Man at His Best

Inside The Kitchens Of A Giant Hotel

Feeding the beast. Do you think that the food appeared magically?

BY Ming | Dec 14, 2016 | Food & Drink

In a world of food television, Instagram and open kitchens, the distance between cooking and consumers in the modern restaurant has been reduced to the point where an average diner can understand the general gist of what’s happening around him or her. The process of how food gets to you in a hotel, however, is rather more opaque.

I was recently invited to the Grand Hyatt Jakarta to cook for some important people. For four days, I worked out of its massive kitchens, with the goal of executing two dinner services for a hundred people. The experience reminded me of my first, harried days as a kitchen runner. What really caught my attention was the sheer amount of coordination required to produce food for the many moving parts of a hotel.

How many of parts, you ask. A typical five-star establishment in any sizeable city centre has at least five kitchens, each with its own team. You’re looking at the 24-hour room service and grand buffet hulk. Next, there are probably two speciality restaurants and a bar or two, as well as an elegant lounge that serves high tea. Supporting ballroom weddings and event venue rental is the banquet kitchen, a logistical behemoth that specialises in sending out colossal amounts of plated food in a short span of time. Manning these outlets requires hundreds of staff who also need to be fed. The staff canteen pushes out upwards of a thousand meals a day, which will likely double during high season when part-time casual labour is brought in for conferences, corporate D&Ds, and even more weddings.

The archetypal hotel also has prep kitchens that provide the various joints with their ingredients. In order to gain cost savings in the long run, they bulk purchase items centrally or process as many items from scratch as possible. Located deep in the hotel’s bowels is a sprawling commissary kitchen, situated near loading bays, giant dry stores, cavernous cold rooms and walk-in freezers. Here, teams work round-the-clock receiving, washing, packing and labelling everything edible that enters the hotel.

Steamy wash areas clean produce, before it is whisked away to a cold room, to be picked by the next intern with a clipboard. Next door, a butcher takes apart half carcasses of cow, while a fish dude preps hundreds of kilogrammes of premium seafood. Immense machines for slicing and dicing growl to life as daily prep lists are received. Every single crate and bag is dated, marked and labelled for the outlets that they are destined for. It’s only when these items end their journey in the various restaurants and kitchens do they then get further processed and finessed on the spot, for service.

To observe the underbelly of a hotel is to encounter command and control in a concise and calculated manner. There’s simply no other way to organise that much food unless protocol is followed constantly. To experience it is to recognise the role of the professionals at the heart of these massive organisations.

First published in Esquire Singapore's December 2016 issue.