competing with them. Instead, you are offering really good food that is not necessarily Michelin-starred.
According to Jeremy, this means great dishes with top-quality ingredients and total consistency of food. If you serve fish and chips for instance, it must be made with the freshest fish, the frying must be perfect and the chips should be made with the right potatoes, they should be hand-cut, they must be fried to the right level of crispness and the tartare sauce should be better than any commercial variety.
Service should be warm and regular. Even if you run the Ivy or Caprice which have a celebrity clientele (the first time I went to the Caprice, David Bowie was at the next table) you must treat every guest as a VIP. Nobody should feel like a spectator. “Restaurants are not theatre,” he says, “There are no actors and no audience. Everybody is on par. Everybody gets the same food and same service.”
Every restaurant must have a back story. If you are, say, Ferran Adria opening in London then that’s fine: your food speaks for itself. But unless you are a triple Michelin-starred chef who is sure that people will come for the food, you must create a restaurant with a back story.

Of all of the things that Jeremy said, this was the one that intrigued me the most. What did he mean? He gave me the examples of his own restaurants. Most had a back story of their own anyway. The Caprice was a glamorous cafe society place in the early 20th century. When Chris and Jeremy revived it, all they had to do was to plug into the history, to update the menu and cast it as a modern version of the old cafe society Caprice.

When they bought the Ivy, it was a great theatre-district standby gone to seed. Jeremy’s job was only to revive the quality of the food and service and to recast it as a modern theatrical restaurant. (I guess it helped that he was once manager of Joe Allen’s, a theatrical restaurant.) J Sheekey was more complicated. It was an old fish restaurant at the edge of the theatre district that had fallen on bad days. The Corbin and King solution was to revive the sea-food theme (no meat, only the freshest fish) and to emphasise the origins of the restaurant. Nobody who eats at Sheekey today will realise that there were many years when the restaurant was dead. It seems like a buzzing theatrical place that has been around for decades.

Jeremy is currently working on two places. The first is a deli-style restaurant in Aldwych. He has a back story ready. The place was created by East European Jews escaping persecution. It started out as a cold meat and sandwich place and then became a full-scale restaurant. None of this is true, of course, so I asked Jeremy why he bothered. His answer was that unless a restaurant had a convincing back story, it failed in the long run.

This was as true of hotels, he said. Chris Corbin and he have just partnered with the Grosvenor estate to open a new hotel (their first) just off London’s Oxford Street. The building used to house the offices of Avis, the car rental company, so the conversion was a challenge. But rather than just build a modern hotel, Corbin and King created a back story.

The hotel was built in the 1920s by a rich American who loved London. It was the toast of the town. Then, the American owner went back to the States and the hotel fell on bad times and was sold to a modern chain which destroyed its character. Now, Corbin and King are renovating it to recover its lost lustre. This is all made up, of course, and the back story (like Alfred’s army origins in Batman Begins) will not necessarily be shared with guests. So why bother with a back story?

Because, says Jeremy, it gives the new owners, the architect, the designer, the management and the staff an idea of what the hotel should be. They don’t just say, “Let’s convert this office block into a hotel.” They say “What would the hotel have looked like at its peak in the 1920s?” And, while designing the rooms, they ask themselves, “What would a luxury hotel built in the Jazz Age have offered its guests?” The back story serves as a reference point for everybody in the same way that Alfred’s back story told Michael Caine how Alfred would react to any given situation.

Jeremy has been to India before and though I tried to get him to open up on the subject of our restaurants, he was discreet. But he did say that he found most Indian hotel restaurants swish and soulless. The night before we met, somebody had taken him to Bukhara and he thought that was the one exception: a restaurant in a five-star hotel with soul. I told him that many Indians thought it was old hat and over-priced but he was not convinced. He had no idea that Bukhara had been around since 1978 with roughly the same menu and décor but he thought that fitted in with what he liked about the place when I filled him in on its history. There had to be a back story, he said, in a restaurant that kept packing guests in night after night even though they had to eat on stools and pay high prices.

I thought of Jeremy’s insistence on back stories and it struck me that many hotels did have back stories even if they were largely made up. The Oriental in Bangkok consists of two modern buildings and one tiny period structure (rebuilt in the 1960s anyway after a fire). But because it sells itself to everybody – guests, staff management etc. – as a legendary old world establishment dating back generations, it occupies a special slot. So it is (to a lesser extent, admittedly) with Singapore’s Raffles, which is essentially a shopping mall with a small (largely new) hotel attached. But because it believes in its back story, it seems different from other Singapore hotels (it even has an official historian on its staff).

Indian hotels do not consciously use their back stories. The Grand in Calcutta has a terrific history but it seems largely forgotten. Only now has Bangalore’s magnificent West End woken up to rediscovering its heritage. The Taj Group spent a lot of money in the 1980s and 1990s destroying the great heritage of Madras’s Connemara. On the other hand, there are successful hotels with made-up back stories. The story of the Vilas properties is – or so I would imagine – that if a modern Maharaja had lots of money and wanted to build a tasteful 21st century palace, he would build a Vilas.

The Oberois sell that back story so convincingly to staff, media and guests that the Vilas hotels have managed to do what nobody ever thought possible: they have taken on such genuine historical places as the Rambagh and the Lake Palace. And because the back story is so well fleshed into the concept, you know what kind of experience you will get at every Vilas even before you get there.

Should Indian hoteliers and restaurateurs think of a back story before they open new properties? It is an interesting idea. Unless a hotel already has a back story (such as Hyderabad’s Falaknuma Palace, for instance), Indian hoteliers are content to focus on the fittings (five feature bathrooms, marble in the lobby, large guest rooms, etc.) and not on the soul. Suppose instead that they gave each hotel a back story before they started building it, wouldn’t that make for hotels that were more interesting and – at the very least – different from each other?

Even existing hotels seem to be crying out for back stories. The ITC Windsor in Bangalore is a 1980s building but it seems to me to be crying out for an Oriental back story that slots the property and motivates the staff. (The Viceroy’s Bangalore residence with rooms for his guests and entourage, perhaps?)
It is an interesting thought. Certainly it has worked for Jeremy. At his establishments, everything is good but that’s not why people keep coming back.

From HT Brunch, August 14

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First Published: Aug 12, 2011 16:45 IST