Acclaimed chef Steve Munkley is the culinary mastermind behind the Royal Garden Hotel, one of the capital’s most prestigious properties overlooking Kensington Palace and Hyde Park. After overseeing a £3m kitchen transformation project, he reveals the thought processes and equipment choices that played a part in creating the perfect environment to support a bustling 24/7 catering operation.
The five-star Royal Garden Hotel consists of 400 bedrooms, two restaurants (Min Jiang and Park Terrace) and can deliver banqueting for 600 guests. There are 60 cooks, plus another 300-hotel staff that all need feeding, while the nature of the beast means it’s a 24/7 business.
So, when executive head chef Steve Munkley says “it’s a reasonably busy operation” you get the feeling he’s understating things a little.
Munkley is as synonymous with the hotel as its views over some of London’s finest real estate, spending the vast majority of his career there having been landed his first big full-time break as second commis chef at the Lex Hotel at Heathrow Airport.
“I have been there now for 23 years and for 18 of those I was banging on about it being time to do something about the kitchen,” laughed Munkley, addressing listeners at the recent Professional Kitchen Show. “I had been a commis chef there back in the 1980s and the kitchen that I inherited when I arrived was nearly the same as it was then. So, you can imagine it was still very functional but very old school. When I finally got the nod to say we were considering spending some money I started the planning of designing a new kitchen.”
That was almost five years ago but Munkley, who is also a vice president of the Craft Guild of Chefs, recalls it like it was yesterday. He threw himself into the task of creating a kitchen set-up that could meet the hotel’s growing F&B offering and provide a more comfortable, efficient environment for his brigade to excel in.
“I was lucky enough that having worked there for 18 years I really knew how the operation worked and what the operation needed, which really was a great starting place. I can appreciate that for chefs going into new kitchens, or designers designing brand new kitchens, getting that flow working really well is extremely difficult. But I knew in mind exactly what I wanted.”
Of course, turning a dream into a reality is rarely as easy — or affordable — as it sounds. After putting forward his proposals, Munkley quickly encountered the pitfalls of legislation and the costs associated with changing things such as electrics, air conditioning and gas supply.
“The project went from about £1.5m to £3m — which I didn’t have a problem with because it wasn’t my money!” he smiles.
Munkley worked closely with Essex-based distributor CCE Group, which has designed and supplied kitchens to many of London’s top establishments. He spent a good 18 months liaising with CCE’s in-house design consultants on the look and feel of the kitchen.
“They gave me a blank piece of paper and said, ‘here is the exterior of your kitchen, put down where you want everything and we will start with that’. They then looked at it from the point of view of whether you could get the facilities and services to it and how certain difficulties could be overcome.
“We started with a potwash area that was in the middle of the kitchen and had always been in the middle of the kitchen — it was the bain of my life because I didn’t like dirties being so close to where we were cooking things. So, we obviously had to reroute the drainage which was a big move but I dug my heels in over that. I thought about all the logistics of the kitchen first before I started thinking about what I wanted to produce and what I needed to produce that, so a very long thought pattern went into it.”
We started with a potwash area that was in the middle of the kitchen and had always been in the middle of the kitchen — it was the bain of my life because I didn’t like dirties being so close to where we were cooking things”
Crucially, Munkley made sure that his senior kitchen team were involved in the process. Many of his sous chefs have been with him for a considerable period of time, so they sat down collectively and discussed ideas. From there, he went away and refined the plan.
“I then gave it to the design consultant and he put it down on a CAD drawing and came back to me with a few problems. But they were not problems that couldn’t be overcome and that is why I really like working with CCE. Nobody ever said ‘no, you can’t do that chef’. It was always a positive approach in the respect of ‘we will find a way to get you what you need but you might have to compromise a little bit’. For me as a chef, it was a great process.”
The Royal Garden Hotel spent £3m on the project, of which two-thirds went on the building side, including flooring, walls, new electrics and air conditioning. Around £1m was spent on kitchen equipment, with Munkley open to new ideas to complement his own initial wish-list of kit.
“I had a couple of brands of equipment I liked and CCE gave me a couple they recommended. It was great going around and talking to the chefs that had worked with the equipment for quite a few years to get a good insight into whether it did what it said on the packet. We can all listen to salesmen telling us that this bit of kit is wonderful but that doesn’t give me the comfort that I know I want, and to be honest most companies are very happy to go and get testimonials from people they have supplied.
“I believe it is the only way to buy your equipment — go and talk to a chef that has had it in for a minimum of 12 months. You have the honeymoon period with anything — getting to know it, making sure you can get parts for it, the back-up, the service. You talk to a chef after he has had a bit of kit for two years and he will give you an honest answer as to whether he is still happy with it.”
Munkley had always been brought up working on gas, but was never a fan of the fumes or the “nasty atmosphere it created”.
