A look at how one chef has revolutionized the kitchen in one of Bangkok’s top hotels:Chef Mathew Woolford at Regis Bangkokby Laurence Civil
Chef Mathew Woolford from Sydney Australia brings two decades of experience to his new role as director of culinary at The St Regis Bangkok. He first discovered his passion for the culinary art at the tender age of 17 during his first hotel apprenticeship. Two years later, he won the prestigious “Le Torque Blanc Australian” by Tony Bilson.
Mathew first came to Thailand 13 years ago with Evason Phuket. He then moved to Singapore to open his own stand-alone restaurant, which was where the management of Starwood’s Southeast Asia Regional Office frequently had lunch. The food he served must have impressed them as they offered him the executive chef role at Rayavadee Krabi. Mathew there only for eight months because the management contract was coming to an end, but he recalls it was the most beautiful part of the world he had ever worked.
Although not planned, it became a defining moment in his career. It introduced him to W Hotels. He was responsible for opening the kitchen of W Seoul Waterhill, which was Starwood’s first W Hotel in Asia and then he went to W Koh Samui, which was their first retreat in the region.
“W Hotels produced who I am as a chef,” says Mathew. “It gave me the confidence to challenge the norm and to change the way we look at things.”
In 2010, Mathew joined the ranks of the 15 Executive Chefs at the Starwood F & B Council where he became a Brand Champion for St Regis, W Hotel, Aloft and Le Meridien’s cuisine concept. Ironically, it was in this role that he became involved in the planning of the kitchen at the St Regis Bangkok where he works today. So, when the General Manager, Krister Svenson, invited him to come onboard, he already knew his way around.
In terms of branding, W Hotel and St Regis offer totally different experiences but what links them is luxury. Mathew’s move from the party house of W to the refined mansion of St Regis isn’t as revolutionary as it might first appear. The innovation required was in the thought process, as he had to think outside the box to find a fresh approach to the way things were being done. Having a fresh concept is the start but the next step is to deliver it in a way that is compatible with that brand’s DNA.
His first innovative idea was the new “Lunch with a View” menu at VIU, which captures the taste and texture of each dish through fine ingredients. His “Food from the Heart” philosophy is based on the concept of using interactive cooking stations that bring the culinary theatre to life.
“Today’s guest doesn’t just come to a restaurant to eat,” he says. “In addition to food and drink, they are looking for a dining experience. To meet that expectation, I am trying to get my team of young talented chefs to get more involved and to produce something from their heart. Empower them to do what they want to do and to bring their core passion for their art of cooking to the table. Our chefs are there not just to cook, but to guide our guests through their meal. My biggest challenge is to maintain consistency. We want to encourage guests to ask questions about where the fresh ingredients are purchased and to tell us how to tweak the dishes to match their individual taste preference. I set out some basic guidelines to the culinary team; I leave it to them to experiment on how they deliver each dish to the guests based on their personal interactions.”
“Historically VIU has been perceived as the all-day dining restaurant of St Regis Bangkok,” he says. “I am now working to build its identity. Daytime it is a cafe that uses ingredients from local markets to produce simply prepared meals and is ideal for meetings with family, friends and business associates. The change from day to night is an integral part of the DNA at St Regis, so in the evening it will change to have a New York Bistro feel.”
The afternoon tea ritual was inspired by Mrs Caroline Astor, wife of the founder of St Regis, and is now another key element of the St Regis’s DNA. “I am currently starting to work on our “Afternoon Tea” menu. It’s not just about serving sandwiches daintily cut without the crust. I am looking at how we can bake the right breads to go with different fillings. Freshly baked scones served fresh within 20 minutes of coming out of the oven, so they are deliciously moist. No whipped creams – with scones for afternoon tea it has to be clotted Devonshire cream served with homemade fruit jams. Getting it right is all about refining the products and training the team to use the right techniques.”
There was a more than subtle hint that there would be a change in the Champagne service but I was told I would have to wait and see what will happen, which I am doing with eager anticipation. However, he did confirm that the highly talented Stefano Merlo would be joining his team as Italian Chef at JoJo’s after the Songkran holiday.
“I pick cherries off the top of the cake,” he concluded with a playful smile.