An interview with Jean-Pierre (J.P.) Etcheberrigaray, Vice President, Food & Beverage, The Americas, InterContinental Hotels Group (IHG)
March 25, 2016 | By Mike Raven and Mark Greenhalgh
Photos and cover photo by Jason Page, Creative Director, IMI.
Jean-Pierre Etcheberrigaray, better known as J.P., oversees the food and beverage operations and strategic planning for InterContinental Hotels Group’s (IHG’s) Americas region. With his vast international experience spanning four continents, J.P. has created numerous food and beverage trend-setting legacies and award-winning concepts, including signature bars, designs and programs.
Mark Greenhalgh, IMI’s Account Manager for IHG, and I met with J.P. at his office in Atlanta, Georgia for the main interview. I then followed up the interview with a visit to his and his wife Gabriela’s beautiful home in Roswell, a suburb of Atlanta. In this visit, I saw a relaxed and proud man at home with his wife and his beloved dog of 15 years, Ricky. With pride, he showed me his collection of historical antiquities, and the awards he has received over the years associated with his profession. He is truly a shepherd of good food and beverage traditions. Using his Old World knowledge and charm, along with his cutting edge ideas, he passes this on to the new generation of food and beverage managers so they can start their own traditions and understand those of the past.
MIKE: I would like to talk about the IHG World Class Beverage Program, and have a discussion about the partnership between IHG and IMI. IHG and IMI have had a long relationship – over twelve years. How did that relationship originally come about?
J.P.: Well, when I came onboard at IHG in the U.S., I heard about IMI through a conference. It was a conference where Ned Barker of Grill Ventures International introduced me to some F&B colleagues from other companies. As the “newbie” back in the States after my international travelling with IHG, I was frustrated with the three-tiered system here. In Europe and Asia and all the countries where I’ve worked, over 20 countries, this doesn’t exist. Only in the U.S. and Canada.
MIKE: That’s right.
J.P.: So, some of my colleagues were looking at solutions. When I started to analyze this and do some research, I found out there were three or four companies that were able to help me, and one of them was in my backyard, IMI.
First, we got Procurement involved. We interviewed several companies – and it was like an interview for hiring a member of your team. Don Billings and Larry McGinn came to the official interview with a number of IMI staff, and they were great. They were like salt and pepper; they were like yin and yang. And I said, “Well, this is perfect. This fits.” Plus, on top of that, I thought using a local company was better for me; I didn’t want to deal with someone in California or in Vegas, or Texas or New York. So we did all that we needed to do and we started the relationship. IMI was already started, but we grew together. We made some mistakes. We improved. But I must admit that Don was a great lighthouse for the direction of the beverage program, and Larry was a great executor and a great mentor.
Don was a great lighthouse for the direction of the beverage program, and Larry was a great executor and a great mentor.
The beauty of the program, which is amazing, is that the original partners went blind into the partnership and that’s why I appreciate many, many partners. And that’s how you build relationships. A lot of people didn’t know IHG, didn’t know our volume, and didn’t know about the kind of shared vision IMI and I had been developing. And they partnered, on faith or with a little bit of blindness. And those partners have stuck with us, through the good and the more challenging times, and I appreciate that.
MARK: So how has the program evolved over the 12 years? What kinds of things have come up?
J.P.: The key for us is consistency. I didn’t like having a different house wine in New York, Texas and California. That’s really what drove me to make a consistent program. If it was consistent for me, it would be consistent for the customer. You can go into an InterContinental or Crowne Plaza or Holiday Inn hotel and you know that you can have these four Merlots or these ten Cabernets.
MIKE: Not only to have consistency, but also to have the quality like you just mentioned, instead of their buying wines by price only.
J.P.: Yes, consistent quality across the board at all locations. Also, as a shepherd of good food and beverage traditions, I embrace the tradition about the origins of the house wine. It is a tradition that reflected the pride of the owner of the restaurant who went to the winery and picked a big barrel, and you knew that when he put it in the carafe, that wine was good. By the way, that was the only wine available in those restaurants in the day, in Italy, France, Spain and Portugal. So my work was kind of continuing the culture in the tradition of the house wine. Unfortunately, over the years, the house wine tradition has been influenced by cost.
MIKE: Right. Terribly so.
J.P.: Terribly. So we changed that. That was part of the objective. The other thing we observed was the trend that was elevating bartending, mixology and cocktails, and this is very American. That is the tradition of America, so how do we respond to this in our venues? And then we noticed over the years, that bartending was not considered a profession. I wanted to bring back that professionalism to the bartenders. So the World Class Beverage Program helped me build a Bartender Academy, which developed the culture of teaching and training at a high level. Over the years we have built one of the most comprehensive Bartender Academy training programs that exists in any hospitality company. It is very, very solid. We are now rolling this out after many years of putting it together and I think it’s going to make a big difference. That means all our bartenders at IHG will be Bartender Academy-certified through a new system of delivery – certification with frontline training.
