Putting on the Ritz: Backstage at Cayman's busiest hotel at Christmas

For chef Lucas Julien-Vauzelle Christmas Day begins at 5 a.m. as the first batch of turkeys go into the oven in the vast kitchen of The Ritz-Carlton, Grand Cayman hotel’s banquet hall. 

By the time he clocks off, close to midnight, an estimated 3,000 people will have been served with Christmas meals across the resort. 

“I like to come in when the day is just beginning and get that Christmas feeling” says the 30-year-old Frenchman, head chef in the banquet kitchen. 

“I try to stay through to the end. It is very important to be in the kitchen and feel tired with my guys.” 

For the staff at The Ritz-Carlton, the Christmas feeling means something different than to most people. 

It’s the single busiest day of the year at the hotel. Friends, family and gifts under the tree will have to wait for another day. 

The hotel’s Christmas brunch, despite an eye-opening $150-a-head price tag, has been sold out for a month and expectations are high. 

It is not just about the food, acknowledges executive chef Frederic Morineau. 

“I think The Ritz-Carlton has been able to establish itself as the place for a celebration like this,” said Mr. Morineau. “People spend that price because they know this is where they get that holiday feeling.” 

The Christmas magic they aim to create does not happen by accident. It is painstakingly put together in the weeks leading up to the big day. 

Teams of chefs, pastry specialists, servers, florists, floor managers, display artists and audio visual experts are responsible for planning and executing every detail. 

There are 550 people booked in for brunch in the banquet hall, 200 more in Seven restaurant. 

That’s a lot of food: 46 turkeys, 10 hams and 25 Peking ducks to be precise. 

“There’s a lot of logistics to take care of. The menus are sorted out six months in advance and we plan everything so there is no pressure on the day,” says Mr. Julien-Vauzelle, who oversees a team of 30 cooks. 

When they are done with Christmas brunch, they will be out on the beach, serving up dinner under the stars to guests in the hotel’s cabanas. 

Rodrigo Bustamante, in his fourth Christmas as a line cook in the kitchen at Seven, knows the drill by now. 

“This is the holidays to me. When you work as a chef, you don’t expect the normal Christmas life,” said the 25-year-old from Peru. 

“Gathered around the tree, opening presents and singing carols? No, that’s not happening,” he said. “I will say a toast with my friends in the kitchen and then it is back to work.” 

In the run-up to Christmas, no one has put in more hours than The Ritz-Carlton’s pastry chefs. 

A breath-taking lobby display featuring elves, handcrafted from chocolate, amid a wintry backdrop, has meant some seriously late nights and early mornings for executive pastry chef Melissa Logan and her team. 

Each elf takes around 12 hours to make. More than 240 hours of work went into the display. 

It is worth it for the “wow factor,” Ms. Logan said, when the kids realize the entire scene, from the gas lamps to the penguins, is made from chocolate. 

“The staff take enormous pride in their work and the excitement it has generated,” she said. 

“I got to bring my 4-year-old son here when we put it all together and show him why I have been away from home so much and share that magic moment with him.” 

The display, called Santa’s Workshop, took three weeks of extra shifts to put together and was created with 150 pounds of different types of chocolate and icing. 

Now that is done, the next job is to prepare desserts for almost every dinner served in the hotel on Christmas Day. Ms. Logan expects to arrive before 5 a.m. for a long day at the office. “I want to be there with my team at the start of the day and there with them at the end to celebrate our success. 

“Then I want to go home and see my son,” she added. 

The families of hospitality workers are used to a non-traditional holiday season. 

Stanlia Campbell, at work on Christmas Day for the 11th year in a row, celebrated at home with her family in Jamaica last week. 

“For me, Christmas is work, work, work,” said Ms. Campbell as she ushered a pallet of 66 cases of Champagne through the corridors of the hotel’s kitchens this week. 

On average, the guests will drink a bottle of Champagne each on Christmas Day and part of Ms. Campbell’s job is to ensure that everyone’s glass is refreshed. 

She oversees a team of 42 servers in the main banquet hall. As director of banquets, she is also responsible for coordinating with the floral and décor staff and organizing the table layout. 

The set-up work will be done late into the night on Christmas Eve. On the day, her job is mostly trouble-shooting, handling any surprises and making sure the guests are happy. 

In the hotel’s floral department this week, Debra Kettler and Andre Douglas were hard at work assembling the 80 floral displays for the tables at brunch. 

Perhaps their biggest task is already complete. In the 10 days after Thanksgiving, they put up and decorated 26 Christmas trees around the hotel. 

Making the holiday spirit happen is a team effort, says executive chef Mr. Morineau, who celebrated Christmas on a trip to Boston last week with his sons, ages 8 and 13. 

The managers, like the regular workers, will forego the traditional Christmas with their families on Dec. 25. 

“I would feel uncomfortable being at home. The captain has to be there with the ship to show the example,” he said. 

“My job is to bring the spirit together and to make sure everyone is performing at their best and be there also to thank everyone at the end,” he added. 

Pastry chefs Melissa Logan and Michael Toa at the gingerbread house.

Pastry chefs Melissa Logan and Michael Toa at the gingerbread house.

Chef Lucas Julien-Vauzelle hard at work in The Ritz-Carlton kitchen. – PHOTO: MATT LAMERS

Chef Lucas Julien-Vauzelle hard at work in The Ritz-Carlton kitchen. – PHOTO: MATT LAMERS

Chef Lucas Julien-Vauzelle with one of the 25 Peking ducks that will be served up at on Christmas Day.

Chef Lucas Julien-Vauzelle with one of the 25 Peking ducks that will be served up at on Christmas Day.

Rodrigo Bustamante, a line cook in the kitchen at Seven.

Rodrigo Bustamante, a line cook in the kitchen at Seven.

Stanlia Campbell, director of banquets, at The Ritz-Carlton at the ballroom of the hotel, which will be packed with 550 diners on Dec. 25.

Stanlia Campbell, director of banquets, at The Ritz-Carlton at the ballroom of the hotel, which will be packed with 550 diners on Dec. 25.

Debra Kettler and Andre Douglas of the hotel

Debra Kettler and Andre Douglas of the hotel’s floral department work on the arrangements for Christmas.

Kylie Walker

Kylie Walker

Jennifer Dodd serves as the sous chef, overseeing meal preparation and execution. - PHOTOs: MATT LAMERS

Jennifer Dodd serves as the sous chef, overseeing meal preparation and execution. – PHOTOs: MATT LAMERS

Each elf takes around 12 hours to make. - Photo: Submitted

Each elf takes around 12 hours to make. – Photo: Submitted

Michael Toa works on his elf,

Michael Toa works on his elf, “Oliver.”
1
0

NO COMMENTS