Hostplus Hospitality Scholarship on the Road: Copenhagen and New York with Caitlyn Rees

 2017 Hostplus Hospitality Scholarship winner Caitlyn Rees is living the hospitality dream in Copenhagen and New York. She's been working restaurants that put produce first, and have a unique approach to service: Relae, #36 in the World's 50 Best Restaurant Awards in 2018 and Blue Hill at Stone Barns, #12.

 

First stop, Copenhagen: 

'It's a beautiful city – very much like Berlin but perhaps prettier. The part of the city I’m staying in which is walking distance to Relae and Manfreds is a new cool area, but it used to be a bit dodgy, like the Chippendale of Copenhagen! Relae is a very professional restaurant. They take great care and a lot of consideration goes into everything they do. I was very surprised to see how lean they run the front of house team given their reputation. But then I saw how much the chefs do help – a lot of the chefs know all the wine and do wine pairings – and they also do the most of the close. It’s a really nice dynamic; the boundaries between front and back of house are much less apparent here. There also are heaps of Australians here!'

Was there anything that surprised you that they differently from home?

The way the chefs get so involved in the front of house probably surprised me the most, and that’s coming from someone who's spend the last 2.5 years working in restaurants with open kitchens. I’ve never seen a chef do a wine pairing, I even saw the head chef resetting a table for the second sitting! Then at the end of the night, in most restaurants the chefs leave before the front of house but here the chefs stay and start the FOH pack down. This allows the FOH team stay on the floor until the last guest leaves and not get distracted by starting to close because they want to go home. It also leave time for an end of service debrief where they go through guest’s feedback, what went well, what didn’t and also discuss how the next day is looking, then everyone leaves at the same time. There is definitely a feeling of ‘one team, one dream’. The other thing is that they don't have cleaners so at the end of the night we have to vacuum and clean everything. At first I thought it was a bit annoying, but actually it gives you this feeling of care and ownership and pride in the venue.

Did you pick up any specific new skills?

One of the reasons I wanted to come to Relae was because it has been highly regarded as a sustainable restaurant – they won ‘Best Sustainable Restaurant’ in the San Pellegrino World’s 50 Best in 2015 + 2016, they are certified organic as a restaurant and the have the highest rating (3 stars) for sustainability in the Sustainable Restaurant Association. I learnt day to day ways to reduce waste; some really small easy things that can be implemented instantly in any restaurant, others bigger, more long-term projects. I was also really glad I asked to spend one of my days at their farm which is about 40 minutes outside of the city. It really made everything click. It is very much at the heart of that group.

Did you work with any new flavour profiles?

Yes! I had never heard of Birch water which is a big thing over here. Relae do a pairing of earl grey tea infused with reduced birch water which gives it tannins and a caramelised flavour. I also tasted a lot of great natural wine which is very prolific over here, I think because it works very well with the fresh, clean and unfussy cuisine of a lot of the venues. No-sulphur wine also seemed a bit fresher here, an artefact of not having to travel across the equator I guess.

What did you eat?

I ate at Manfred’s a couple of times which is part of the Relae group. It’s a wine bar across the road from Relae where all the produce comes from their farm called ‘Farm of Ideas’. I drank a lot of coffee which is really good over here, both espresso and filter, which was quite nice after being in France! I ate at Relae which was amazing, especially after seeing everything behind the meal from the farm to the running of the restaurant. The produce is so fresh, clean and crunchy. It’s quite amazing that you are eating vegetables that have been harvested that morning. I also ate at Mirabelle – also part of the same group. Mirabelle is the bakery/pasta arm where they bake the most delicious organic sourdough for all the venues. I ate tacos at Hija de Sanchez, Amass’s famous fried chicken croissant and quite a lot of danish pastries!

 

 

On the last leg of her journey, 2017 winner Caitlyn Rees visited another of the World’s 50 Best Restaurants – Blue Hill at Stone Barns in upstate New York.

 

'The first thing that struck me about Blue at Stone Barns is the property itself: the stone barns and their surrounding gardens and forest is incredibly beautiful. Once the Rockefeller Family’s  the farm is now the home to the restaurant as well as Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture—a non-profit farm and education centre. 

On my first day I sat in on the chef’s meeting which is a daily one hour meeting led by Chef Dan Barber, with his whole kitchen – there must have been about 40 people sitting in a large circle. It was Wednesday, which is the first day of their working week, and the meeting was opened by Dan asking all the chefs if they ate anything good over the weekend. The feeling in the room is very calm and curious. They then moved on to what produce is coming this week and each section of the kitchen – pastry, fish, meat –briefly described what they will be working on. It was a great way to start my week and gain some insight into the process of the kitchen. 

Over the rest of the week I got to sit in on various other meetings like the captain’s meeting, the beverage training, F.A.R.M.S meeting (their internal apprenticeship program which includes the opportunity to volunteer one day a week on the farm),  They were each enlightening in different ways.

The extent to which Blue Hill goes in educating their team, and in turn deliver to their guests, is really next level. For example, during Thursday staff meals both Blue Hill and Stone Barns Center invite guest speakers –often farmers, scientists or artists– to to talk to the the farm and restaurant teams for 30 minutes while everyone eats. They're very much committed to their cause of not only promoting sustainable agriculture but delivering excellence in the restaurant. It’s hard to imagine a restaurant in the world that is doing more.  

By the end of the week, I was connected with the wine team and shown the cellar – the biggest and most impressive I’ve seen in my life! The inventory system that it takes to manage such a program is incredible. During service they talked me through the rather unconventional approach to wine pairing which is coordinated with Chef Dan Barber’s ‘grazing, pecking, rooting’ approach to the degustation – which is built around the best from the property and neighbouring farms, with no ‘menu’ as such.'

 

How is has your experience differed between locations?

Relae and Blue Hill at Stone Barns are both well regarded restaurants and both notable for their commitment to sustainability, but their approach is very different. Relae approaches sustainability mostly in small, quiet ways but you can see the consideration that goes into every choice the business makes. Blue Hill at Stone Barns can be seen as having  a larger scope and Dan Barber, like Christian Puglisi, is hugely influential on a global level when it comes to sustainable agriculture. 

There are definitely easy, immediate things I can implement at Fred’s in terms of being less wasteful. There are also a number of longer-term projects I want to begin when I get home.

How interested were people to learn about you/Australia?

Quite interested, particularly at Blue Hill at Stone Barns. I ended up writing a short list for Will (the wine director of BHSB) of Australian wines that I thought would work on Blue Hill at Stone Barns’ list. Australian wine could been seen as underrepresented--which I gave him a bit of stick about!

 Have you found your Hostplus Hospitality Scholarship experience useful?

 

Absolutely. It’s imperative to travel to get perspective on what people are doing in other parts of the world. Dining is one way to do this but to actually work, even for a small amount of time, around the world gives you so much more insight into how these businesses are run – it’s been invaluable. For example, anyone I know that has dined at Blue Hill at Stone Barns says how amazing it is, but there’s so much that goes on behind the scenes, such as their internal apprenticeship program, to deliver that amazing dining experience. You just wouldn’t have a clue about unless you were on the inside looking out.