The World Class Beverage Program helped me build a Bartender Academy, which developed the culture of teaching and training at a high level.
MIKE: All of them?
J.P.: That’s a goal; that’s a vision. So we are starting that. There will be three levels: There will be a 101 level, there will be a 102 level mixologist, and there will be the superior sommelier or extra mixologist level.
MIKE: Let’s talk a little bit about your passion for wine temperature, why it’s so important, and why more people need to pay attention to it. Can you touch on your new wine temperature adventure?
J.P.: Yes. I think it’s a big movement, and as a connoisseur of good wines of different levels, I know the wine has to be at the right temperature. I grew up where the wine was in the wine cellar. I went to wine stores where they had the wine cellar – there were barrels and it was always at the right temperature. With no vibration. So you have to be careful where you put your wine, right? Because there can be little vibrations you don’t feel, from the air conditioning unit or from the furnace.
It is terrible to have a good quality, humble wine in the price category from $5 to $50 that is not treated properly. It doesn’t matter – the category, the cost level – there are good wines at all levels, right? Good food is not caviar. You can have a great burger, you can have a great hot dog, and so on.
MIKE: Great food comes in all categories.
J.P.: That’s right. It’s the same thing with the wines. There are different wines for different times, but if they are not at the right temperature, it is a terrible experience. So, why are so many restaurants or bars where you pay a lot of money, serving it at room temperature? Room temperature today, with the heat or air conditioning in the building, is between 72 and 76 degrees! I am now walking around with a little thermometer for wine temperature; and let me tell you, it’s 74, 76 degrees, most of the places.
There are different wines for different times, but if they are not at the right temperature, it is a terrible experience.
So, someone has to teach people that the maximum temperature for any wine is 65 degrees, if you want to have a good experience. And the teaching should start with the supplier, the distributor and the executor. Rarely do you get a 65-degree glass of wine or a bottle anywhere, other than from the professional people who do it well, right? And congratulations to all those that do it well! As a matter of fact, they have my business. I go back to that restaurant or to that bar because they have the right equipment at the right temperature. And we are talking between 38 degrees and 65 degrees. Simply put, there are different needs for reds, pinots and lighter red wines, white wines and bubbly. But at anything above 65 degrees, everybody should complain. You get charged $17, $22 or more for a glass of wine that is 4 ½ to 5 ounces, and it is 20 points above the right temperature. What’s wrong with that picture?
MIKE: It ruins the experience.
J.P.: I can get excessive on certain things when I am excited, right? I am starting a campaign to solve this problem with Mark Greenhalgh and IMI, with the World Class Beverage Program. I want us to be the leader along with all my colleagues in food and beverage. I want everybody to go on these campaigns. There’s no reason why anyone should pay so much money for a glass of wine or a bottle of wine at the wrong temperature. We have to educate.
But now, say, I’m the executor, I’m the bartender, I’m the server or I’m the maître ď in the restaurant or the bar. There’s no reason that I cannot go to my boss or to my owner and say, “I need to have this wine at the right temperature,” because it’s like the difference between night and day on the palate experience. We all need to fight for this. I don’t mind the price if you serve me the right wine at the right temperature.
MIKE: I wish you great luck on this because it’s really important.
J.P.: I’m going to tell you, I’m on the campaign. I want to impact and influence this business along with all my colleagues and all the people in the industry because we deserve it, and our guests deserve it. And I’m serious about it. In Miami, I go to a small place on the Calle Ocho, a little Spanish restaurant. You know why I go back there all the time? The food is simple, humble food. Good food, good value. But the wine is at the right temperature. They have four big wine refrigerators and their wine is impeccably kept at the right temperature. You can have a bottle of wine for $28 or $288, but it’s always at the right temperature.
MIKE: That brings you back there, right?
J.P.: All the time.
MIKE: You were one of the early innovators of spirit-themed bars. RumBa in Boston and The Bourbon Bar here in Atlanta are just two of your creations. When did you first come up with the idea of theming a bar centered on a particular spirit?
J.P.: We started in Atlanta in Buckhead, at the InterContinental Hotel. In my research and in my concept study – the way we do 7-step concept research for a food and beverage concept – I noticed the community around Buckhead had a lot of types of music. I kept hearing the word “yak” come up.
MIKE: The word what?
J.P.: The word “yak.” And I was wondering about that word. They told me that it’s slang for Cognac.
