When we go into a restaurant, a bread basket is all but an expectation. If we must ask for it, then there is a service problem. And for those restaurants who feel as though they can charge extra for this item, be warned that you certainly aren’t winning customers over with your penny-pinching approach to F&B.
Bread has played a vital role throughout the course of human civilization, and still to this day nothing sets the stage for a great meal better than a freshly prepared loaf. The smell of baked bread and the satisfaction of physically handling its chewy texture are both as communal as they are primal.
Yet, for many hoteliers, bread is given mere ‘lip service’ rather than the ‘lip-smacking service’ that it justly deserves! The days of the basket with stale or even four-plus-hours-old bread with near frozen, prepackaged tinfoil pats of butter or olive oil—heaven forbid you use margarine—should be eradicated from our collective memory banks. Bread is life. Even nowadays with the celiac sufferers, gluten intolerance and all manner of Paleo or no carb diets, bread can still make or break overall meal satisfaction. To do anything less than set the stage for a magnificent experience by denigrating your bread service as a second fiddle is a significant faux pas. And, frankly, where else can you do something special for a buck or two per guest?
Fortunately, I am not alone in this thought. Many hoteliers are giving their chefs the opportunity to both experiment and invest a substantial amount of time and resources in their bread offerings. As such, I’ve been fortunate enough to ask a host of F&B professionals about their approach to bread service.
Mathieu Lavallee, executive pastry chef at ARIA Resort & Casino in Las Vegas, provided some insight. He has instituted unique bread programs for each of the property’s signature restaurants. According to Chef Lavallee, “Bread service is unique in that there is no real ingredient costs, just labor. Yet, this does not mean that we should pay any less interest in it. We are fortunate to manage all of our needs from a single in-house bakery. First and foremost, recognize that this is a fragile food. You have only a few hours from baking to serving. After that, the product quality is unacceptable, particularly in our desert conditions where moisture loss is a major factor.”
Ulrich Krauer, general manager of the Halekulani Hotel in Honolulu, echoed this when he remarked, “Our bread service is just that—a service. At La Mer, our signature dining establishment, we distribute bread butler-style with three or four different offerings. Bread is heated in our ovens just minutes before presentation and served with a locally churned butter. In Orchids, our casual upscale restaurant, we contrast this with a more traditional bread basket accompanied with the butter, Hawaiian salt and an 18-year-old balsamic vinegar.”
Daniel Bruce, executive chef of the Boston Harbor Hotel, noted, “In keeping with our vineyard-to-table theme, we offer table service of churned local butter topped with a smoked salt as well as olive oils sourced from around the world. The servers describe the presented oil and its source while doing the bread service. Our bread includes a potato roll, a blueberry-brown bread and semolina, all with a New England tie-in.”
David Viviano, executive chef at Cane & Canoe at the Montage Kapalua Bay, stated, “Our offerings feature two products that are baked fresh daily. First, we highlight local Molokai sweet purple potatoes to make crispy yet chewy rolls. They are first rolled by hand then sautéed in butter and finished in the oven. The additional offering is an Italian-style focaccia accented with premium olive oil. Our bread is served with whipped butter and topped with Hawaiian sea salt. We often alternate between ulu hummus and taro pesto for extra accompaniments. Ulu and taro are both ‘canoe’ crops of Hawaii in that Polynesian settlers brought them over when they settled here. Ulu, also known as breadfruit, grows on large perennial trees. In this preparation, it is steamed and turned into hummus. Taro is a root vegetable and a staple of Hawaiian cuisine where we use the luau leaves to make pesto.”
Chris Schaefer, corporate director of restaurants for Noble House Hotels & Resorts, has a different take on the topic. While he leaves the bread service up to the individual properties’ discretion, he was clear in pointing out that, “From a corporate level, we have been pushing properties towards either offering bread as a menu item and charging for it, or at the very least asking the guests if they would even like bread. The purpose of the latter is that we are seeing so much bread coming back from the table uneaten and there was just so much waste with all the gluten-free and anti-carbs dietary stuff going on. Despite the logic of giving bread service its just dues, I have been surprised at the number of tables that actually refuse bread outright.”
As you can probably already tell from the above statements, bread is hardly just bread anymore. All of the properties and chefs mentioned have put their hearts into the breads they offer guests as well as their accompaniments. While increasing the freshness or improving your ingredient sourcing is a good start, you must also consider the types of butter, salt, pepper, oil, olives, vinegars and anything else that might augment this first course.
Moreover, you must consider the last statement about modern trends in foregoing bread altogether. This is not something you can ignore. In my mind, your opinions are to either make your bread service so exceptional and tantalizing that no one would ever refuse it or you yield to this demand by offering a no carb alternative for the amuse bouche. Examples of the latter might include a selection of olives, a bowl of mixed nuts or a small palate cleanser—let your chefs get creative and I’m sure they will find a solution that is both tasty and representative of your locale.
Here are examples of the bread services discussed so that you can also see how they are visually differentiated their bread service through creative food presentation.