In early November, the hotel group held an internal conference and awards ceremony in Durban, South Africa, and Smalley and the Hilton Dubai Jumeirah & Hilton The Walk both demonstrated that they’re among the best, both in the desert emirate and beyond. Smalley and his 160-person team took home the grand prize for Best F&B Performance in a category encompassing the entire MEA (Middle East and Africa) region. What’d they win? A Rational-brand SelfCookingCenter XS. We sat down to chat with a very cheery Steven Smalley, who explained why his team absolutely deserved the win and discussed the restaurant trends he’s currently following in Dubai.
Steven, you’ve been in Dubai for ten years, right?
Yep, I have. On November 2nd, it was exactly ten years! I should bake myself a cake. (laughs)
You’re a new face here at the Hilton, though. Can you tell us a little about your philosophy?
My goal is to give our guests the best possible gastronomic experience. And another standard I hold myself to is making sure my team can maintain a good work/life balance. Which isn’t always easy.
That leads right into our next question, actually: How would you describe your management style?
I’m definitely not a fan of the old-school method. Acting all dominant, even creating a culture of fear, that’s not how I work. I’m more of a team player, and I try to give the people around me as much flexibility as possible. That’s the only way they can grow.
What do you think was the main reason you and your team got the award in Durban?
This award’s given in recognition of overall performance over the past two years—the work the entire food and beverage team does, in other words. It factors in things like budget, sales revenues, customer satisfaction, innovation, and product-related innovations—for example, we’ve started using a lot more local and sustainable ingredients than we used to, we really push that on our end.
You’ve been working as a chef for more than twenty years. What would you say are the biggest changes you’ve seen over the past two decades?
The biggest changes have come about through new technologies. In terms of cooking equipment that allows greater precision, and also in terms of digital processes. A few of those innovations have made chef life a lot easier. One example would be sous-vide cooking, which allows a great deal of precision and also opens up a whole new world of taste. Software plays a big role, too. For example, the entire ordering process is online now, which frees us chefs up from all that paper. That’s a huge weight off our shoulders, and it gives us more scheduling flexibility in the kitchen. If you ask me, we should use that extra time to be more creative.
You mentioned cooking equipment just now. What kinds of technology do you use here? And why?
I rely on Rational products. They’re solid and reliable, they’re really functional, and they’re easy to use. And we swear by their support and service when one of our units needs repairs. We generally work with combi steamers a lot—they’re pretty much constantly in use.
What trends do you see in the industry right now, and how are they influencing you?
Well, the food itself hasn’t changed all that much. Any way you slice it, chicken is chicken. Street food is still really “in”, and now people want comfort food, too. A good burger, for example. Dishes that aren’t pretentious, but are full of flavor. There’s a trend toward more vegetables, too. In the burgers, for example, more and more people are replacing the meat with mushrooms. Customers are a lot more conscious of what they’re eating and where it comes from. I think that’s a very welcome change. It also helps us with the purchasing process. Now that the demand is there, the supply of sustainably produced products is growing considerably. And that fits right in with my personal philosophy.