MIKE: Oh, okay. I see.
J.P.: So we researched, studied and analyzed the community. Cognac was being sung about in music. So, it meant that the community drank Cognac. So it just connected, and I thought, my gosh, we’re going to explode the Cognac world. Cognac is a classy, deluxe, beautiful thing; it’s from only one region in France. And this is how we started the first signature bar for the InterContinental brand in the Americas, the XO Cognac Bar. And it lasted seven years, very successfully.
MIKE: Then what?
J.P.: We went from a French brasserie to a Southern style restaurant because the demographic changed. For the Southern restaurant, again we went through the same steps, the same study. And we switched from the XO Cognac Bar to the Bourbon Bar, which fit perfectly with the Southern style restaurant, Southern Art.
So from there, we did an analysis and a study in Boston. We hired a gentleman from Harvard, an assistant historian, who did a study for me, and to my surprise Rum came up.
MIKE: Because New England was part of the trade triangle, with Rum being a big part of it?
J.P.: Right. So I presented a Rum concept for Boston. Rum was in the history of Boston. Once approved, we hired the designer and architect and we built the RumBa bar. It is, by the way, the number one bar for the InterContinental brand in volume, and from day one, has always been full.
MIKE: That’s amazing.
J.P.: Yes, it’s huge! Huge! And then from there, the next signature bar was Grappa. Again, we did the study and I did my concept steps for San Francisco. I asked what the demographic was there – there are lots of Italians in San Francisco. And I almost made a mistake because in San Francisco, more Galliano is served than Grappa. People are still very shy about Grappa. But Galliano was a bottle that all the Italians, when they emigrated from Italy to U.S., always brought because it reminded them of their country. I almost did a Galliano bar, but the bottle is very complicated to do a back bar with. So I did a little more study and Grappa came through.
MIKE: Interesting. Grappa?
J.P.: Yes. And I think it is one of the best Grappa bars you will ever go to.
MIKE: How many types of Grappa do you think you have there?
J.P.: Two hundred. Today, superb Grappa is being made, and the mixologists have embraced it. It breaks the ice with the customer. We are specialists in that product, and of course, we have everything else available. But Grappa gives a soul to the bar; it gives a personality to the bar.
Grappa gives a soul to the bar; it gives a personality to the bar.
MIKE: That’s what I and many others are looking for, that soul.
J.P.: Then, from there, we did a Tequila bar and a Vodka bar; we also have a couple of new ones coming. The InterContinental New York Barclay Hotel is going to have the best Gin bar in the Americas, if not the world.
But I want to stay humble right now – we’ll go for
MIKE: We were going to ask you about that, but that’s new, right?
J.P.: It’s still not launched, so I don’t want to preempt it. Give me another interview next year to talk about that (laughing).
MIKE: Do you mind if we print that?
J.P.: No, you can do it. But give me a chance to talk about it more next year; right now it’s a vision. And also, I will talk about what we are doing with IMI and the expert mixologists like Brittany Chardin and Francesco Lafranconi and many others, who are into this research. We will have the best Gins and the best tonics, and the best mix of the two.
MIKE: What is the current philosophy within IHG around F&B?
J.P.: There’s something I must say, because we stuck with Larry, and Larry was, I think, a big influence of this. At one time, the hotel bar was not the place to meet. Over the years, the trends have changed. Today the bar IS a restaurant, but 20 years ago, 15 years ago, you could not sell that. Today, the bar is central, which has totally changed our industry. And we were pioneers in that. Other companies were involved too, but we were the pioneers there.
MARK: J.P., for the Crowne Plaza brand, the brand itself has been doing a lot of soul searching over the last couple of years. What do we see on the F&B front for the Crowne Plaza brand?
J.P.: The Crowne Plaza brand is all about making business travel work for the modern day business traveler. We know that our guests are ambitious, and we like to provide them with all of the resources they need to succeed while on the road. The brand offers flexible food and beverage options including dining in one of our restaurants, having great wine, craft beer or cocktails at the bar, or relaxing in the comfort of their guestroom. This creates an environment where guests can get food and beverages anytime they’d like, to satisfy their needs.
MARK: The Hotel Indigo brand is very boutique and focused around the local and regional elements. How do you see that manifesting itself within that brand, particularly with regard to food and beverage?
J.P.: Hotel Indigo is a perfect craft mixology laboratory delivery. With some specialty spirits and specialty wine. There’s a local flavor, local story for the food and sometimes for the beverages. I think that’s where you can enjoy a cocktail with a very speedy delivery.
Mixology is great; great mixology is fantastic – it just takes a long time. And that’s what I hear a lot. That’s why there’s a movement going toward pre-batch. But the minute you go pre-batch, you lose that “à la minute.”
