Interview: Paul J. Fiala, Vice President, Food & Beverage Americas, Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts
By: Mike Raven, in the Mix Managing Editor | June 20th, 2019
in the Mix Managing Editor, Mike Raven, tracked down Paul Fiala for an interview, which was no easy task considering Paul’s responsibilities and time availability. We hope this gives you an insight into the managing of this chain of gorgeous hotels and resorts.
Mike: You are currently working on the chic Four Seasons Hotel Montreal and the cover shot was taken in the Marcus Lounge and Bar. Describe this fabulous space for us, as well as the Marcus Restaurant.
Paul: Four Seasons Montreal is a perfect example of how we are creating the finest destination restaurants and bars. Our hotel has an entire floor plan activated through food and beverage with a lounge, several bars, a restaurant and a terrace that is enclosable. Montreal is a proud city that has many, many great restaurants and bars — it’s a food city. When we were doing our market research, it wasn’t lost on us that many of the better restaurants were still jamming at 10, 11 and later into the evening. To create a concept that would be a welcomed addition by Montrealers, we approached this project with what I call the perfect trifecta of ingredients: the owner’s dream of creating the most popular social hub in the city, Marcus Samulesson’s vision of bringing that dream to life, and our Four Seasons approach to hospitality.
The guest journey is part of the experience. Guests arrive into what we call the Social Square, which is our lounge. As the day-parts change, so does the atmosphere, from sexy and light early on, to louder, moodier and seductress in the evening when the music starts pumping. The Social Square leads into the Marcus restaurant where our chefs are featured in an enormous open kitchen. There is not a seat in the dining room where you cannot see the food being prepared for you — quite an accomplishment for a 150-seat restaurant. From there, the terrace welcomes you with it’s own bar and DJ / live music stage. Wine is a critical component to the Marcus concept so we created a sommelier station at the entrance to Marcus. This is not a wine display; this is an active, working som station where wines are decanted and sampled for guests. It’s quite an operation!
Our bartenders, chefs, musicians/DJs and wait staff are always on stage. It’s one gigantic performance that kicks off early in the morning and stays alive through 3 a.m. It’s a combined 300-seat behemoth that is active almost 20 hours a day with different styles of programming, lighting, music, menus and a design that ties it all together. What we are seeing is guests floating through the different spaces and staying for hours. I love watching a project come to life and the most rewarding part is our guests are enjoying themselves and returning.
Mike: I see you obtained a Master of Management in Hospitality from Cornell University — top notch training. What was your early culinary career like?
Paul: Mike, I feel like I was extremely lucky in my early culinary career. I was able to work with top chefs who were willing to mentor me. The very first chef I worked with was Michael Mina; this was before Michael had the tremendous success that he has today. I also worked with Leslie Revsin, who was the first female chef at the Waldorf Astoria. Her style of cooking is still the biggest influence on me today. She believed in simple preparations that were executed in very precise ways. At the time, it was counter to every culinary trend that was happening, where all food was going vertical and was very architectural. But in retrospect, her food is very in tune with trends that we are seeing today — true to origin, earthy, vegetable-based and honest cuisine. I remember the relationships that we had with local farmers and foragers. We worked with this one woman, Rachel, who would come into the kitchen right out of the woods with her backpack full of wild herbs, grasses or mushrooms — whatever she could find that day — and the dirt was still on her hands.
Those early days of my career set me up perfectly for when it was time for me to take the reins of the kitchen. Our first review was from the The New York Times and we earned three stars. I think back on that and realize how young I was when that all happened and how lucky I was as well. We had a great team and very supportive owners. But that success got me to think about what was next and what I really wanted out of my career. I mean I loved to cook and was good at it, but I also wanted to do other things. I am glad that I made the call when I did to begin looking outside the kitchen at other options, and that’s what brought me to Cornell and set me on the path that ultimately landed me at Four Seasons.
Mike: Tell us about your breadth of responsibilities in the Americas.
Paul: I support our food and beverage teams across the continent, from menu development to talent identification and beverage strategy. Four Seasons’ focus over the past two years has been to amp up our restaurants and bars. We have graded and prioritized all of our hotels in terms of which hotels and resorts require restaurant and bar renovations. We see our restaurants and bars as the gateway to the Four Seasons experience for many, especially for the communities that surround our hotels. When you think about it, not all of the people that live around our hotels have many occasions to stay with us in our rooms, but all should want and be able to dine and drink or just hang with us in our R&Bs.
Also, our guests spend the majority of their time in our hotels interacting with our F&B and those interactions need to be stellar. So I am focused on creating amazing R&B experiences, which really calls on my roots of when I was in the stand-alone restaurant industry. We are engaging the best restaurant and bar designers in the world, and we are partnering with the best restaurant and bar talent. So I spend about half my time focused on developing R&B projects.
