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New, Culinary-Themed Hotel Opens

In the past, the Tampa Bay region hasn’t been high on a foodie’s travel bucket list.

Sure, there are some tasty Cuban sandwiches in Tampa and fresh grouper in restaurants along the Gulf of Mexico.

But cutting-edge culinary trends haven’t surfaced here – until now.

The Epicurean Hotel, a $35 million, 137-room hotel, opened on Tuesday. The entire concept revolves around food: There’s an 80-seat restaurant, patisserie, culinary theater, wine store, rooftop bar and cooking classes in a theater that looks like it’s a Food Network set. While a vacation centered around food is nothing new in Napa wine country, rustic Vermont or romantic Tuscany, it’s a fresh idea in Florida.

Guests have personal pantries in their rooms stocked with gourmet goodies, including chocolate and sea salt caramels, prosciutto, goat cheese and bottles of wine — including a handout that explains which wines go best with each snack.

The decor is also food-themed. Paintings of fruit grace the walls, cookbooks line bookshelves in the lobby and pillows on the hotel beds depict utensils. An 8-foot-high knife and fork rest in a corner and in a hallway, two vertical, living herb gardens are a lush addition.

Even the hotel’s employees, who have dubbed themselves “Epicureans,” feel like they have a culinary responsibility.

“They are lovers of food and wine and will curate the experience for our guests,” said Joe Collier, president of Mainsail Lodging and Development Group.

The Tampa-based Mainsail partnered with the owner of the city’s best-known restaurant — Bern’s Steak House — to develop the boutique Epicurean hotel. Bern’s is across the street from The Epicurean, and Collier said that he expects guests to eat at the restaurant, drink at the hotel’s bar, sleep at the hotel, then enjoy other food-related activities the following day.

Bern’s, which was opened in Tampa in 1956 by Bern Laxer and is now owned by his son, David Laxer, boasts one of the largest wine lists of any restaurant in the world. TV chef Rachel Ray named it the best steak house in the U.S., and Wine Spectator Magazine has given it a “Grand Award” each year since 1981.

The restaurant’s expertise in wine will be shared across the street in the hotel, where a wine and spirits store is nestled on the first floor. It’s next to the culinary theater, which already has a calendar of events ranging from “The Universe of Krug Champagne” to “Tea and Chocolate Pairing.”

“Education and culinary growth have always been a big part of my family,” said Laxer.

Classes aren’t only for hotel guests, and neither is the rooftop bar, with its views of downtown Tampa.

During Tuesday’s opening party, the city’s movers and shakers sipped champagne and cheered when The Epicurean’s executive chef Chad Johnson sautéed a slab of steak on the culinary theater’s Viking stovetop. (The hotel restaurant also has a second, massive Viking stove, which cost $175,000).

Meanwhile, throughout the hotel, workers busily placed flatscreen TVs in rooms, wheeled pallets of doors into the spa and unwrapped chaise lounges on a patio deck. Only about 35 rooms were open as of Tuesday, but Norwood Smith, Mainsail’s vice president of sales and marketing, said more rooms are coming on line every day. The hotel is booked solid for New Year’s Eve, he said.

The hotel is part of Marriott International’s Autograph Collection, and has a ballroom and space for weddings or business meetings. Room prices range from $200-$300 a night.

The spa and patisserie will be open by mid-January, and a lavish grand opening party with celebrity chef Norman Van Aiken is scheduled for Jan. 17-19.


Epicurean Hotel Opens As Legacy to Bern’s Steak House Founder

To celebrate the opening of the food- and wine-inspired Epicurean Hotel, officials swapped the traditional ribbon cutting for a “steak-cutting ceremony” using an aged strip steak cooked by the executive chef in the new culinary classroom.

It was a fitting tribute to the late Bern Laxer, founder of the famed Bern’s Steak House across the street whose legacy made the hotel possible.

The Epicurean Hotel opens today at 1207 S Howard Ave., a partnership between the steak house and Tampa-based Mainsail Lodging and Development Group. Nearly a decade in the making, the 137-room hotel has a restaurant, rooftop bar, wine store, pastry shop, culinary classroom, banquet room, pool and spa.

