Restaurant benefits from European food trip
Nicole Clarke and Ravone Butterfield couldn't believe it when they were offered a free trip to Europe.
All they had to do in return was eat and drink whatever was put before them.
The good fortune was courtesy of their employer, Fairmont Southampton. With their boss David Ansted, the women travelled through Spain, Italy and Monaco to source ideas for a new restaurant at the hotel.
Mediterra opened last month. As its name implies, the menu is completely Mediterranean, filled with tapas and dishes designed to be shared.
“I was speechless,” said Ms Clarke of her reaction to January's invitation. “Definitely excited.”
The co-workers tried “hundreds of varieties of delicious cuisine”, driving 1,500 miles across Europe to do it.
“We ate morning noon and night and twice in between,” laughed Ms Butterfield. “The only bad thing about the trip was the weight I gained. And no, I'm not going to disclose that information.”
Deadpanned Mr Ansted: “It was really hard. We were literally eating and drinking constantly.”
The executive chef was behind the wheel for most of the trip.
“I did most of the driving while Thomas Houston navigated — GPS is a life-saver,” he said. “The roads in Europe certainly present unique challenges; one can quickly get stuck in a maze of one-way roads for hours if you are not careful. However, the highways are for the brave of heart. People drive very fast and you really need to be fully concentrating on the road at all times. Unfortunately, I did not get to enjoy the scenery too much while driving but it was exciting.”
The plan was to search for simple foods that would offer a “unique” experience to customers. For that reason, the hotel decided not to open an on-site Italian restaurant to replace Bacci, an eatery they were closing.
“We didn't just want a cookie-cutter concept,” Mr Ansted said. “Italian is a popular food that everybody knows, but we wanted to do something really unique. At first we thought Spanish or Portuguese, but after we talked, we thought it might be a little too confining, so we decided on Mediterranean [dishes], which gives us a massive reach with all the cultures there.”
He flew into Madrid with Ms Clarke, Mediterra's second cook, and Ms Butterfield, the restaurant's main bartender. They dined in pastry shops and Michelin-starred restaurants and were served paella cooked over an open fire in a private home and enjoyed a traditional meal at a ranch house where they learnt how to harvest leeks.
“We were very fortunate to have people offering us guidance along the way,” Mr Ansted said. “In Madrid, a friend invited us to her house to try authentic Spanish paella. In Barcelona, a friend organised almost three entire days of eating and travelling for our group. When we were in Genoa, the hotel concierge suggested a great little restaurant within walking distance from the hotel. Outside of Barcelona, we had lunch one day at a 15th-century farmhouse and we had dinner one night at Michelin-starred Can Jubany.”
From Spain, the trio flew to Rome, Italy, eating at seafood shops as they drove along the coast to Genoa.
“We went to a wonderful restaurant that was almost next to a gas station,” said Mr Ansted. “It was at this time we really started to talk about how we were going to bring it all back to Bermuda; what we were bringing back to Bermuda. We wanted it to be more than just putting a product on a plate; there was this incredible pride they had and this hospitable attitude.”
Their next stop was the five-star Fairmont Monte Carlo before they journeyed back to Italy via France.
“We would stop at little stores and vineyards to get an understanding of the areas,” Mr Ansted said. “Most of the products we had there weren't overly complicated; they were things we felt Bermudians and our hotel customers would want. But more than that was the experience, this happiness. We talked about, ‘What do they have that Bermuda doesn't? Why can't we do something like that here?'
We wanted the ambience they had so that people would not feel like they were in a hotel, but eating in someone's home. We wanted food that was not overly complicated, and to have servers walking you through this wonderful experience.”
Ms Clarke and Ms Butterfield both joined Fairmont about three years ago.
“I originally started with hospitality and tourism management,” Ms Clarke said. “As part of my degree I had to take culinary classes and I realised I really liked that side of the business as opposed to the front of the house.”
She left her studies in 2007. At a part-time job, she fell in love with pastry.
“I like sweets,” she said. “And I don't really like the service side of the kitchen. It's exciting for some people, but I prefer to do more preparation. Being that we're in Bermuda, I also liked dealing with tourists and that every day would be different. I started it as a second job and really liked it, so decided to pursue it further.”
She enrolled in culinary school, Le Cordon Bleu Ottawa Culinary Arts Institute. Two years later, she found full-time work at Fairmont.
Ms Butterfield wanted a career in fashion before she fell in love with bartending.
She joined Fairmont and got her bartenders' licence, eventually working at the former Newport Gastropub, now Mediterra.
“Newport was more of a gastropub. [Mediterra has a] completely different bar menu,” she said. “In the Mediterranean, they use a lot of herbs. So our cocktails use a lot of rosemary, basil, and gin. The maître'd and I came up with a cocktail list of about 20 different drinks.”
On offer are dishes from France, Italy, Greece, Turkey, Morocco and Spain.
“We engineered the menu in a way that would make it difficult for people to come in and get a typical starter, a main course all by themselves,” Mr Ansted said.
“There are platters with little tapas, four or five varieties; the main courses, most of which are larger, are protein for the most part and you choose the side dishes which go into the centre of the table.
“Bermudians and Americans are somewhat conservative in their view of food. We want them to try some of our new things — sardines, octopus, anchovies, things they might not normally get as appetisers because they might not want them as a whole dish.
We think they will like them and that's where the shared communal experience comes in, talking to people around the table: ‘Hey, what do you think?'
We're not just putting food on a plate, but bringing people together through food and the experience.”
Mediterra is open nightly from 6pm until 9.30pm. Reservations can be made on 238-8000 or www.opentable.com