Mike: I assume you travel a lot — not that we feel sorry for you staying in these resorts! Give us an idea of your schedule.
Paul: Our approach to either a renovation or a new development is very hands-on. We sweat every detail. That generally means we need to be on site, not just doing the planning from an office. I do travel extensively. This year, we are opening five hotels in the Americas, from Montreal to Cabos, to Napa, to Boston and to Philadelphia — that’s a lot of ground to cover. This week, I have been in Dallas, Toronto and Montreal. And in between those cities, I make sure I stop into home. I’ll build trips that take me through New York City so that I can spend as much time with my family as possible. It’s a tough schedule, but when you’re creating such amazing projects and working with such talented people every day, it makes it easier. But none of that works unless you have family support. You truly need to love what you do but then again, as you said, no one I know feels sorry for me as I get to stay in the most amazing hotels in the world.
Mike: How does IMI Agency assist you in your realm of responsibilities?
Paul: As we just discussed, I am time challenged. Beverage is critically important to us as a company and to our guests; I need “best in class” support to execute on our strategies and programs. I began working with IMI back during my Starwood days. When I came to Four Seasons, I was thrilled to see that we had chosen to partner with IMI because I know what IMI is capable of and the lengths they go to, to create victories. At the end of the day, it comes down to people and Patrick is amazing. He understands what we are attempting to do as a company and works tremendously hard to make sure we’re successful. I can’t ask for more.
Mike: Hotel restaurants and bars have become destinations again, like in the old glamour days, an invaluable asset to the property. What is the importance of their relationship to the Four Seasons Hotel and the community?
Paul: It’s really been a journey for hotel restaurants and bars — they have gone from passé to priority. I think there are several things driving this but the main cause is the increasing cost of real estate. Let’s face it: Prime stand-alone restaurant space also makes for good prime retail space and landlords can get a better return on retail, which is driving up the real estate costs, so chefs have begun to look at hotels again as viable options. Great chefs creating great restaurants draw crowds and our savvy hotel owners understand the value of having buzzy restaurants and bars to the overall success of a hotel product. We have come full circle now where customers don’t necessarily see hotel restaurants of the past — they see great restaurants that are situated in hotels. Four Seasons has been on the leading edge of this curve and as you look at either our new development projects or our renovated hotels, you see that we are creating true destination restaurants and bars.
Mike: Your bars and lounges in the hotels are amazing. Every one of them has their own flare and style, from the elegant Ty Bar in New York to the spirited, sassy slope-side Handle Bar in Jackson Hole. Talk to us about the role your bars and lounges play in your hotels.
Paul: We look at restaurants, lounges and bars as very different types of operations, serving different purposes. From concept to design to how we operate them, they are very different. Our lounges serve as social anchors for guests and the local community to entertain, work, eat and drink. They are social, flexible and relaxed. There is also the strongest relationship between our lounges and our hotels from both a proximity and a branding perspective. Our bars are very distinct from our hotels in that they have a very different feel — their design is sophisticated and playful. Our bars are a modern showcase for beverage artistry. When we begin a bar project, we seek bar designers that can create memorable experiences to ensure that our bars maintain a very separate identity from our hotels.
Mike: What was the evolution and inspiration for these great bars and restaurants?
Paul: I don’t think anyone would argue that our hotels are known as the best in the world for service and quality. When we evaluated our restaurants and bars, we realized that the product quality ran the gamut from legendary to legacy. Across our industry, bars and lounges have evolved from what used to be waiting areas, where guests would stop for a drink on their way to their final destination, to becoming the destination. As an organization, Four Seasons is very attuned to knowing when we need to evolve and stay ahead of the curve. Thus, our goal is to make every aspect of our guest experience — our room product, our restaurants, our lounges and our bars — fabulous, memorable and quite frankly, the best. But change is difficult and refocusing an organization on providing the ultimate in R&B experiences requires a lot of work, not only internally but also in convincing our owners to spend the required capital. However, setting a vision and getting a team excited about executing on that vision is something that I love doing. The most satisfying aspect is seeing the results speak for themselves, and we are seeing those results now.
Mike: Finally, do you have any words of advice for ambitious hotel food and beverage upstarts who would love to aspire to your role?
Paul: I wake up every day thankful for the opportunity to do what I do. When I speak to students, I remind them that no two paths are the same and I speak to them about the following qualities: Be humble, be passionate and be laser-focused on excellence. Hard work is not enough in our industry — everyone in the hospitality industry works hard — it really comes down to knowing what “great” looks like and the steps required to get you there. The other powerful message that a mentor once spoke to me about was not being afraid to fail, but more importantly, to fail forward.