Recipe for a hotel signature dish

Lately I’ve noticed a lot of talk about signatures dishes. For me, the perfect recipe comes down to 10 basic ingredients:

1. Popularity

A signature dish must be a best seller! Not because the chef, maître d’ or GM thinks so, but because guests frequently order it as the “must have” dish — in short, the capture rate of that dish.

2. A story

A good story behind the dish is another key success factor. Even before the tasting, guests want to know the origins or anecdotes on how a dish was created and why.

The Sacher-Torte, one of the most famous cakes in the world, is the perfect example. The story: statesman Prince Metternich was hosting a dinner party and needed a dessert for his guests, but his chef was ill. Instead, the 16-year-old chef’s apprentice, Franz Sacher, was given the task. His Sacher-Torte — a soft, fluffy chocolate cake with apricot jam beneath the icing — became an instant success. After he completed his apprenticeship, Sacher continued to make his cake, and in 1876, Franz’s son Eduard opened the Sacher Hotel in Vienna. As they say, the rest is history.

3. Unique presentation or service

The signature dish is not limited to the plate but also to the way it’s served and presented.

Guests who order the pressed duck at Tour d’Argent in Paris receive a postcard with the bird’s serial number, now well over 1 million.

4. Singular in a hotel with multiple outlets

In a hotel with multiple outlets, each restaurant can have its own signature dish, but the signature dish of the hotel is, I believe, singular and should transcend the seasons.

The lobster bisque at the Atlantic Hotel in Hamburg, Germany, was created by Franz Pfordte back in 1909 when he became the maître d’ at the hotel. Now, more than a hundred years later, the lobster bisque remains a staple on the menu at the a-la-carte restaurant.

5. Sense of place

A signature dish should reflect the location. Obviously, if the restaurant is part of a chain, the signature dish will be related to the restaurant rather than the location. But in a group with several hotels, I would expect the dish to reflect the local rituals, history or ingredients available at each individual hotel. 

6. First recommendation by the maître d’

If a guest doesn’t know what the signature dish is, it should be the first and logical recommendation by the maître d’ making it appealing for the diner.

7. Strong ambition

The signature dish should be what compels a local guest or visitor to drive across town to taste this dish!

8. Quality and consistency

Quality and consistency of the recipe and the presentation are crucial and need to stand the test of time.

For example the black cod with miso at any Nobu restaurant in the world has to be consistent. This dish is clearly associated with Nobu Matsuhisa, and a lack of quality would not be accepted.

9. The name

A fitting name is part of the success. Ispahan from Pastry Chef Pierre Hermé is a unique name that contributes to the legend and its signature status.

The same principle applies when the signature dish is attached to a hotel. The famous Waldorf Salad created in the late 1890s is still served today at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York City.

10. Timelessness

Typically, a signature dish can be identified with a chef. However, in a hotel, I believe a signature dish should be connected to the hotel or restaurant even after its creator has left.

Frog legs with garlic puree by Chef Loiseau are irretrievably linked to Relais Bernard Loiseau even after the chef passed away.

Kempinski takes the signature dish culture very seriously. To demonstrate this, more than 70 general managers recently flew to Munich to cook their own hotel’s signature dish. The GMs brought ingredients, plates and decorative elements from all over the world, and for those who never worked in a kitchen, the preparation was quite intensive. The event was organized to demonstrate that each GM “walks the talk” and knows what their signature dish is and why.

Together with the president, COO and SVP operations of the company, we tasted more than 70 dishes in three hours. I was committed to try every single one — from the Tugra Testi Kebab to the curry sausage, from Hainan chicken rice to Bubur Ayam chicken porridge. This was probably the craziest and most intensive degustation of my life, but it was also simply unforgettable.

Do you have a signature dish?