Chef interview: Marco Torasso
As complex culinary director for Grosvenor House Dubai and Le Royal Méridien Beach Resort & Spa, Marco Torasso has the daunting task of overseeing and coordinating more than 400 staff across the 28 bars and restaurants. Luckily, the Italian-born chef has more than 20 years’ experience and he has spent nearly half of that time in Dubai — although, he tells Caterer Middle East, just like with many other expats in the emirate, he did not intend to stay for as long as he has.
“I was working at Jumeirah Emirates Towers, and my wife and I were was planning to leave Dubai, when along came the project of building the second Grosvenor House tower,” he explains.
“It was 2009 and the market was down. Dubai was not used to crisis but I come from Italy, so I was used to it. Anyway, I met with the general manager of Grosvenor House, Pam [Wilby], to talk about what they wanted to do and I found it all very engaging. Everyone in the market was scaling down, saving money and cutting staff, and here was Pam saying ‘we’re building a new tower with four new restaurants’.
“Of course, I was interested — it blew me away, and so I convinced my wife we should stay. I knew this opportunity would not come around again.”
And so, Torasso got to work developing concepts for the new tower; one of which was Toro Toro, for which the team travelled to South America for inspiration and came away with influences from the continent, rather than just one of its countries.
Expectations were high for the launch, he recalls, as Grosvenor House already had popular outlets Buddha Bar and Rhodes W1 — and, as it turns out, the high hopes were warranted, because he says Toro Toro was “a big success from day one”.
“It was something people were really looking for,” he says, of that time.
“We came out with a concept that did not exist in Dubai — a two-storey South America restaurant, with a focus on Peruvian food. Back then, the South American offering in the city was La Parilla and Asado, which were both Argentinian, and then Pachanga, which offered everything.
“We got the same result opening Toro Toro as we got when we opened Buddha Bar — it created a trend. Now, every restaurant opening is South America, usually Peruvian! The good thing for us is we don’t stick with one cuisine; as with Buddha Bar, Toro Toro offers a bit of everything [from that cuisine] because it’s too limiting to stick with a pure concept,” he explains.
Considering other factors contributing to the restaurant’s success, Torasso points out that the hotel was fully in control from the beginning, rather than Toro Toro being a concept that was “cascaded down to us from a worldwide chain”. He also notes that Toro Toro benefitted from having the support of Richard Sandoval, who is the chef and restaurateur behind Zengo in Le Royal Méridien.
“Being in control of the concept means that if we want to change a dish or run a promotion, we don’t need to wait for approvals — we can get it changed now.”
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He also believes that the staff demographic has proved crucial to Toro Toro’s success and adds that this is the case for all of the outlets he oversees.
“In Toro Toro, half of the kitchen staff are South American and, to me, this is very important. If you have an Asian restaurant, you must have Asian chef, if you have an Italian restaurant, you need an Italian chef, and a British concept needs a chef from the UK. In Geales [Le Royal Méridien’s British seafood concept], the chef is from Wales and had always worked with seafood. He is very young — apart from me, all our chefs are young — but taking that risk is paying off because he has spirit and ideas.
“Our chefs are hungry to be part of something. We all work long hours but we are fully committed; everybody is working towards a common goal, with a sense of pride. The team spirit is very strong and I think this is the key to success,” he shares.
Continuing the discussion of how both of the hotels’ outlets sustain their success in a highly competitive marketplace, Torasso shares his approach to maintaining standards without pricing consumers out.
“You can find excuses to cut corners wherever you want, but if we want fish from Tokyo for Zengo [Le Royal Méridien’s Asian restaurant], we will find someone in Tokyo who can buy the fish and find someone here who is willing to deliver it. We never cut corners on quality because we always believe the quality will pay back. If you are quality orientated, you can have one bad day or even a bad season, but guests will come back because they trust you. We don’t play around [with quality],” he states.
Asked how this standpoint fits in with remaining affordable, he explains that some other outlets might switch to using Brazilian beef instead of US prime beef, for example, if they want to save money because they can sell that cheaper, but quickly adds: “It does not work like this for us.”
Continuing, he elaborates: “If you want people to be able to pay less, you create options — smaller portions and different cuts. Dropping the price and quality is the easiest option but then it’s going to be very difficult to bring it back up in the future and you would have to compromise on something — staff or ingredients, for example.”
Revealing more about how changes he has implemented have helped to make operations more profitable, while being appealing to guests in terms of price point, he says: “In Buddha Bar, people would go there and spend a lot of money because it was Buddha Bar — they were not coming because it was the best food or the best cocktail in Dubai. However, I was not happy with the quality of the food and we also noticed that people were not eating as much as they used to. We are not here to cook good food that goes in the bin; ethically, it is not right to make 400 grams of food just because we want to charge you for it.