Hotel employees, investors and public officials gathered Tuesday to tour the four-story Epicurean and attend a staff pep rally with Plant High School marching band members banging pots and pans to rousing applause.

“All I can say is ‘Wow,’ ” said Bern’s Steak House owner David Laxer, whose father started the restaurant in 1956. “To see this come to fruition is amazing.”

The hotel caters to foodies seeking a unique gastronomic experience in the heart of Tampa’s historic Hyde Park.

“Our tagline for this hotel is to awaken appetites unknown,” said general manager Tom Haines.

Mainsail president Joe Collier described what he hopes will become a typical guest’s stay: Eat dinner at Bern’s, grab a nightcap at the hotel’s rooftop bar, go biking along nearby Bayshore Boulevard, eat breakfast in the restaurant, get a massage in the spa, take a cooking class, then rest at the pool.

The $35 million project is the first built-from-scratch hotel in the United States to join Marriott International’s Autograph Collection. But you won’t see a Marriott logo anywhere in the hotel. Most items were custom designed for the Epicurean, from the wine-cork wreath at the front desk to decorative bed pillows showing a spoon, fork and knife. It’s quaintly urban, with the din of cars passing on the bordering Lee Roy Selmon Expressway audible from the pool.

Central to the hotel is the Epicurean Theatre, a 40-seat culinary classroom with amphitheater-style seating and a kitchen for food presentations, cooking classes and iron chef competitions. Classes starting in February will cover everything from the History of the Cocktail to Sustainable Winemaking and Seafood.

Chad Johnson, a 2012 James Beard Best Chef South Region semifinalist, heads up Elevage, an 80-seat restaurant serving breakfast, lunch and dinner. Pastry chef Kim Yelvington was tapped to run Chocolate Pi, a patisserie opening next month.

Room prices range from $200 to $300 a night and New Year’s Eve is already sold out.

Laxer first floated the idea of a boutique hotel in 2003 as a complement to Bern’s Steak House and its adjacent sister restaurant, SideBern’s. The project met resistance from neighboring residents concerned about adding traffic to busy Howard Avenue but eventually was approved.

The hotel was slated to open in 2008 but was shelved when the real estate market crashed and Laxer was unable to secure financing. Plans were revived and tweaked as the economy improved, and Mainsail Lodging joined as a partner.

Officials said Tuesday that the final result was better than earlier concepts, which included a hotel with fewer rooms but also private townhouses. The hotel is better integrated with the neighborhood and the exterior is more attractive, said Bob McDonaugh, the city of Tampa’s administrator of economic opportunity.

Vicki Pollyea, president of the Bayshore Gardens Neighborhood Association, said she was disappointed the project didn’t come back for another city review when it was resurrected and revised. The current 137 rooms are considerably more than the 86 once planned and the rooftop bar, banquet room and other amenities will generate even more traffic and parking snarls.

“I think it’s an asset and something the community really wants, but I really wish that the neighborhoods had had the opportunity to be more involved,” said Pollyea, noting that her association was not invited to Tuesday’s grand opening event.

Still, she was hopeful officials would address concerns once the hotel was up and running and fully operational.

As an extension of the Epicurean, Laxer said he planned to spruce up the blah exterior of Bern’s Steak House with landscaping and other improvements this summer. He also might upgrade — but not replace — the iconic Bern’s Steak House sign.

He said his father, who died in 2002, would have liked a hotel devoted to the pursuit of culinary excellence.

“I don’t know if he would have built the hotel because he was so focused on the steakhouse, but he loved improving his knowledge and discovering new things,” Laxer said.


Good Food, Hospitality Pulls in Clients at Sweden’s Kurdish Restaurants

Good service, and good, clean food at affordable prices at Kurdish restaurants in Sweden attract thousands of satisfied clients a month, according to official figures.

Little things, like paying your bill after eating – instead of the Swedish custom of paying first and receiving a ticket for your meal at the lower-end restaurants – add to the reasons why Swedes, Kurds, Arabs, Persians and other lovers of dishes like Kebab and Qozi flock to Kurdish eateries.

“The service is the reason why we come here,” said a Kurdish patron at Stockholm’s Safin restaurant. “I order Qozi when I am very hungry, and kebab when I am not.”