He therefore took the decision to move across to 70% induction. “It is the best thing I have ever done,” he reflects. “The kitchen environment is lovely. The extract doesn’t get anywhere near as greasy as it used to and the chefs in the winter complain it’s too cold!”
One new piece of equipment that Munkley was introduced to was a Thermodyne cook and hold system. With the hotel serving up to 400 breakfasts each day, CCE felt the technology could offer significant value by allowing it to hold certain products for a while, particularly as it is a plated service rather than buffet.
“The Thermodyne is a glorified Alto-Shaam but in my mind a much better product. It holds the food to a better quality. So, they recommended this to me, they showed it to me, they took me around and again it is that trust — they understood what I was trying to achieve. They understood that the quality I was looking for needed to be addressed and so they put things in front of me that helped me achieve my end-goal. We are now three-years-old and I can say we are probably happy with 99% of what I did. You can always improve, there is no doubt about it, but 99% of it was really good.”
“Service contracts do cost money but at the end of the day they save you money”
Munkley has been in the industry long enough to know that it’s all well and good having a state-of-the-art kitchen but you need sufficient support in place to maintain it. The Royal Garden Hotel employs an in-house maintenance department but they are not trained electrical engineers so he insisted — with the support of its chief engineer — that it has a twice-yearly service contract in place for both mechanical and refrigeration.
“I am on his case every six months because I can tell as soon as we go over that six-month period, we start having breakdowns that we wouldn’t be having it if they had done their service contract. Those of us that are good go to the dentist and have our teeth checked regularly. We need to do that with our kitchen equipment and if we don’t it is going to break down. Service contracts do cost money but at the end of the day they save you money.”
Munkley has his hands full running one of the capital’s most demanding catering operations, which is why the effort and care taken to plan his kitchens was time well-spent.
My favorite piece of equipment
Steve Munkley has worked with dozens of pieces of catering equipment over the years, but what’s his favorite bit of kit or gadget?
“I must say that the combination oven has really revolutionized most things, from a volume point of view and from a restaurant concept point of view. They come in so many different sizes and brands, and everybody has their favorite, so I am not going to put one brand over another but they all in principle do the same thing.
“They have such a variety of methods of cooking within them that you have got that ability to do three or four different things at the same time, you have got multiple timers, you can reduce the steam temperature, you can reduce the heat to really low, you can slow cook in them, you can fast cook in them, you can grill in them.
“All our breakfast goods now go through the combi oven. Sausages and bacon cook perfectly and then you can cook a soufflé in them; we do soufflés in banqueting for 400. I have got three units, we put 150 or 160 in each and they take 10 minutes. We know that in 10 minutes they will be perfect.
“I can unload an oven in two minutes, the second oven goes in two minutes later and the third oven goes two minutes after that. I don’t think I could be without a combination oven now,” concludes Munkley.
“We keep a log of the weight of our food waste”
Food waste is a major issue for any hotel and the Royal Garden Hotel is no different. Given the volume of food that the venue produces across its F&B offering, restaurants and banqueting, waste can become a big cost for the business if it is not handled sensibly.
“We wear quite an important CSR hat and we feel quite strongly about the fact that we manage our waste,” explains executive head chef Steve Munkley. “We actually keep a log of the weight of our waste so that if we have a spike I will go back and say to the guys, ‘hey, why have we got X kilo more today? What went wrong? Who over-produced? Did we have a function that didn’t deliver the numbers and we couldn’t reuse it? I think the first thing we have all got to do is look at production levels, but obviously waste builds up.”
Up to about six months ago, The Royal Garden hotel used a system that essentially liquidized its food waste to a pulp before it was collected by a tanker and taken away for composting. It is now using a digester from BioHitech Global which uses aerobic digestion to address food waste at the point of generation, eliminating the need for landfill disposal.
It uses a proprietary blend of micro-organisms to break down food waste into liquid form and safely discharge it into wastewater through a standard sewer line.
“It is certainly a way of the future because it is self-perpetuating — I was absolutely amazed to see that it takes about 160kg of waste a day and by the following morning there is nothing in there. I have grave concerns about it going through the water channels but we have been told by the various departments within government that it is absolutely safe and it is not going to be polluting our waters. That is the way we are dealing with it — there are other ways and we are only four months into using it but at the moment I am impressed.”
About the design house
The Royal Garden Hotel’s kitchen operations were designed and installed by Essex-based CCE Group, which has more than 30 years’ experience delivering commercial kitchen projects.
The company runs two fully operational stainless-steel fabrication facilities as well as two design studios that allow clients to visualize their dreams and create the perfect working environment.
CCE Group prides itself on bringing innovative new products to the chef’s attention, from the latest catering equipment to hygienic and hard-wearing walls and flooring plus advice on equipment and fabrication specifications that will last the course of the investment period.