Conor Kenny in conversation with John Williams MBE, Executive Chef & Ciaran Fahy, CEO, The Ritz, London.
When you sit with creative people it’s often an exciting ride into outer space where brief moments of genius are almost touched but, like all illusions, too often those heady promises of perfection rarely come to pass.
I’m at The Ritz in the heart of London and I’m chatting with John Williams MBE, Executive Chef and Ciaran Fahy, CEO, and a proud Irishman too.
For 112 years, The Ritz London has been the benchmark by which other hotels are measured. The iconic hotel has long been the hotel of choice for Royalty, aristocracy, dignitaries and countless other discerning guests and is the first and only hotel to have received a Royal Warrant from His Royal Highness The Prince of Wales and, though relevant to guests needs today, it still retains the luxurious Louis XVI style interiors, meticulous service and the exquisite bar and restaurants for which The Ritz name is synonymous.
John Williams is perhaps one of the most famous names in the world of luxury dining and the son of a Tyneside fisherman.
Ciaran Fahy, a Dubliner, who embraces his London home of 30 years but with a true passion for his hometown.
Though very different, they share a journey that has brought them from humble outlying towns to the centre of London, wealth and luxury and into the role of protecting one of the world’s most famous, revered and iconic hotel brands.
Their mutual respect, patience and chemistry are rare, real and relaxed.
They are also full of fun.
Every Christmas The Ritz is the picture postcard image of what the season is about, it’s a busy time too, very.
Walking through the magnificent ‘below stairs’ and into the kitchens, a chance encounter with John Williams, so calm amongst the madding crowd, led to a chat that left a mark.
“The Ritz isn’t just a famous hotel Conor, it’s also a beautiful hotel with a very beautiful suite of dining rooms. For us, it’s simple, our food must match the room”
Later that night, with this thought firmly planted, I asked Ciaran Fahy if the three of us could explore what this means and what it means for guests, hospitality people and those curious to know what upstairs - downstairs really is all about.
It’s Spring and sunlight is flooding the rich new grass of Green Park, the gold leaf, splendour and all the living history that is The Ritz.
Outside, Piccadilly is fighting every inch with people. Buses and taxis feverishly rushing about their hurried day, horns blowing, it is the centre of the centre of the world.
Inside, looking out, there’s an air of calm and elegance that rises above it all.
Our conversation begins and Williams cuts to the chase;
“Joining The Ritz I felt that the food was not value for money at the time. The critics were saying that the dining room was one of the finest in the world but I felt that what they were really saying was that the food did not match the room”
There’s a refreshing grounded honesty about everything John Williams says. His staccato sentences rich with wisdom.
“Chefs were coming and going too quickly. They’d choose new crockery because they liked it. They’d create international dishes that didn’t mean anything and they’d often bring recipes strongly influenced by their time abroad.
For me, things simply were not in synch with the room because The Ritz has fundamentals that cannot be tampered with. For example, The Ritz must have silver and fine china. Rustic crockery, no matter how beautiful, just isn’t The Ritz. If it wasn’t going to be authentic, the alternative was to be in a half full restaurant. Nobody wants that”
When Ciaran Fahy and John Williams talk, besides their reverential interest in each other, it’s clear they understand a lot more than world leading luxury, service and food, they understand brands but they also innately understand people.
With that, as today’s custodians, it means responsibility and everything at The Ritz is focused on the guest and developing their people.
“Our focus at The Ritz must always be singular - what our guests want and what they want out of their visit too” says Fahy
I’m intrigued by the notion of not what guests get but the focus on what they want.
Probing this more, Fahy tells a simple story of retired ladies getting an early morning bus from Swansea to Piccadilly to enjoy the legendary Ritz Afternoon Tea. For the ordinary people we all live amongst, touching The Ritz is as good as embracing it and even staying there. It’s a moment in time and, whether brief or not, they have been here and an eight hour return bus journey is worthwhile to indulge, enjoy and talk about “Being to London and an afternoon at The Ritz”
But any danger of misunderstanding his point is quickly slain with an intense gaze that only comes from deep seated passion:
“Although we entertain Royalty, our ethos and belief is to treat everyone like Royalty”
The evidence, as you walk around the wonderful mix of aristocracy, wealth and quiet starry eyed celebrations, bears this out.
As one of the most easily recognized brands on the planet, there’s enormous responsibility towards protecting the brand and ensuring the ethos, clarity and discretion it demands are easily understood.
“Today, many hotels are brands created by marketers in isolation. They theorize about market segments, demographics just a little too much. Let me be clear, The Ritz is simply about authenticity and we know our demographic too, it’s from 1 to 101. This means we represent and must always reflect the very best of British. This means, no matter what, we will not compromise on our produce, our curtains, our beds or our carpet. Everything must be the best in its class, nothing less will do”
This is a sentiment many hoteliers will understand but not many will get to deliver but Fahy adds an interesting insight to reinforce his point;
“Everybody knows what quality is, you don’t have to be an expert”
John Williams agrees “Our food can be anything as long as it’s superb”
Now it would be easy to think that this was Carte Blanche for a freewheeling ambitious Chef but then he adds with a smile
“When a young Chef presents me with a new dish, I’m always saying ‘it’s very nice but is it The Ritz?”