Sarsang, Kurdistan, Safin, Nawroz, Kirkuk and Nergiz are among the better know restaurants in Stockholm.

“Just like custom dictates in Kurdistan, you eat first and then pay,” said Ahmed, a Kurdish patron of a restaurant. “In addition to the good service there is also a homey atmosphere,” he told Rudaw.

“Hot tea, oven bread and greasy Kebabs taste excellent in this cold and foreignness,” said Ahmed, as he tucked into some Kebab.

In Gothenburg, Sweden’s second-largest city which has a large Kurdish population, restaurant-goers say the etiquette and standards are somewhat different.

“Cheating is more common here,” said Ahmed Hama Rahim, a chef at a Gothenburg restaurant. “There is dine and dash by some customers,” he noted.

Many Kurds who reside abroad complain about the restaurants in Gothenburg and London for not keeping up with European sanitary standards. In Stockholm, Cologne and Berlin, the restaurants are better and more considerate of the standards, they say.

“We abide by state standards one hundred percent,” the owner and chef of the Kurdistan Restaurant in Stockholm told Rudaw. “The rules have become more rigid and you cannot avoid them; also abiding by the rules is beneficial for us,” he added.

He said the restaurant serves more than 300 customers every day, considered a large number in a city like Stockholm.

According to data by the Stockholm Tax Agency, a sample of 10 Kurdish restaurants showed they served 20,000 customers a month, who together spend around two million Swedish Kronas (around $300,000).

Khabat Bestani, who works at the employment center in Stockholm, said that Kurdish restaurants employ some 1,000 people, “and this is a good number for a city of two million residents like Stockholm. This shows the success of the businesses.”

But like other businesses, there is a darker side to restaurant ownership.

A source from the Stockholm Tax Agency said that restaurants commonly either report less income in order to avoid taxes, or employ undocumented immigrants who are overworked and underpaid, without the knowledge of the government.

Fatima Baghdadi, an Arab customer in one of the Kurdish restaurants in Stockholm, said, “I come here because the Kurdish food is clean, healthy and cheap.”

Yelena, eating Kurdish food with her Swedish spouse, also likes the food. “Kurdish cuisine is very tasty, but has too many calories,” she complained.


Irish Hospitality Coming to Falls

A little taste of Ireland is coming to Niagara Falls Monday.

Closed since Sept. 30, one of the oldest, if not the oldest, hotel bars in the city will reopen as Doc Magilligan’s Restaurant and Irish Pub.

And what a transformation it has been.

A bar since 1965, The Croft Lounge, where countless couples have either met or have gone on dates, will be hardly noticeable for those familiar with the old space.

“They gutted the whole restaurant,” said Leo O’Toole, general manager of Doc’s, which opens to the public Monday morning next to the Best Western Plus Cairn Croft Hotel on Lundy’s Lane.

“The bookshelves, the panels on the walls and the full bar were all made in Ireland, shipped over in three containers and then installed and put together in here, including all the furniture. All the paraphernalia you see on the walls, every chair you see, every couch you see, the fabric (is) authentic Irish fabric.”

O’Toole, who is from Dublin and has 27 years of experience in the restaurant and pub business, said the 5,500-square-foot space has the genuine authenticity of an Irish restaurant.

“There’s a famous saying in Ireland, when you’re in an Irish pub, you’re at your grandmother’s because you get spoiled,” he said.

“We’re trying to give you an Irish experience, not only from our menu point of view, but also our select beverages and our hospitality.”

Much like the popular TV show Cheers, O’Toole said he wants his staff and customers to know each others’ names.

“We want to be a regular establishment and not an occasional establishment. We want the customers to say, ‘We’re coming here tonight we’d like to sit in Samantha’s section because we know she’s going to take care of us.’”

The venue is still owned by the Cade family, which also owns the attached hotel.

Doc Magilligan, the pub’s namesake, was a great-great -grandfather to Maureen Magilligan Cade, who is married to Fred Cade.

The old story goes that the good doctor was admired for his nurturing care when he made his rounds, and he was just as popular when buying yet another round for the lads. Thoroughly professional, but still the life of the party, the beloved doctor was considered to be the real deal.

The full food and drink menu will have a distinctly Irish feel to it.

