Top chefs open luxurious hotels for better margin

Restaurant margins are notoriously slim, so it was only a matter of time before enterprising cooks turned to hotels to make a buck

By Kate Krader & Nikki Ekstein / BLOOMBERG

In 2009, Michael Stipe and his REM bandmates went to eat at Massimo Bottura’s Osteria Francescana after a concert in Bologna, Italy.

Chef Massimo Bottura

They liked the town of Modena so much, they wanted to stay. But Bottura couldn’t find a place for his friends to sleep. “I said, ‘How is there not a place here for people to stay? I need a hotel’. ” A decade later, in May, Bottura will open Casa Maria Luigia, a centuries-old estate 10 minutes outside town.

The 12-room inn will have a professional kitchen in the old carriage house and will showcase part of its owner’s museum-worthy modern art collection.

Bottura is one of an ever-growing gaggle of chefs for whom running a hotel restaurant isn’t enough — they want to own the entire operation. After all, the profit margins on beds are higher than the slim ones earned at tables. This isn’t a brand-new concept: In the 1990s, Alain Ducasse opened the Provence retreat La Bastide de Moustiers. But the current king of the chef-run hotel is Nobu Matsuhisa, who created his own brand beginning with his first location in Las Vegas in 2013; it’s become a small empire on track to have 20 properties by 2020.

There’s no master model: In Mexico City, Enrique Olvera has built a tiny bed and breakfast. Acclaimed chef Bertrand Grébaut took over a country house in Normandy, France.

And in São Paulo, Alex Atala is going whole hog, packing a US$50 million (RM204.5 million) skyscraper full of marquee restaurants and fancy rooms. Here are seven you should know about right now.

Lympstone Manor

Caines at Lympstone Manor in Exmouth in southern England

The chef: Michael Caines, who earned two Michelin stars for the resort Gidleigh Park.
The place: A restored mansion in Devon.
Don’t miss: Meaty turbot, poached with leeks and finished with grated black truffles. Caines has spent most of his professional life working in restaurants attached to luxury hotels.

He cooked at Oxford’s famed retreat Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons with Raymond Blanc (as did Marco Pierre White and other notable chefs), then spent more than 20 years cooking at the imposing Gidleigh Park in South West England. But when Caines asked about becoming a partner in the property, he was turned down. “I said to Gidleigh Park, ‘What’s in it for me?’ and they said, ‘Nothing’. It was like a love affair when I asked her to get married and she said no.” (Gidleigh Park declined to comment.)

The chef, who did have a partnership interest in the UK-based Abode Hotels, decided it was time for his own place. There was no question it would be a country inn and not just a restaurant.

“You’re making a good 30% profit margin on a bedroom, while food and beverage is anywhere between 10% and 15%,” he explains. “When you have them working together, that’s even better.”

In 2015, he bought a rundown Georgian property in his home region of Devon. In the spring of 2017, he opened Lympstone Manor, which overlooks the River Exe, in Exmouth. It has 21 rooms and suites filled with glimmering golden sofas and silvery carpets. Caines’ modern British menu includes lobster salad with cardamom and filet mignon from a local farm, with braised beef cheek and creamy shallot confit. After opening, Caines planted 17,500 vines on 11 acres (4.45ha); by 2024 he expects to produce his first vintage of Lympstone sparkling wine. From £340 (RM1,809).

Nobu Hotels
The chef: Sashimi purveyor to the stars, Nobu Matsuhisa.
The place: The company’s newest project is a 23-storey tower set to open in late summer near Barcelona’s Sants train station, the Catalan capital’s arterial transit hub.
Don’t miss: The panoramic views from the signature restaurant on the top floor.

He may have made his name fusing Japanese and Peruvian flavours, but Matsuhisa lately has fallen hard for Spain: The sushi master is about to open his third hotel in the country after a recent successful debuts in Ibiza and Marbella.

The project is a top-to-bottom rethink of one of the city’s staid four-star properties, the former Gran Hotel Torre Catalunya. After a transformation by his longtime designer David Rockwell, the hotel will have 255 rooms and a bevy of meeting and event spaces. It’ll be one of the largest undertakings yet for Matsuhisa and his partners — who include actor Robert De Niro. 

Nobu’s classic miso-marinated black cod is served at all of its hotels

“We entered the hospitality business with an upside-down business model,” says Nobu Hospitality LLC CEO Trevor Horwell. “While most hotels focus on selling rooms first, Nobu Hotels has always been about creating memorable food experiences.” Now that others are using the same calling card, Nobu is setting itself apart not just with its cuisine — the chef’s famed black cod with miso is on every hotel’s menu — but also with a matching Japanese fusion design philosophy. In Barcelona, for instance, there’s the recurring motif of broken, kintsugi-style pottery, which evokes Gaudí’s iconic mosaics.

At a hotel that will open in Los Cabos, Mexico, shoji screens on the closets will mimic the sliding glass doors that open up onto the Sea of Cortez. In Riyadh, the headboards in each room will feature cherry blossom embroidery on local fabrics while a ground-floor teahouse merges Japanese and Arabian traditions. Up next for Nobu Hospitality? Branded residences. “Our first Nobu Hotel and Residences, in Toronto, sold out in just three months,” Horwell says.

More are on the way: Nobu condos are in the works for São Paulo and Los Cabos. From €350 (RM1,650).

D’Une Ile
The chef: Bertrand Grébaut, of hot Paris neobistros Septime and Clamato.
The place: A rustic country house in Normandy, two hours from the City of Light.
Don’t miss: Al fresco breakfasts with warm from-the-oven brioche, butter from the farm next door and fresh honeycomb.

