Catering Scotland

It’s Time For A Grand Renaissance

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It’s Time For A Grand Renaissance

October 21
20:07 2013
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Twenty million pounds buys a lot of expertise and equipment these days, in spite of inflation and Britain’s current economic predicament. Having stripped the hotel back to basics in 2009, the team of architects, consultants, designers and labourers set about redesigning and rebuilding the interior of one of Scotland’s most iconic structures.<p>As newly installed general manager, Laurie Nicol played an integral part in the planning and execution of every step of the process, and has been keen to make a start on marketing it – as much for herself and her team – as for future guests: ‘There’s a natural interest in the building, and people were desperate to see it open again,’ she explains. ‘Many Glaswegians can clearly remember the Central Hotel as it was, and I’m sure anyone who had been in it before will recall how much potential it had back then.<p>‘The architects and designers bore this in mind when they embarked on the refurbishment, and they have rebuilt the interior in a way that respects its heritage while adding modern touches that will make it appeal to travellers from all walks of life.’ <p>Starting her career as banqueting supervisor at Glasgow’s Moat House International in 1990, Laurie worked her way up the ladder before joining Hilton Hotels a decade later as Area Sales Manager in Aberdeen. After 11 years with the company, eventually becoming Director of Business Development for the Hilton’s Glasgow hotels, she joined the Grand Central in January and has hit the ground running: ‘We had to work very closely with interior designers, architects and Historic Scotland to preserve the hotel’s original features,’ she explains. ‘The Italian marble floors and ornate cornicing have all been preserved, and the ceiling in the grand ballroom underwent something of a rebirth as a set of windows that had been blocked for decades were uncovered, raising the height of the room by three metres.’ <p>Charles Leon, of Charles Leon Associates, who oversaw the design process, was careful to remain sympathetic to the building’s existing form: ‘We sought to design a hotel that’s fit for today’s lifestyles, while respecting the existing character,’ he says. ‘This process alone unearthed its own set of surprises and revealed many period features that had been lost over the decades. ‘As well as the second set of windows which have been hidden for the past 30 years, we also uncovered and restored the Caledonian Railway Station’s Crest of Arms above the feature fireplace. <p>‘Through diligent restoration work we’ve been able to keep the romance of the hotel alive while bringing it up to date with a contemporary look and feel.’ <p>Walking into the 350,000sq ft space today evokes a curious blend of wonderment and anticipation; wonder at the 100+ years of history that percolate through the corridors – not least from the portraits of past guests like Cary Grant, Fred Astaire and Vivien Leigh which adorn the walls. Now incorporating 186 fully refurbished bedrooms, three executive suites and 21 function rooms – all of which have been kitted out with state-of-the-art technology including WiFi and plasma TV screens – the hotel sits in a sort of stark but supremely elegant contrast with the old and the new, the classic and the contemporary.<p>Elsewhere, the hotel boasts the Champagne Central bar on the entresol level which overlooks the concourse of Central Station and Tempus restaurant which, along with the rest of the F&B operations, will be looked after by the inimitable James Murphy [see profile]. <p>Finally, Deli Central, the only in-hotel delicatessen in Glasgow, is due to open later in the year. Laurie herself is well aware of the potential demand for a first-class food offering in the centre of the city: ‘I’ve collaborated with James in the past, we know each other well and we’re keen to put the Grand Central’s food offering back on the map’ she says. Indeed, it would appear they’re well on their way: Despite only having opened in September this year, the hotel has already hosted 25 events and they have pipeline of business totalling almost £1m on the books for the year ahead. ‘The suites have been named after people who made a lasting impression on this place,’ adds Laurie: John Logie Baird transmitted the first long-distance TV images from the hotel in 1927, Robert Rowand Anderson was the Scottish architect who designed the hotel along with Central Station in 1876, and John F Kennedy who stayed at the hotel over the years have all left their mark in more ways than one.’<p>And that pretty much sums up the aura of this most auspicious of buildings; on the one hand it’s a towering architectural tour de force that’s steeped in history, glamour and mystique; an elegant and enduring legacy of a bygone era. On the other, it’s a triumph of restoration and contemporary interior design, unequalled facilities and state-of-the-art technology. It’s like having one foot in a time machine and the other in the Tardis. As unique selling points go, this contrast alone will make it one of the most sought-after venues in Scotland. <p><b>James Murphy Executive Chef: The Proof’s in the Pudding</b></p>With over three decades’ experience under his toque – including two years as commis chef at the Central Hotel from 1980, and 11 years at the Hilton Glasgow – James is arguably one of the country’s most experienced and accomplished banqueting chefs. Having studied hospitality management and catering at the former Glasgow College of Food Technology, James went to on to begin his career as a third commis chef under the guidance of Anton Mosimann at the Dorchester in London.