You could begin to believe that life downstairs at The Ritz is a regime dominated by a brand and that evolution is anathema to their thinking. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Says Williams “I am surrounded by young guys and girls who have a great desire for knowledge and to learn. That alone keeps me in a job”
It’s no surprise, when you dig a little deeper that both Fahy and Williams are those quiet gentlemen who sit on many voluntary boards dedicated to mentoring, teaching and helping those less fortunate. It’s in their DNA.
Educating people is an intrinsic part of good leaders. Some talk about it at length but it’s the stories of what their protégés achieve that unwittingly reveals how important this is to both of them.
Says Fahy; “Our culture in the kitchen is to recruit young Chefs, send them into the world to learn and then bring them back, full of new ideas that allow us to keep evolving The Ritz”
Williams quickly agrees and adds “Being creative is vital for our future but being creative, on its own, is not enough. It’s about being creative and authentic, this is what we are all about. For example, the role of the farm is already critical for the younger generation of Chefs which, in turn, is a part of the demand today for authenticity”
Our upbringing defines us and it’s no different listening to these two natural born leaders. Though surrounded by wealth, luxury and often the most famous faces on earth, their roots always come through and neither confuse who they are with what they do.
These strong values give both a rare ability to understand what it means to someone to come to The Ritz.
“The Ritz” says Fahy “is a special occasion place”
Of course, whilst most occasions are celebratory occasions, special can mean to meet, mourn, remember or reflect.
Great hotels know the difference and that means an essential and deep intuitive understanding of what discretion means.
Williams understands the role of The Ritz in society and for the people they serve. He also understands that iconic brands still need to deliver a profit but for Williams and Fahy, profit is simply an outcome.
Says Williams; “It’s too easy to be intimidated by a hotel like The Ritz, our job is to break that down”
Again, Fahy is clear “We never have to worry about the discretion of our guests because one rule is utterly non-negotiable for anyone. We do not talk about guests. Full stop”
It is simple, effective and understood by everyone. As Mark Twain said “If you tell the truth, you don’t have to remember anything”
It’s an interesting point and one that too many pay lip service too.
Sometimes, luxury hotels can begin to believe that arrogance is an appropriate ingredient. It’s not and neither Fahy nor Williams would entertain what might be called ‘arrogance’ because their ethos, upbringing and core leadership values are based firmly on respect. Respect, when real, never countenances arrogance, it’s never even necessary to discuss.
But discretion can have a humorous side too, a point echoed by Philippe LeBoeuf, (Mandarin Oriental and the former GM at Claridge’s) in Dancing at the Fountain, Oaktree Press.
Says Ciaran Fahy “Some well-known people want the world to know they are there and others don’t but they do like to know you know they are here.
Our view is simple because none of us would like the world peering into our lives with our slippers on”
Besides the obvious leadership qualities these two understated men clearly have, what comes through in every story is the origin of every decision because they share strong values etched in their upbringing. ‘The right thing’ isn’t just about the right food, service and décor, it’s also about doing what’s right. It’s a moral obligation that comes with being a temporary custodian of a brand that will outlive us all.
Says Fahy; “Not buying the right champagne is the easy thing to do but even if we saved a few pounds, it’s still not the right thing and at The Ritz, we only do what is right because that’s what authenticity is all about”
The photo that accompanies this article gives you a snapshot of life at The Ritz. Throughout my time with these two passionate professionals, we are served the finest tea in the finest china. It’s a fast tour into a privileged world and an intriguing one at that.
Before long, discreet assistants are whispering reminders of other meetings and waiting guests. Still, there’s no rush even if all The Commonwealth Leaders are gathered outside.
Each story sparks another but even the most pleasant of meetings must come to an end.
John Williams sips the last of his tea from the most beautiful cup. He walks away smiling, turns back, says one last goodbye and, ever cheerful adds;
“And Yes Conor, really good English tea does taste better in fine china”
With that, they were gone but their work, charisma and wisdom will carry on leading, inspiring, teaching and evolving everyone who is lucky enough to touch The Ritz - however briefly.
Conor is the Founder of Conor Kenny & Associates (Irish Enterprise Awards 2018 - Best Professional Development Consultancy) an Independent Training, Learning & Professional Development Company for the Hospitality & Service Industries.
He is the Author of 3 books;
‘It’s Who I Am’ - Irish Times Best Books of the Year. (2017)
‘Dancing at the Fountain’ - Irish Examiner Best Books of the Year (2016)
‘Sales Tales – True Stories of How Great Sales Happen’ (2014)