One of the best-known and original boutique hotel brands, Malmaison has experienced the ups and downs of the hospitality industry as much as any other.
From stylish front-runner in the 90s to being sold off in an administration firefight, and from being paired with sister brand Hotel Du Vin to expansion under new owner Frasers Hospitality UK Holdings.
Known for its ‘restaurants with rooms’ vibe, the F&B at Malmaison has always been at the forefront of its thoughts It’s brasserie, Chez Mal, is all offering a contemporary dining experience with a bespoke collection of dishes.”
One of its newest 15 UK properties is the Malmaison Brighton, located at the famous town’s sparkling marina, and with its Chez Mal concept taking centre stage of the hotel we headed down to speak with group chef director John Woodward.
Overlooking the marina, the Chez Mal in Brighton offers guests both an intimate indoor dining option and a Mediterranean-style al fresco choice with large sun-trap terrace.
The bar and dining room both use bright, modern neon lights illuminating copper fixtures, fittings and bar equipment, while a mixture of chair styles and banquette seating helps to create an informal atmosphere.
Areas of the dining room are closed in and made more private through the use of hanging translucent curtains and chains, while shining dark tables and spanking white plates help to stay on the Chez Mal brand – something that is very clear from the ‘Mal-chemy’ cocktail menu to the powdered sugar ‘M’ with the petit fours to the bottle of ‘Mal-k’ that comes with your tea and cereal in the morning.
As we have seen with a number of other hotel groups including QHotels, the menu for the brasserie is created centrally, by Chef Director John Woodward. He then spends a lot of his time heading to the hotel kitchens around the country to talk the chefs of each brasserie through the menu and the philosophy behind it.
With hotels branching out to offer quality food for their restaurants, bars in-room, meetings and events, it is necessary for group-wide guidelines to be in place to ensure a high standard of service.
“We want guests visiting the Malmaison in Dundee to have the same level of dining experience as they would do heading to a Chez Mal in London,” explains Woodward, once of The Canteen restaurant at Chelsea Harbour when it was under Marco Pierre White.
The shortage of skilled chefs in the industry continues to be an issue, but one that can be managed through a well devised, centralised menu.
“I would love to give my chefs creativity back on the menu, but the calibre of chefs in many places isn’t always high right now. So, we need to write the menus more centrally,” says Woodward.
“I do get a lot of input from the chefs when looking to place new things on the menu, and our vision is for guests to have the same level of experience in all the Malmaison hotels.
“It’s about consistency – pushing the style and the brand. And we need our chefs to get that. Sometimes the chefs were putting on food that was quite away from the concept.
“By making us a bit more brand-aware we can make sure all our chefs are singing from the same hymn sheet, using the same products and the style of cooking for brand consistency.”
So how does Woodward ensure this continuity?
“A big part of my job is to head around the country to the properties to support the guys and check things over, especially when the menus are changing,” he says.
“I will photograph a dish, create a recipe method and describe how to plate it. When we change the menu, so from Autumn to Winter, I will get a lot of the chefs together and cook it for them. We will also talk to the front-of-house teams about the dish and the reasons we are using it at this time of year. The hotels will then go away and deliver that, and I will try to police that afterwards.”
Chez Mal’s food is described as modern European with a slight Asian twist, which can clearly be seen, and tasted, within dishes such as tempura of courgette, calamari and tiger prawns, served with chilli jam and crème fraîche; and spiced Asian prawn and crayfish cocktail with sesame and lime dressing, cucumber, Chinese leaf, coriander and wasabi mayonnaise.
“There are Asian influences, but we still offer what our guests want to eat, and we have retained our Mal classics,” says Woodward.
The top sellers include the steak frites – 250g of marinated full-face rump steak with pommes frites – and the Chez Mal burger with Ayrshire bacon, Gruyère cheese, pommes frites and burger relish.
“Some people describe it as a New York steak house, but I don’t think it is,” says Woodward. “The grill is a big part of the menu, sure, but it’s a more modern brasserie.
“Some of our hotels have a Josper grill and some of our hotels, like Aberdeen, actually have a visible room where they mature their own beef.”
Chez Mal uses 28-day-aged beef across its venues, with a large section of the menu dedicated to beef, including dishes such as the Black Angus 150-day grain-fed fillet steak (200g); ribeye steak (300g); and signature (Côte du Boeuf 450g).
Of course, a centralised menu can cause problems when sourcing enough of one product for it to be used group-wide, and this means that Woodward and his team have to search carefully for suppliers that can supply the whole portfolio, without skimping on quality.
“We have moved on to more imported meats,” adds Woodward. “A number of other restaurants have moved that way, too, taking meat and cattle from Australia and America. I feel that there is more consistency with them. You can get great British meat, but it can also be a bit hit and miss sometimes, too. So that has been a big change for us.
“We do still have the English meats available as well. And we use UK products where available.
“For example, Wellocks is our fruit and veg supplier, and they can ship all around the country for us. Our baker also drives all over the UK, through the night up to Aberdeen and Dundee.
“It is important that our venues, like Dundee, are not penalised for their location. So when I source a product I make sure that the supplier can offer it to the whole group.”
With a focus on quality and brand consistency, there is a lot of importance placed on chefs delivering dishes befitting of the brand Woodward knows that with the skills shortage in the cheffing profession, internal training is going to be vital.
“If I see that one hotel has got an issue with a certain dish then I will conduct a training session on that dish,” he says. “It is about working with a team in the kitchen, because that is where you see if a chef has missed a part of a dish or perhaps not understood it properly.
“We also look for high quality products. So, we, the chefs, don’t have to add much to them. Sourcing good products means we have to do less to them.”
Woodward is a great advocate of hands-on training and the Malmaison Chef Academy offers young chefs the chance to work and train directly under him, with eight selected chefs going through the fundamental elements of the kitchen across four modules before a final skills assessment.
“I am really looking forward to helping young and fresh talent… it’s exactly how I became a chef. I can’t stress this enough – you can’t work out of a book, the industry is about experience.”
CHEZ MAL SAMPLE MENU
French onion soup, Gruyère and Parmesan topping
Spiced Asian prawn and crayfish cocktail
- Yorkshire Dales lamb shank, braised in Tempranillo wine, root vegetables and baby shallots
- Chez Mal smoked haddock fishcake, spinach, poached Cotswold brown egg and grain mustard sauce
- Seared Cornish scallop and crab risotto, Carnaroli rice, white crab meat, bisque, scallop and lemon butter
- Carpaccio of lightly pickled Heritage beetroot, roast baby beets, pickled mushrooms, fried garlic crisps, watercress and black truffle dressing
- Black Angus 150-day-aged, grain-fed fillet steak 200g, very tender, lightly marbled, lean
- Ribeye steak 300g, central eye of well marbled fat, retains all its juices
- Chez Mal burger, Ayrshire bacon and Gruyère cheese, pommes frites and burger relish
- Louisiana burger, buttermilk fried chicken, lettuce, tomato, chipotle slaw, peanut butter sauce and pommes frites
- Valrhona chocolate fondant, mint choc chip ice cream, caramelised pistachio and peppermint tea syrup
- Blackberry and cherry sundae, cherry ripple ice cream, blackberry mousse and shortbread biscuit
- Affogato, a shot of hot espresso and two scoops of vanilla ice cream – add Pedro Ximénez, Baileys or Amaretto