With 15 years’ experience in luxury hospitality, Thomas Kochs is right man to take one of London’s finest hotels, Café Royal, up to the next level – including the opening of the capital’s first ever dessert restaurant
WORDS Mark Kebble
It’s chaos around Piccadilly Circus. The tourists are out in their droves, spurred on no doubt by some splendid early spring weather, and the pigeons have come to the party as a result. Taxis toot their horns as said tourists attempt to cross the busy roads, and a rather sinister looking street performer dressed up as Death himself means you can add a few shrieks to the cacophony of sound – which makes the feeling of calm as you enter Café Royal all the more remarkable.
It’s something Thomas Kochs is growing accustomed to himself, with the Café Royal Managing Director being in post for just three weeks at the time of our meeting. ‘When you walk through the doors at Café Royal you feel that you are walking into an important place,’ he smiles. ‘It has been around in London for a long time and that’s the fascinating element about Café Royal – yes it has been here for 150 years, but in its current existence [as a hotel] it has only been here for three years.’
The excitement in his voice palpable, as if Kochs is starting out on his journey rather than entering the 16th year of a successful career in London’s luxury hospitality industry. He first came to London at the start of the 21st century working at Park Hyatt, now the Jumeirah Carlton Tower, going on to work with the Maybourne Hotel Group for 15 years, which included roles at the Berkeley, Connaught and most recently as General Manager at Claridge’s.
Kochs fits the part of overseeing these grand dames of London’s hotel scene perfectly. Tall, charming and impeccably dressed, I can imagine him dealing with demanding visitors effortlessly. ‘Demanding?’ he questions my use of the word. ‘I have a slightly different view on this. If you have a can do attitude, then demanding becomes much less demanding.
‘I know what you are suggesting – of course, the traveller has become more knowledgeable and London is a city people return to time and time again, so when you return you almost have to rediscover something you already know because otherwise your visits become repetitive. There’s the challenge for us. There is the person on their 20th visit to Café Royal, smiling at you and asking what’s new, and we have to have the answer. We want to give people a reason to come back.’
After nigh on six years at Claridge’s, does he see the role at Café Royal as being a very different proposition? ‘That’s not an easy question to answer,’ he considers. ‘By definition every role will be different because you are working with people. We have just over 400 team members here, at Claridge’s there are just under 500, so there are already all these different people.
‘Then you are working with guests – people, working with the owners – people, working with suppliers – people… All these people in your network will make your job very different. The two hotels are at different stages of their journey. Claridge’s is one of the most, if not the most, established hotels in London, so there you have the challenge to keep it relevant and current. This hotel is three-years-old – we know how to walk, so now let’s run!’
The respect with which the building has been treated, but also the intention to create something sustainable and glamorous and timeless is clear. There is a lot of opportunity to have fun in this hotel – there are lots of bars and restaurants
Café Royal is part of The Set hotel collection, which also runs the Conservatorium in Amsterdam and the Lutetia in Paris. From those three, their policy is clear: stunning, historical buildings in the perfect location, boasting five-star luxury. Asking Kochs what they have so far got very right in the running of Café Royal, and he seems prepared to take my notepad off me and scribble away.
‘The list is long!’ he exclaims. ‘The commitment to creating something very beautiful is visible in every corner of the hotel. The respect with which the building has been treated, but also the intention to create something sustainable and glamorous and timeless is clear. There is a lot of opportunity to have fun in this hotel – there are lots of bars and restaurants, which is fantastic.’
The latter, in particular, stood out during his tenure at Claridge’s, overseeing the opening of Fera with the chef Simon Rogan. ‘The days when hoteliers would regard the food and beverage operation as a support division are long gone,’ Kochs states.
‘People want experiences these days. Through your restaurants and bars you can develop your tone, your style and you can really put an individuality on your hotel that you perhaps can not express to the same extent in a room. I want our chef portfolio to be the most interesting offering for London, which you can see in partnerships with Sarah Barber, the pastry chef [behind their dessert restaurant]. She is a dangerous woman – her desserts are just too good!’
Sarah Barber, the pastry chef, is a dangerous woman – her desserts are just too good
The dessert restaurant’s themed tasting experiences are all served with optional wine pairing to conclude a dinner or to celebrate a special occasion (each tasting experience includes a range of savoury bites to prepare the palate for the sweet stuff). The menus, including Sarah in Wonderland and Childhood Memories highlight Sarah’s creative skill, imagination and childhood nostalgia. Incidentally, her grandfather was a Head Chef at Café Royal.
Kochs is no doubt that London is now a global leader when it comes to culture and he has the determination to take things even higher up the scale with Café Royal. ‘I always look at a job change as a new chapter,’ he says, straightening his tie in preparation for our photo shoot. ‘Life for me is a book and if there was only one chapter, what a boring book! After finishing the chapter at Claridge’s, you want to have a new challenge and environment where you can have a different impact. That’s what I have at Café Royal.’