Along with popular alcoholic beverages Guinness, Harp, Smithwicks and Kilkenny, as well as Irish cider Magners, traditional Irish and British food will include shepherd’s pie, steak-and-mushroom pie and what will likely be Doc’s signature dish, an Irish pancake traditionally called a boxie.

O’Toole said the restaurant, which will be opened seven days a week, will also feature local brews, Niagara wines and several high-definition TVs showing all sporting events.

There will be live entertainment on Thursdays and a DJ on Fridays and Saturdays.


Edmonton Food Blogger Wins Top Canadian Award

A big shout-out to A Canadian Foodie, the blog penned by ardent Edmonton foodie, volunteer and educator, Valerie Lugonja. The blog has just been recognized in two categories in the 2013 Canadian Weblog Awards. Lugonja won first place in the Lifetime Achievement category, and second place in the food blog category.

This is a well-deserved nod; Lugonja is devoted to her blog, and also to the food community in Edmonton, and across Canada through the Slow Food movement. Check out her latest baby, The Canadian Food Experience Project, on her blog.

The awards have been running for four years and are organized by a Saskatchewan blogger named Elan Morgan ( This year, there were 492 blogs nominated in 34 categories. The categories run the gamut from activism blogs, to those concerned with business, the arts, green living and parenthood.

– Shannon and Danny Ruzicka, together with RGE RD’s chef Blair Lebsack and Caitlin Fulton, are hosting a unique dinner party for 25 people at a farm near Viking. The unique part is that the party is outside. The event takes place Jan. 18 and it’s $200 a ticket.

The winter outdoor dinner is an extension of the parties hosted by the foursome for the last few summers at the Ruzicka farm, Nature’s Green Acres. The food and hospitality has been wonderful — farm-to-fork in the truest sense — and I would expect the winter version to be of the same high calibre, and with sleigh rides. Guests will arrive to furs, fire and fantastic food.


Whisky Lessons for Chinese Hospitality Industry

Bar and restaurant staff in China are being trained in the art of serving whisky as the drink enjoys soaring sales in Asia.

Exports to the world’s second largest economy totalled £71.5 million last year and the industry is keen to capitalise on its popularity by rolling out a Whisky Ambassador programme to five cities, including Beijing and Shanghai.

Delivered in Mandarin, hospitality workers will learn about the value and pricing of whisky, how to spot a fake bottle and receive tips on making conversation about whisky with customers.

The programme is being delivered by marketing and distribution firm the Mackenzie Group.

The company said the growth in Chinese demand for whisky has coincided with the rise of the wealthy middle class there.

Whisky is the second highest imported spirit after Cognac.

Jo Graham, from the Whisky Ambassador, said: “Scotch is seen as a drink for successful people, with some using it and other premium spirit brands to flaunt their wealth, for business entertainment and relationship building.

“China has a wealth of discerning drinkers with a fascination for Scotch, and our programme will help them learn more about the best Scotland has to offer while helping the hospitality sector and the whisky industry to benefit from greater sales in this key market.”

The programme was launched last year and has been taught at Donald Trump’s golf resort in Aberdeenshire and Glasgow’s Radisson Blu hotel.

Accredited by the British Institute of Innkeepers Awarding Body (BIIAB), the course has previously been rolled out to Lithuania.


The Kyoto Protocol

It’s 8am on the dot, there’s a hesitant tap on the door and a kimono-clad woman appears. She bows and smiles before shuffling barefoot across our room’s tatami floor mats, pushing open the rice-paper window shutters, then tucking our futon and bedding into a cupboard.

We stand in our robes watching her, grinning at the theatricality of it all.

In a country where land is limited and houses small, rooms can fulfil a multitude of functions; thus a bedroom becomes a dining or a living room by day. Our maid moves a low table and chairs from where they are stacked to the centre of the room, before bowing and disappearing again.

“What’s happening, dad?” my five-year-old son Henry whispers.

Before I can answer, she’s back, this time with a tray of grilled eel. She pops in and out of the room, bowing each time and bringing more food until our table is covered in exquisite little dishes of fish, rice, eggs and fruit, all served on elegant ceramics and lacquerware. This is breakfast as art.

