Christmas at The Dorchester London

The hotels that go all-out at Christmas

The hotels that go all-out at Christmas

From Hong Kong to Bhutan, these end-of-year festivities are hard to beat.

Words by Ute Junker

Photos supplied

This article first appeared in the Australian Financial Review

If you think putting on Christmas lunch for family and friends is tough, pity the hotel professionals responsible for delivering a memorable Christmas to hundreds – even thousands – of paying guests. There is no one blueprint for getting it right but wherever you are in the world, one thing is clear: Christmas is not Christmas without a feast.

Let the turkey relay begin

Mandarin Oriental Hong Kong

Robin Zavou turns his attention to Christmas around June. “That’s when we start putting our orders in for our turkeys and our hams,” says the executive chef of the Mandarin Oriental Hong Kong. And the hotels needs a lot of birds  – not just for its 10 restaurants and bars but for its much-loved Christmas hampers.

“Apartments here are so small, a lot of people don’t have ovens, so our hampers give you everything you need for a Christmas dinner,” Zavou explains. “We sell around 1500 turkey hampers, another 600 or 700 with hams, and between 200 and 300 with roast beef.”.

The hampers are sent out over several days, a process which requires careful scheduling. “It’s a 24-hour job. The boys will start cooking from two in the morning, and we know exactly how many turkeys are going out the door between 7.30 and 12. We have seven or eight chefs just packing turkeys into the boxes.”

Then there are the in-house celebrations, at the restaurants and in the banqueting rooms.  “The hotel gets glammed up, we serve mulled wine in the lobby when guests check in. People come to the Mandarin Oriental because the Mandarin Oriental upholds traditions.”

That doesn’t mean the menu is confined entirely to the classics. Some of the restaurants offer a twist on tradition. “In The Krug Room you might have pithivier of duck instead of roast turkey, or perhaps eggnog as a pre-dessert,” Zavou says.

He may breathe a sigh of relief when Boxing Day comes to a close, but Zavou’s busy period isn’t over yet. “For me it starts with moon cake season in mid-autumn. Then there is Christmas, New Year, and Chinese New Year. Hong Kong has a culture of festivities. There are holidays for grave-sweeping, for dragon boat racing, for ghost month. Any chance to celebrate, they are on it.”

Lighting up the new year

COMO Uma Paro, Bhutan

It’s not just you. If you are feeling relieved to see an end to 2023, hoping for a very different set of circumstances in 2024, you may take comfort in the fact that many people are feeling equally drained. Only a few, however, will have the chance to shed all the negativity by seeing in the new year at Como Uma Paro, where Buddhist blessings promise a truly fresh start.

“Instead of a big party, we have 12 monks come into the hotel and we transform the lobby so it almost resembles a miniature monastery,” says James Low, the general manager of the serene retreat nestled into Bhutan’s scenic Paro Valley.

“The head monk will chant for 45 minutes, building up blessings for the new year, and at the stroke of midnight everybody is blessed by the monk. We finish with a traditional butter lamp lighting ceremony in which the glow dispels the darkness which is ignorance.”

It is a beautiful culmination to a very distinctive festive season. Anyone heading to Buddhist Bhutan for Christmas, Low says, comes for a specific reason. “People who come here at this time of year want peace, they want quiet, they want the charm of what Bhutan exudes,” Low says.

As a result, celebrations are kept deliberately low-key. Festive wreaths made with fragrant, freshly-harvested pine branches hang on the doors, and Christmas menus showcase local seasonal delicacies such as a winter soup bowl of artichoke and wild dried Matsutake mushroom paste  or a hand-rolled buckwheat linguine with braised yak in red wine.

One piece of old-school Yule that is adhered to: carols on Christmas Day. “Our staff love it, they practice a lot. When they put on their Santa hats they are very sweet, like little angels.” 

The great Christmas pudding revolution

The Dorchester, London

Martyn Nail is thinking about sandwiches. Specifically sandwiches coated in pistachio, cut into the shape of a Christmas tree and piped with a tiny pointillist points of date puree to resemble baubles. That, the culinary director of The Dorchester reveals, is just one of the canapes his team is delivering for Christmas lunch this year.

“We will serve them in a basket like a little hamper when you arrive – you will lift the lid and find them in a basket lined with pine branches,” he says. That will be followed by an amuse bouche of smoked salmon and oscietra caviar on buckwheat blini with a tiny dot of pine oil. “It’s all about building up a picture, bringing Christmas to the room.”

The Dorchester is known for its extravagant Christmas festivities which include Yuletide afternoon teas and special menus in The Promenade, The Grill by Tom Booton and Alain Ducasse at The Dorchester. “By the end of the season we will have done 5000 afternoon teas,” Nail says matter-of-factly. “We opened the books a week ago and have 3000 booked already.”

Nail knows his Christmas numbers by heatr. “For Christmas Day we buy 30 goose and 30 turkeys, 180kg of Brussels sprouts and 300kg of potatoes,” he says. “Our lunch service runs from midday all the way into early evening.”

Yet creativity is at the heart of the offering. Each venue has its own menu, the only common factor being the Christmas pudding, mixed by hand in five-kilo batches. This year, however, a new recipe is being unveiled.

“Last year we had a quite dark, quite heavy pudding. This year we’ve taken away the Guinness and added Grand Marnier, replaced the breadcrumbs with brioche crumbs and the fruit with morello cherries. It’s much lighter and much more fragrant.”

A longer version of this article originally appeared in the Australian Financial Review

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