PR Playoffs

The Musing was first published in Flavours Magazine and is not in Chef’s Tales the book.

Public relations is a never-ending game in the hotel industry, and can result in both magic and mayhem.

Public relations is one aspect of the hospitality industry that always gets my admiration. It never stops, the wheels spinning 24 hours, a thousand miles an hour, continuously picking up speed – it never ceases to amaze.

For example, look at the way menus are written to ensure that the food sounds great (regardless of what it tastes like). Imagine “Chef Mike’s line-caught fresh river rainbow trout.” What a romantic picture customers paint when they imagine that the chef rose at the crack of dawn just to catch their lunch … and then personally cooked it for them. Even if, at the back of their minds, they know that he simply defrosted it when he came to work at nine, it does not seem to matter – because this is the theatre, and it’s show time.

Then there are media interviews, when management may announce that the hotel is fully booked for the next two months to create the illusion that their hotel is the place to be and to be seen – even if they are only running at 30% occupancy. Or getting people to line up outside a nightclub, so that it looks like the place is so crowded you can’t possibly get in, when it’s actually empty.

The competition for media coverage is always quite fierce among hotels, and can lead to some crazy situations. I once saw a chef walking into the lobby of his newly-opened hotel with a baby elephant borrowed from the local zoo. Unfortunately, the nervous elephant let go of its breakfast, creating a small, steaming pile right on the newly-laid Persian carpet. The chef lost his job. This little anecdote just goes to show that many people are willing to go to great lengths to get ahead of their competitors.

The challenge of public relations is an enjoyable aspect of the business. Never was the competitive pressure as great as when I was in Hong Kong, about 17 years ago. Every chef’s goal was to get the best story possible in the newspapers so that the competition would have to call to congratulate them – and in turn, plot their own story to beat that stunt. One day, the hotel’s F&B director came barreling into my office as though he had scored the winning goal in the World Cup final. “I’ve got it, chef!” he cried excitedly. “What mental illness would that be?” I replied. “Come here – I have to show you something,” was his only response. Up to the rooftop we went. As we stepped onto the roof, pigeons flew into our faces. “Sorry about that chef, they must be scared,” said the F&B director. “Not as scared as me, I can assure you – I am petrified of heights,” was my reply. “Don’t be such a baby – look.”

As I turned to see what he was pointing at, I noticed that there was no barrier around the roof edge – just a sheer drop. Pipes ran along the floor, just waiting to trip people up and plummet them over the edge. In the middle of the roof was a large air vent, vibrating strongly and blowing out hot air. On top of the air vent was a small flat structure. The chief engineer was standing next to it and smiling.

“Is this great or what?” he enquired. “Absolutely. What the heck is it?!” I replied. The F&B fellow looked at me with a big smile on his face and shouted, “It’s your lunch table! “We are going to set a pristine fine dining setting right up there and you are going to have a five-course western set lunch right now!” I was speechless. “Chef, you are going to be famous,” he said. “For what, being an idiot?” was my only reply.

Nobody seemed to be listening to me as they ran around setting up the table; all too quickly, I was climbing a ladder to reach the dining summit. It was very windy, and as I was climbing, my apron blew up – I knew how women must feel when their skirts get caught by a gust of wind.

“This is madness!” I cried. “Sit down, hold up your glass of wine, offer a toast and smile,” was the only reply I got. The platform was shaking. “Hurry up and take the flipping picture, will you!” I said. The photographer, camera in his hand, gave me a thumbs up. He started his countdown – “One, two …wait a minute there is something wrong here.” “Give me a break! This is a circus, will someone get me down?” I cried. Again, the countdown began – “One, two …oh I know what it is, my battery is dead.” “You are going to be dead in a minute,” I threatened. “I have to go to my office and get another,” he announced. As he disappeared through those doors – beyond which lay safety and a warm cup of coffee – I felt the urge to visit the loo, and proclaimed as much. “Don’t move chef, we have to get the photo taken so we can get it into the newspapers tomorrow,” said the F&B director.

As I sat there thinking that this was the end of the world, I took a second to look beyond my shattered nerves and peer over the top of the hotel roof. Suddenly, I felt calm, overwhelmed with the beauty of the city skyline, the surrounding wooded hills and low mountains. I slowly sipped my Cabernet Sauvignon, and sat there in awe. As I was lost in the moment, the camera flashed.

“Chef, your face said it all – we have a great shot and a great story. You can get down now,” said the photographer. “It’s all right. I think I might just sit here for a while and finish my wine,” I said.

Everyone else went downstairs. It was a gloriously sunny day, and I felt terribly lucky to be enjoying it, pondering the greatness of Mother Nature.

The next day, I picked up the newspapers at breakfast and there was the story and picture captioned “Chef Saxon has lunch at his private open-air lunch table with a panoramic view to launch the opening of the city’s newest hotel.” The phone would soon be ringing off the hook I thought, with my colleagues vowing to come up with something even better. I was talking to the PR Manager and wallowing in my glory when she asked, “Did you know the hotel was robbed last night?” “Really?!” I responded, astounded. “Yes – they ran through the lobby, grabbed a guest’s suitcase and disappeared into the night,” she said. “The guest filed a police report and I have been getting calls all morning.” As she finished the sentence, her phone rang again; it was a journalist from the South China Morning Post who wanted to know about the robbery and what had happened. As I left her office I could hear her in full swing. “What robbery? Oh no darling, you should not believe everything you hear. We had a film crew in the hotel filming an upcoming Cantonese crime movie!” In the same breath, she added, “By the way, did you know that Sean Connery is staying with us?”