A stay in a ryokan, a traditional Japanese inn, is a perfect way to get up close and personal with the cuisine, architecture, design and wonderful sense of ritual that pervades Japanese society. Ours, the Ryokan Kohro, is not an old inn, having been built in the 1970s, but its owners abide by rituals common to all ryokan, including the communal bath, or ofuro.

It becomes a 5pm custom for Henry and me to don our yukatas, walk through the inn’s reception area and down the stairs to the wooden bathtub. We strip, perch on a timber stool and wash, then enter the tub and get ourselves nice and warm before climbing out to shampoo the hair. Then we rinse carefully and return to the tub for a final relaxing soak.

Dinner is as big a production as breakfast. Also served in our room, it’s known as kaiseki, a traditional multicourse meal. Paper-thin slices of raw beef cooked in a skillet at the table and served in a broth of vegetables are the highlight.

After dining, we head out to explore Kyoto at night by foot. The Ryokan Kohro is within walking distance of many key sights, including the Nishiki food market, a narrow covered street stretching for five blocks that is lined with more than 100 stalls and shops. Its reputation as Kyoto’s kitchen is well earned, with providores selling everything from dried seafood to sweets and pickles.

We then head to the Gion district to stroll its cobblestone, lantern-lit laneways and admire the wooden inns and tea houses tucked here, all the while hoping to catch a glimpse of geisha, the women employed at key tea houses.

Also within walking distance is Kyoto’s International Manga Museum, a celebration of the art of the Japanese comic book. The museum attracts about 300,000 visitors a year and is housed in an old school building. There’s a children’s library attached where I introduce Henry to my old favourite, Astro Boy.

Kyoto is said to have about 2000 temples and shrines. Many are within a 30-minute walk of our ryokan, though the not-to-be-missed Kinkaku-ji (Golden Pavilion) is a short bus ride away.

Back at our accommodation, we slip off our shoes and enter the room. Our maid has already laid out our futons on the floor. A pot of green tea has been set nearby.


Jas Hospitality to Launch Second F&B Venue, Fume

UAE-based hospitality and lifestyle development company, Jas Hospitality, will launch its second Dubai-based restaurant concept with Fümé, an international dining destination.

Set to open in January 2014, the 140-seat licensed outlet is located on the first floor of the new Pier 7 restaurant tower, and its menu has been developed by British executive chef, Grant Brunsden.

“Dubai has more than its fair share of upscale ethnically rooted eateries and we believe that there is a clear gap in the market for an affordable, uncomplicated but quality-led concept where diners can enjoy their favourite flavours of home, from around the world or try a culinary classic from another continent,” said Fümé operations manager Angelo Rosato.

“Fümé is a casual modern eatery inspired by our chef’s epicurean adventures throughout Europe, North and South-East Asia. The emphasis is on social interaction through sharing-style dining, where food nostalgia plays a central role in evoking happy memories of family dinners or great travel experiences, and bringing them all together in an equally eclectic and welcoming setting,” he added.

The classics feature signature coco husk-grilled and charcoal oven cooked steak and seafood, daily blackboard specials and international staples from French onion soup, Hong Kong-style chicken wonton soup and steak tartare to braised beef cheek, black cod siew-mai.

Desserts include apple and rhubarb crumble, black sticky rice with toasted coconut ice cream, iced banoffee parfait with salted peanut brittle and a daily changing choice of ice creams and sorbets.

In addition, Andrew Mullins of Fling Bar Services has created a collection of rustic yet contemporary cocktails.

“Our quirky interiors echo the culinary blueprint, with a vintage industrial style template that marries purposely mismatched flatware with unique pieces of artwork and striking chandeliers made from a variety of interesting materials, for a highly individualised and engaging ambience,” said Rosato.

While it will be the first Fümé for the UAE, the concept will be the second venue for Jas Hospitality, following the launch of its arabesque-inspired, restaurant, lounge and bar Qbara in the Wafi Pyramids complex.


Pub Trade Triumphs at Hospitality Guild Apprenticeship Awards

The pub trade triumphed at the Hospitality Guild Apprenticeship Awards, with several pub companies and employees scooping up awards.