MIKE: What was that word?
J.P.: “À la minute.” It’s a culinary term that means “within one minute” I can prepare something fresh for you. So what is popular today in cooking is having something prepared in front of you; I can do a pancake, I can do an omelet. In the old days, when you had Eggs Benedict, the chef used to make “à la minute” hollandaise sauce. That fresh hollandaise sauce has a different taste than if you pre-batch it and just warm it up. So we have to be careful with the pre-batching.
Now, I like the way the experts – the mixologists, Tony (Abou-Ganim), Francesco (Lafranconi), Brittany (Chardin) and others – do the core or base, and they freshen it up and bring it to life. Speed – speed is what people want. I don’t want to wait 10 minutes for my drink; I want it now.
MIKE: It’s definitely a situation. In fact, Paul Pacult just wrote in his article for this issue of our magazine about being subject to too much mixology, which goes along with what you’re saying. He doesn’t want a cocktail that has 15 things in it and takes
15 minutes to make.
J.P.: That’s right. In my day, mixology was making a Long Island Tea. That was the biggest drink to make, right? That, along with the Bloody Mary. With the Long Island, you charged more for it because you had all those ingredients and it took time. That was the most complicated drink I had to do as a bartender. The rest had only two or three ingredients, right? Dry martini – olives, onion or a twist? [Laughs]
MIKE: Like the classic 7 and Seven.
J.P.: [Laughs] 7 and Seven – so, two ingredients, three ingredients, okay? The minute you move up to more complicated cocktails – and if you have a busy bar, you’ve got to be careful – you’ve got to have competent bartenders. That’s when the Bartender Academy comes in. You’ve got to be trained; you’ve got to be an expert. An expert is someone who moves fast. But Hotel Indigo has a more elegant way to do that. Some of our Hotel Indigo bars are very busy and they may have to use some pre-batch just to shorten the wait time, especially within that culture of happy hours where you get that rush. So, you’ve got to be prepared. “Mise en place.”
The minute you move up to more complicated cocktails … you’ve got to have competent bartenders. That’s when the Bartender Academy comes in.
MIKE: “Mise en place”?
J.P.: Yes, “Mise en place.” This is another phrase that is often misinterpreted in the industry. “Mise en place” means you get prepared for the rush. Many people don’t get prepared for the rush and that’s part of what the Bartender Academy teaches. If you know that at 5 p.m. every day, you’re going to have 50 people coming in, get ready. Don’t run around at 4:30 looking for the maraschino cherries or for the bottles, but have the bottles open, because you know how many people are coming. But some people don’t understand that. It’s like everything else: Get ready before the rush! “Mise en place.”
MARK: One of the newest flags for IHG, EVEN Hotels, has had a lot of great press around health and fitness and wellness. How does that manifest itself for IHG with food and beverage?
J.P.: Wellness is a trend that is here to stay. But wellness doesn’t mean that you should only drink water. So, when it comes to drinking well, all the studies say that a good glass of red wine at the right temperature should be good for you, and maybe a good glass of white wine should be good for you. A good beer or well-made cocktail with fresh herbs and fresh fruits or fresh vegetables, should be good for you. It’s a question of balance and it’s a question of moderation. Brittany Chardin did some healthy concoctions with fruits, vegetables and juices that fit very well in the wellness cocktails.
MARK: What do you have happening for the Holiday Inn brand?
J.P.: It’s about consistency, it’s about ambience, and it’s about service. It’s about a culinary development of a consistent menu that uses the right ingredients, with the right preparation of those ingredients, and served at the right temperature: hot items will be hot, and cold will be cold. It’s having a Bartender Academy 101 bartender behind the bar with a frontline service delivery. And it’s also a “start fresh” for the breakfast program. So, it’s breakfast, it’s a Bartender Academy bartender, it’s frontline service and the culinary execution. My team and I are going to train over 700 properties, which means about 15,000 people, in the next six months.
MIKE: Any last words of wisdom?
J.P.: Yes, I want to recognize Larry McGinn. To me, he has been an inspiration. At the beginning, he was a great professional who took me to another level in the U.S. I went from having great admiration for him, to now, today, considering him an inspiration – because he’s incredible.
I will quote Winston Churchill in closing: “I am a very simple man, only satisfied with the best.”
MIKE: I read a good one the other day from Ernest Hemingway. He said, “Do what you say you’re going to do when you’re drunk, because it will help you keep your mouth shut.”
J.P.: I have a few – I like the Frank Sinatra one:
“The Bible says ‘Love your enemy.’ Alcohol is the enemy. I love it.”
MIKE: Gotta love Frank. Thanks, J.P.