Rather than go for more big-city buzz, the chef who blazed the trail for lightened-up, seasonal bistro cooking in Paris is devoting his time to a food-focused inn surrounded by generations-old farms.

Outdoors at D’Une Ile in Normandy

After acquiring the 17th-century D’Une Ile almost a year ago, Grébaut and his business partner, Théophile Pourriat, upgraded the property through the winter and reopened it this month, complete with a new living room space in a former barn, a sauna and a swimming pool. These amenities join eight rooms with stone walls, exposed beams and furnishings by Ilse Crawford and Tom Dixon. True to Grébaut’s style, expect a “micro-seasonal” menu that pulls heavily from neighbours’ bounties, as well as his own — the 20-acre estate has an organic garden and a cellar full of natural wines. From €113.

Casa Maria Luigia
The chef: Italian modernist Massimo Bottura.
The place: An 18th century villa gone glam near Modena, the city of slow food and fast cars.
Don’t miss: A local aperitivo snack of gnocco fritto (savoury fried dough), served with salty salumi.

Bottura and Lara Gilmore, his wife and partner, are on a winning streak. For one thing, Osteria Francescana — a reconstructionist temple to the food of Emilia-Romagna — has been recognised twice in recent years as the top dining destination in the World’s 50 Best Restaurant awards. With that platform of influence have come posh partnerships with Italian fashion houses and a global expansion plan, as well as charitable soup kitchens in underserved neighbourhoods around the world.

But closer to home is something more intimate: Casa Maria Luigia, the couple’s soon-to-open 12-room inn. It started when the pair made a lowball bid for the property at auction and came away surprise owners; now it’s a canvas on which they can experiment with a different kind of hospitality. “There’s this new idea that travel isn’t just about eating at a restaurant like Francescana — it can be an opportunity to test your boundaries,” Gilmore says. “Nowadays, there is a desire to share and connect.”

At Maria Luigia, that means fostering interaction among guests, staff and owners: The property has an open kitchen where guests can learn to make pasta, a bocce court and a piazza overlooking 150-year-old oak trees that’s perfect for lambrusco at sunset. Gilmore’s small farm — her pet project — will be open to visitors who want to pick radishes or tomatoes, and pieces from the couple’s impressive art collection will be scattered throughout. (Look for Damien Hirst’s The Last Supper in the dining room and Mimmo Paladino sculptures in the garden.)

Just don’t expect Bottura to show up to man the pizza oven. “We want to encourage people to go to town, to visit the trattorias,” says Gilmore, who thinks of the property as a bed and breakfast with a casual all-day menu but no dinner service. “I tell everyone how much I love Emilia-Romagna, but now I want to share that with a broader audience — the landscape, the food the people. That’s what it’s all about.” From €450.

Casa Teo
The chef: Enrique Olvera, whose restaurant Pujol ranks high on the World’s 50 Best Restaurant list.
The place: A bright Mexico City apartment rented out to guests and visiting chefs.
Don’t miss: Breakfast, which is provided by Olvera’s cooks, includes satisfying fare such as artichoke omelets.

Some chefs spend years searching for a space to accommodate overnight guests. Enrique Olvera simply shifted things around. When Mexico’s most acclaimed cook decided to move his flagship Pujol to a new location, he turned the second floor of the original space into Casa Teo, an Airbnb-style residence. (Olvera has made the bottom floor into a bonatera, a lively bar that also serves food — unusual in Mexico.) Casa Teo isn’t a hotel: There are just two bedrooms in the airy, plant-filled apartment. Not surprisingly, there’s a stellar home kitchen with serving pieces made in Oaxaca, as well as a dining room and a culinary library that includes books on the indigenous cuisines of Mexico.

“The kitchen is simple but made with things I love that aren’t economically intelligent for a restaurant,” says Olvera of such equipment as a La Marzocco GS3 espresso machine. He imagines Casa Teo as a kind of artists’ residence, an intimate place where visitors can be immersed in a new location and inspired to experiment. He occasionally uses it as a base for visiting chef friends such as Frederic Morin and David McMillan from Montreal’s Joe Beef. But it’s open to the public as well; guests have the option of having a chef cook dinner.

Olvera is so pleased with the model that he’s building another residence like it in Oaxaca, behind the garden of his restaurant Criollo.

Scheduled to open late in April, it will be the same, with two bedrooms and an enviable kitchen. His dream is to bring a Casa Teo to every city where he has a restaurant. In September, that will include Los Angeles, where he will open Damian restaurant. “I’m a frustrated architect,” Olvera says, but “I don’t want to be Nobu.” While he does plan eventually to open a bigger property on land he can farm, he doesn’t need a sprawling hotel empire. “It will be an inn in an avocado forest,” says the chef. From US$350.

Coming Soon
DOM Hotel, São Paulo
If you’ve tried the aligot at Alex Atala’s DOM, you know the chef has a flair for the theatrical. The potato-and-fondue concoction is finished tableside, with a steward stretching the blend as high as his arms can reach.

Atala’s next project will aim even higher, the RM204.5m DOM Hotel will include 5 restaurants

Atala’s next project will aim even higher — 35 storeys, to be exact. Opening in 2021 in São Paulo, the US$50 million DOM Hotel will include five restaurants, some run by Atala and some by his local chef friends.

Casa Cacao, Girona, Spain
Pastry chef Jordi Roca, one of three brothers behind Spain’s legendary El Celler de Can Roca, never dreamed of becoming a hotelier. He wanted to run a bean-to-bar chocolate factory, á la Brooklyn’s Mast Brothers. But when he found the ideal location in Girona’s Plaça de Catalunya, it came with three additional floors above the street-level space devoted to the chocolate shop. So, Roca added 15 rooms to his confectionery. The boutique hotel opens late this year. — Bloomberg