Executive Chef Thomas Connell has a lot of kitchen experience, and that’s just from his current job. His gig has him overseeing the food operations at the sprawling, 1,500-plus-room Fontainebleau Miami Beach, encompassing nine restaurants and a whole lotta room service. In all, he says, the Fontainebleau can serve up to 10,000 meals per day.
Last month, Connell, who started at the resort a year ago after a long stint at Ritz-Carlton, managed to escape the madness along with chefs from the three signature restaurants on the property — Scarpetta, Hakkasan and Gotham Steak — to prepare a showcase dinner at the James Beard Foundation in New York City. Connell started things off with a sort of beet salad featuring Iberian ham and cauliflower, then the other chefs followed with an eclectic menu that included a pasta with goose dish, a Chinese spin on Chilean sea bass, a bison steak and a white chocolate alphabet soup. Before it all began, Connell talked about the challenges of feeding all those people and running all those restaurants.
Let’s start out talking numbers, since the Fontainebleau is such a huge place. How many people work on the food at the resort?
I have a total of 220 cooks and chefs that work under me, and another 110 kitchen stewards that run lateral support on movement of product. We are total a team of about 330 to 340 depending on the time and the season.
How is it keeping track of everything that is going on there?
It’s a challenge, that is for sure. Like anything else, if you have the right people around you that share your passion for food, they understand the objective of not just Fontainebleau but all the different outlets, then it’s an easier job because your vision and your passion is living through them.
With Alfred Portale (Gotham Steak) and Scott Conant (Scarpetta), you have two well-known NYC chefs with restaurants under your roof. How is the dynamic?
The chefs that I have worked with — I’ve never come across anybody that is trying to play big guy. For me, the most successful chefs, they are like farmers. They understand their roots, they understand product. Chefs have their hands in the soil. And when you speak that language, everybody is on the same level. I have great relationships with the chefs that come down.
What about Hakkasan, a very expensive Chinese import from London. Is that still affiliated with the original?
Absolutely, yes. Hakkasan, they are doing a lot of expansion. They are opening in New York City in March next year and Mumbai just opened. And we do a lot work with them. Their corporate chef comes to Miami often and we go through menu items and concepts. They’ve got to understand what Miami is, and we have to understand Hakkasan.
I’d imagine it’s difficult overseeing so many kitchens at once. How do you acquire that type of skill or knowledge?
I am from a big family; you watch your mother lead, down through the ranks.
Is that how you learned to cook, from your mom?
My inspiration came from my grandfather. He was a professional man. He worked for Sears. But he was a good friend of Vincent Price. And Vincent Price was a big restaurateur. He loved to tour the world, and he actually made a cookbook with his top 50 restaurants that he enjoyed with his wife. And he signed a copy of that cookbook for my grandfather because he shared his passion for food. And when I graduated culinary school my grandfather gave it to me, so it’s a great family heirloom now. I really got it from him. He was a novice, he taught himself, he just had passion for it. And that is what captivated me from a very young age.
Where did you grow up?
I’m originally from Los Angeles. Born and raised in Los Angeles, but went to New York to go to the culinary school in Hyde Park, in 1989. I was with Hilton for about a year. Worked for the Escoffier Room in the Beverly Hilton in Beverly Hills with Raymond Dreyfus and learned some old school discipline of a French kitchen. I worked for Hyatt for a little while, then for Michel Richard. Then went to the Ritz-Carlton.
At the Fontainebleau you are right on the beach. What do you do for all those sunbathing customers?
We do a lot of combinations with nitrogen and with some sorbets and iced foods. It’s not just that it’s refreshing but it’s also cool. On a salad, instead of the usual dressing, we’ll freeze the dressing and make a sorbet out of it. So that way it arrives with a different texture, different mouthfeel. And it’s cold. As it melts, it has same exact flavor profile as if it were dressed normally. It’s really an interesting way to play with your products and engage in the summer, in the season, to make sure people can eat in an environment like that and not be overweighted.
Do you think people should avoid eating things like burgers and fries in the sun?
Well I do it myself, so I won’t say to avoid it. I’ll always enjoy a good burger. But clearly your meal should be much lighter. Incorporate fruits, salads, fresh tomatoes— it’s much better for you.
There are a lot of great dishes at the Fontainebleau, from the sushi at Blade to the spaghetti at Scarpetta to the burger at Vita. So, last question: What’s your favorite dish at Hakkasan?
We do a black truffle pork Cha Shao Bao, which, when you steam the truffle inside the Cha Shao Bao and you break that open, that truffle just hits you and knocks you back. It is unbelievable.