An important ingredient of the UK hospitality industry’s success has been relatively little interference from government, writes Derek Taylor OBE FIH. Brexit could change that.
Italo Zangiacomi was the manager of the Piccadilly Hotel in London. Hector Zavatoni was the banqueting manager at the Savoy. Cesare Maggi was the restaurant manager at the Ritz. They were among the 470 Italians who died when the Arandora Star, taking them to internment in Canada in July 1940, was torpedoed in the Atlantic.
The cream of the British hotel industry perished in that disaster 77 years ago; eight hundred and sixty five in all lost their lives and only thirteen bodies have ever been recovered. There is an annual mass at St. Peter’s Italian Church in Clerkenwell every July to remember the calamity and in 2010 a memorial cloister garden was opened at St. Andrews Roman Catholic Church in Glasgow. There are other memorials too.
Italy was an Axis power, but even so, the reputation of their hotel and restaurant staff was so good that top banqueting managers in the 1960s were still expected to be Italian. When the Welshman, Bryan Evans, was appointed banqueting manager at the Savoy, the chair of the company and future Lord Mayor of London, Sir Hugh Wontner, insisted that he be known as Evangelo Brioni.
We owe a great deal to a large number of foreigners who embellished our industry. We certainly don’t want the government to now inflict some petty chauvinist restriction on our great multi-cultural hotel and restaurant world. We want to take anybody from anywhere who can do the job well.
You’ve seen ice work, butter work and sugar work. Who invented it? George IV’s chef, Marie-Antoine Carême, can take a lot of the credit. Carême came over from France after Waterloo and set standards never seen before. We have great traditions as an international industry. It is right to remember another Frenchman, Alexis Soyer, from the Reform Club, who died in the Crimea feeding the troops in the War against Russia. Or where would we have got à la carte from, if Auguste Escoffier hadn’t come up with the idea with Cesar Ritz at the Carlton. The language in top kitchens in 1945 was still French. Bedroom lighting owes a great deal to Ritz. In fairness, excellent British hotel marketing was home-grown.
Ever since the Second World War, the hotel and restaurant industry in this country has steadily progressed. At exactly the same time traditional industries – ship building, coal mining, steel manufacturing – have gone down the drain. So to what can we attribute our success? Well, almost total neglect by successive governments has been an enormous help. Admittedly, they picked us out for special taxation in the 1960s because we weren’t making anything. Agreed, they nearly bankrupted us with the Grant Scheme in the early 1970s, but overall they have let us get on with it and we have flourished. Now they are threatening to interfere again.
There is a question mark over whether we should welcome overseas immigrants after Brexit.
Well, let me tell you one thing. If you were going to deport everybody with a foreign ancestor from this country, there’d be hardly anybody left. The Britons were shoved out of the East side of the country by the Anglo-Saxons in the 8th century. You’ll still find some in Cornwall, but not in Devon.
We are all foreigners – Romans, Anglo-Saxons, Normans, Flemings, Huguenots, Poles and many others. Only the Vikings went home. Immigrants are usually the pick of the crop. Even the prime minister’s family benefited from being allowed to emigrate. In the 16th century, her ancestor, John Spooner, emigrated to Holland and died there.
Bring it up to date. Only 50 years ago we weren’t in the Common Market and the British hotel world was desperate for staff. Brian Worthington, one of our best human resources directors, went down on his knees at the Home Office and begged them to let him bring in the staff we needed from – the Phillipines. Having assured themselves that our natives wouldn’t work in the industry, the Home Office acquiesced.
It’s no use people saying that if the people from overseas are shut out the British will do the jobs. The only way in which the industry has kept up its standards of service is by recruiting from everywhere. Because of international influences, we are better cooks – we get Michelin stars now – and better managers. Admittedly, we are brilliant entrepreneurs, housekeepers, hall porters and barmen. We have one problem; how many parents hope that when their children grow up, they will be restaurant managers and chefs? They do in Switzerland, Italy and France.
I once asked Lord Forte, a great hotelier, why the British didn’t cook as well as the continentals. He explained: “It’s not part of the culture. In Britain we – we garden.” And so we do – better than anybody else in the world. We also cook pretty well now – but foreigners laid down the ground rules and there is more we can do to improve many aspects of our business.
Dear Mrs. May, you have a whole string of problems at the moment. Why don’t you continue to let us get on with it. Our damp island is fifth in the world tourist rankings. We do a lot better than the football team. Please continue the traditional government policy of leaving us alone.