<p>Returning to the Grand Central as executive chef after a 30-year absence, James is heading up a brigade of 25 in his kitchen, including Hungarian senior sous chef, Zoltan Szabo: ‘Although we’re responsible for the hotel’s food and beverage outlets – including its restaurant, champagne bar and extensive C&B facilities – it’s not as daunting as I thought it would be,’ says James. ‘It’s not been all that easy, mind you, but coming back here is a lot like seeing an old friend after years apart; you remember everything about them but you also enjoy getting to know them all over again.’<p>As if to illustrate this familiarity, James picks up a fading photo from his desk and looks at it wistfully: ‘That was the fourth of September 1979; my first day on the job here. There’s the kitchen team with Stewart Cameron at the front – he was the main man back then – and me on the right. I also have my employment acceptance form from that very day when I started.’ How things have changed since then; the hotel’s exhaustive £20m refurbishment is close to completion, its 186 opulent rooms have been stripped out and refitted, and James is no longer living on £40 a week.<p>However, despite his familiarity with the place, he says that the refurbishment of the F&B areas was far more complicated than he or anyone else could have envisaged: ‘The logistics of kitting out the new kitchens tested everyone’s skills, foresight and patience to the limit,’ he explains. ‘We had innumerable issues with the heavy equipment, mainly because it’s a Grade A listed building and there were various rules and regulations about what we could and couldn’t do with regard to knocking down walls or removing windows.’<p>You can understand his point: The sheer length of the main corridor is a sight in itself: ‘The old-fashioned dimensions made the act of manoeuvring the cookers and worktops much harder than we had anticipated but we got it done and achieved the desired result in the end.’ And what a result: James’s ‘patch’ comprises two restaurant kitchens – one for Champagne Central and a larger one for Tempus – both of which have been fitted out with the latest technological advances in kitchen equipment.<p>The latter also has its own wood-burning oven which, according to James, was a ‘living nightmare’ to get into the building, and yet now suits perfectly the character of the hotel: ‘At times we actually thought we weren’t going to get that oven in at all but as with everything in this place it’s been an absolute labour of love and we triumphed in the end.<p>‘Now we have a genuine wood-burning oven that will cook a lobster to perfection in four minutes flat. That’s what it’s all about!’ Despite his enthusiasm, however, the jewels in James’s crown are his beloved banqueting facilities, which have also benefitted from a thorough clear-out and comprehensive refit. The ‘toys’ he now has at his disposal would make any chef wide-eyed with envy: Induction hobs, water baths, grills, stoves, Self-Cooking Centers – they’re all in there. Not that any of this kit is indulgent, though. Indeed, it’s all absolutely necessary to help James and his kitchen team run the Grand Central’s vast, high-pressure banqueting capabilities. When we spoke, he was in the middle of a week that had already seen 95 for lunch that afternoon, 55 for dinner that evening, 18 VIPs the day before, 38 for canapes the following day and a further 300 for dinner again on the Friday. And that’s just the corporate business; daily breakfast, lunches and dinners are all in addition. James reckons they’ve got bookings in the schedule for a total of around 5,000 covers in the three weeks from 2nd to 22nd of December alone; not bad for a hotel which only opened at the end of the summer.<p>As ever, his suppliers take centre stage and are as important as the dishes he creates: ‘I’ve spent a lot of time visiting the country’s best farmers’ markets to source the best produce, and we’ve teamed up with a host of specialist companies who’ll supply us with Scotch meat, local cheeses, fresh fish, breads and rolls, and even Arran dairies for our own bespoke and unique Grand Central ice cream,’ he explains. ‘We had our trials in the beginning but now we’ve settled on the suppliers we want to use, they’ve been great and they are an integral part of what we’re trying to do here. At the end of the day, it’s all about the food.’<p>Despite the constant battle between challenge and solution, James and his team are pragmatic about the job that lies ahead of them: ‘With all its history and heritage, the Grand Central is easily the most recognised and romantic hotel in this city. We want to grasp that heritage and take this place forward to make it greater than it ever was in the past. We know we’ve got a lot of work to do and no one had envisaged needing this many people or resources but I also never thought it’d be as exciting as it has been.<p>‘One day soon we’ll be the best hotel in Glasgow once again, and in Scotland too.’ Watching James working away in his kingdom, quietly advising his army of chefs and commanding respect and reverence in equal measure, you get the distinct feeling that if anyone can restore the Grand Central to its former foodie glory, he can.<p>This article has been edited from its original version. For the complete feature, please see Catering in Scotland magazine November/December 2010

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When Principal Hayley Group bought the former Central Hotel last year, it signalled the start of a new era for the Glasgow institution. Built above the city’s Central train station in 1883 and extended some 30 years later, the Central, as it was then known, was the city’s foremost destination for businessmen, film stars and dignitaries, and for the next 100 years it enjoyed an almost ethereal reputation amongst the great and the good of society.

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