The Orchid Group was announced Employer of the Year (Large), in the category for companies with more than 250 employees, while the Moleface Pub Company picked up Employer of the Year (SME) joint with the Bonnington (Cavendish Hotel).
Spirit Pub Company’s collaboration with Charnwood Training Group won Partnership of the Year and 17-year-old commis chef Connor Black, who works at the Hand and Flowers pub in Marlow, Buckinghamshire, was awarded Advanced Apprentice of the Year, winning a week’s work experience at the Ritz.
Young Hall of Fame
Furthermore, 27 young people were inducted into the Guild’s Young Hall of Fame 2013, including Charlotte Bonser, who works front of house at the Flaming Grill pub, the Bowman in Nottingham.
The awards were presented by Michelin-starred chef Michel Roux Jr, who was also the keynote speaker at the event, and Sophie Roberts-Brown, operations director of the Hospitality Guild, at a ceremony at the Tower of London.
‘Hospitality leaders of tomorrow’
Roux praised the role of apprenticeships in the industry and recounted his memories from when he was an apprentice at 16-years-old.
“Apprenticeships are very close to my heart and the Roux family,” he said.
“I am very pleased to see so many talented young people here today. As a former apprentice myself, I know how important this training is for producing the hospitality leaders of tomorrow.
“An apprenticeship gives you memories and an understanding of what our business is. And it’s more than a career, it’s more than a craft – it’s life.”
Hospitality Guild chair Simon Vincent said more than 60,000 apprentices have reached their certification in the last 18 months, with completion rates increasing by 10% over that period.
“You can see that we are starting to make a real impression on the youth of today and we are showing how hospitality can help with some for the broader economic challenges that we have in relation to employment in this country,” he said.
“These awards today salute the hard work and commitment of young people in our sector and I want to congratulate all our shortlisted nominees and Young Hall of Fame inductees.
“You are an inspiration to your peers, you are marvellous asset to our hospitality industry and you should be incredibly proud of your achievements as we are of all of you.”
The winners of the awards in full are:
Conan Brooks, chef de partie apprentice, Charnwood Training Group – Intermediate Apprentice of the Year
Connor Black, commis chef, the Hand and Flowers, Marlow, Buckinghamshire – Advanced Apprentice of the Year
Allister Bishop, executive sous chef, Harrods – Mentor of the Year
The Orchid Group – Employer of the Year (Large)
The Moleface Pub Company and the Bonnington (Cavendish Hotel) – Employer of the Year (SME)
Spirit Pub Company and Charnwood Training Group – Partnership of the Year


Food Glorious Food by Young Masterchefs

Catering students cooked up a storm in state-of-the-art kitchens, impressing more than 120 guests with their gourmet fair.

The GCSE pupils from St Aidan’s CE Technology College in Preesall took over part of The Villa at Wrea Green to cater for an event as part of their course assessment.

The group of 31 15-and 16-year-olds were tasked with cooking Masterchef-class dishes themed for Lancashire Food Week, including a Lancashire hot pot stack, Goosnargh chicken stuffed with Lancashire cheese and tart tatin.

Chef Matthew Johnson kept the youngsters on their toes while sharing expert knowledge, tips and techniques to improve their understanding of food preparation and service.

Headteacher Andy Smith, a guest at the event, said: “Our hospitality and catering students excelled themselves as they served up a three course meal with a standard of quality and service which would not have been out of place at a top class restaurant.

“I felt so proud of them and of Mrs Rossall and the other staff who helped them to organise and prepare such a feast.”

The group served up a three-course dinner to teachers, friends and family in the Pavilion Suite.

The fourth annual event at the venue on Moss Side Lane, Wrea Green, was organised by teacher Joanne Rossall, who said the events always prove invaluable in contributing to achieving top 

Mrs Rossall added: “The run up to this event is always stressful for the students and myself but once again the students have surpassed all expectations and excelled in every area. I couldn’t be prouder of each and every one of them.

“This event provides them with the experience of a real life catering environment that they can take to prospective employers, in the past students have been offered employment by the Villa based on their performance at this event.”

Between cooking courses at the event, the teenagers were also interviewed by the BBC One Sunday Politics Show, for a feature on employment issues and how they are preparing to leave school and look for work.

Pupils talked about how they view their employment prospects and whether they were worried about their future in the current economic climate.