"So, we went back to the drawing board — investing in the food, an Asian chef, a restaurant manager, a bartender... it took a while for us to be happy with the quality but now we are. Quality went up and we reduced portion sizes; we like to make people happy and we don’t like to rip them off because we want customers to come back two or three times a week. If we overcharge guests, they won’t come back. So we felt it was time to reduce the portion and reduce the price, and people appreciate this.”
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He continues: “Six months ago, we had the same scenario with Toro Toro. To charge the customer less, we didn’t want to serve a lower quality product. People want options — some people come to your restaurant to spend a lot and some come with a budget. We went from offering three cuts of meat to five because few people can afford to eat Wagyu three times a week, but they still want to go out and have fun. By opening up the options, the expensive dishes are still there but the cheaper options are there too.
"And we did the same at [Le Royal Méridien’s Mexican concept] Maya. People do not want to eat big portions anymore, so you get the same quality of food in a scaled down portion and you still go away happy. It’s all about offering more options, whereas if you start lowering the quality level, you lose. People need to see that you are offering good value for money.”
He cites Le Royal Méridien’s Brasserie 2.0 as an example of how the property has made improvements in giving customers value for money. The hotel’s all-day dining restaurant opened this year and Torasso is proud that it stands out, as he explains: “Expectations for all-day dining options are very low. People expect a hot buffet, a cold buffet and some pastries — but this is not who we are, so we built a full new restaurant.”
He says the aim with Brasserie 2.0 was to make guests feel comfortable and make staff feel happy, without deviating from the brand standard, which resulted in a restaurant that does not resemble other all-day dining concepts in hotels.
“We wanted guest to experience live cooking stations and have their dishes cooked how they want it, and we wanted guests to be seated, so they order and we bring it to the table. It has become very popular — 60% of customers are actually non-hotel guests.”
He partly attributes this success to personal touches. “It makes a big difference. Perhaps you know a particular guest likes warm bread with olive oil on the side — you send it. It’s a small touch but the guest feels like they belong. We try to put ourselves in our guests’ shoes. Similarly, consistency is key; you don’t want to go there one time and find it’s very good and then the next time, it is not good, perhaps because the chef was off work that time. As a guest, that is not my problem — I am still paying the same price.”
Besides the customer facing restaurants, Torasso is in charge of feeding his staff, who work between the two properties, and he reveals that the staff canteen feeds 2,500 people every day.
“It’s like running a catering company on the inside,” he remarks, adding that the company likes to be hands-on so that it can control the quality.
While Torasso works with the hotels' celebrity chefs, he confirms that these restaurants do not require much input from him.
“Vineet Bhatia [Indego by Vineet] and Gary Rhodes are more in control of the menu, so you are not as involved as any other place. Most of the time, they are in the kitchen, and it’s easier for me. It sometimes takes some time to build trust, but they are the experts in their style of cuisine. We are all professionals; I used to work in Michelin starred restaurants, so I understand the pressure of having your name on the door or people choosing to eat at your restaurant because they want to eat your food.”
Asked how he would describe his experiences of working in Michelin star restaurants, he says: “I liked it but it was a different period of my life and career. I started working in kitchens when I was 15 — I was not much of a fit for school, so I had to find a job that suited me. I always wanted to travel and be engaged in something lively.”
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His upbringing in rural Italy helped inspire his career path, he reveals.
“I come from the countryside, close to Milan and Turin, where you have a lot of ‘zero kilometre ingredients’, meaning that the ingredients do not move from your doorstep. Food was all around me, without me even looking for it. So I started working for restaurants and hotels, and then Michelin star chefs. You learn a lot from them — Michelin star is a way of life [for them]. You get something back if you gain it, yes, but look at what you lose if they remove it; imagine the psychological impact of working all your life to get it and then somehow you lose it.”
Continuing, he paints a picture of a meticulous kitchen environment that taught him a tremendous amount about being a chef: “I was working at a two Michelin star in Italy and there were three of us doing the same job — three people working on one dish. It is mentally exhausting and, at the end of the day, you make 20 covers but it feels and looks like 2,500 because the time of the service is long and it takes a long time for every dish. But you learn a lot of techniques through the precision and the commitment [required].”
While the Italian chef describes this time in his career as a good experience, he says that “what really matters” is not “all this fuss around a dish”.
As he puts it: “It doesn’t matter if you are the best Michelin-starred chef or the best restaurant in the world; it matters where people really want to go and eat. There is a lot of alchemy on this. Maybe someplace is very straightforward and the food is to die for, so you want to go back, and maybe you go to ‘the best restaurant’ but you don’t feel comfortable, so you won’t go back.”
Torasso remarks that this could be because, in his opinion, Michelin-starred chefs are not customer focused.
“It is fine to educate the guest to a certain extent but guests go out to eat with their friends or family, and relax —and it shouldn’t cost an arm and a leg to celebrate a birthday,” he adds.
Having said this, he believes that people expect a special experience when they dine, and this is what both of the hotels under his remit seek to deliver.
“If you just want to eat, you go to a food court. If you come to a restaurant, you want an experience; it has to be something you take home with you,” Torasso concludes.