Pedal to the Metal
Monica Velgos - November 2013
Revving up from his post on the clapboard-clad Maine coast, Jonathan Cartwright rides the wheels of success on the heels of a luxury hotel group’s fast-paced global expansion.
Only twice a week, in a car he will describe only as “very fast,” Jonathan Cartwright breezes along the New England highways between Kennebunkport, Maine, and Newport, Rhode Island, confident and relaxed. The vehicle and the expensive radar detector he had installed in it tell only part of the story. Cartwright, two years into shuttling between The White Barn Inn and The Vanderbilt Grace hotel, knows the roads. He’s likely figured out where on I-24 there’s a straightaway he can ratchet up the speedometer because there’s no place for the cops to hide. He understands the lay of the land just as he knows every inch of space in the restaurants he oversees. He’s optimized his driving experience just as he’s optimized everything in the kitchens of those luxury resorts, two of the 10 boutique hotels now owned by Grace Hotels for which he serves as the group’s chef de cuisine.
From a young age, Cartwright’s goal had nothing to do with food and everything to do with dreaming he’d be the first-ever English winner of the Tour de France. He took a job as trainee cook at a restaurant in his hometown of Sheffield, England, to appease his father, who was tired of paying for the then-15 year old’s new bicycles and bicycle parts. “I thought, ‘How hard could it be?’” he recalls. “I would have a good job and good nourishment, and could continue my cycling career.” He remembers his disappointment when the chef called to say the first day of work was a Sunday. “Bicycle day.” Things went from bad to worse, then to destiny.
“I remember times going home crying to my mom, saying, ‘I hate it, Mummy. He’s horrible. He’s mean, he’s nasty, I want to fight him.’ She would say, ‘Don’t go there, change jobs,’ but I would say, ‘No, I’m going to stay, I’m going to prove to this man that I can do it, and I can do it well.’”
The defining moment occurred when a junior sous chef had to take time off for a family emergency, and the chef told Cartwright he would do the hot line with him that night. “I was so scared of this guy, thought it was going to be the worst day of my life ever,” Cartwright says of the “bear of a chef” who ultimately became a mentor and great friend. “But he showed me what a chef was about. All I had to do was what he told me to do, as quickly as I could. He had worked so hard that day to make sure we didn’t fail. He told me for the first time ever, ‘Thanks, you’ve done a fantastic job today.’ It was the most amazing night, I was so proud of myself. He set me up for success.”
Cartwright can never resist making a bike-racing parallel: “It’s like riding the Tour de France on a very bad day when you know you’ve got stomach problems or leg cramps or whatever, and you’ve got to climb Alpe d’Huez and you can’t give up if you want to be in the yellow jersey in Paris. In our business, you still want to maintain your reputation even when the odds are stacked against you, so people leave and say, ‘Wow, that was really a great experience.’”
In February 1989, while working as a prep chef under Anton Edelmann at the Savoy hotel in London, Cartwright helped with a promotional stint at The Pierre hotel in New York City and the Four Seasons Los Angeles. Among his memories are arriving in a traffic jam behind President George H.W. Bush’s motorcade on “tall and claustrophobic” Fifth Avenue and having dinner with Edelmann at The Plaza hotel. He was also impressed with the people and vowed to return. “In both cities I was struck by how passionate and generous Americans are,” he says. “I was particularly interested in the East Coast. I thought in New York they would be very tough—but they were very honest.”
After gaining experience at Relais & Châteaux hotels in Switzerland and Germany, Cartwright only wanted to work for member properties. He enjoyed a year at The Blantyre in Lenox, Massachusetts, switching to the Horned Dorset Primavera in Puerto Rico in winter. Returning to Europe “because no one would go to bat for a visa for me,” he took a job in a small Swiss village that must have amounted to purgatory for someone so conjoined to speed. “It had no cars,” he recollects. “The only way around was by foot or horse-drawn carriage or sled.” As if perfectly timed, a light pierced through the clouds on the last day of that winter season in the form of a call from Laurence Bongiorno, the owner of the White Barn Inn. “He heard I wanted to come back to America,” says Cartwright. “I arrived on April 19, 1995, and I’ve stayed ever since.”
Cartwright speaks by the yard, whether he’s in midservice at one of his kitchens, reclined at the buzzing bar, or in full stride giving a property tour. Tirelessly recounting details like a spider unreeling a web, he’ll spin circles around you with the sheer quantity and layers of his measured words. There’s the frequent car and bike race analogies, the remembered itinerary of trips taken (number of days stayed, travel time, food tasted), the details of a property’s renovation history. During an almost encyclopedic recitation of facts about his hometown, one can learn that cutlery-capital Sheffield was also the testing location of Sir Barnes Wallis’ bouncing bombs, the home of the snooker world championships, the place where Def Leppard drummer Rick Allen lost his left arm while driving his new Corvette, and where Sebastian Coe, the former mile world record holder and organizer of the London 2012 Olympic Games, got his running start.
Peppered throughout his conversations are admiring comments for those on his staff who’ve come through tough times with either physical and/or mental resolve. He’ll swerve off topic to fondly recall the contributions of cooks who had to leave when their visas ran out. Like some folks pocket a Bible or a worn copy of a beloved book, Cartwright’s brain packs pages of acknowledgements for the leaders and staff who’ve shaped his career and support him still. One of those early supporters was the Australian Bongiorno, who died of cancer at age 53 in 2007 and imprinted on Cartwright the need to respect staff and customers, to balance kindness with professionalism. “He was a great leader, very much like Australia’s Phil Anderson in the Tour de France, and Cadel Evans—a great team leader as well. He was here working away every single day. Laurie gave me all of what I have today.”
Before he died, Bongiorno entered a partnership with the Logothetis family, which runs the Libra Group and had sold its international refrigerated shipping business in order to diversify its interests. The White Barn Inn was its first foray into hospitality. “On a handshake, they became 50/50 partners on this whole business we have in Kennebunkport,” says Cartwright. “And when Laurie died, George Logothetis said, ‘Don’t worry, we’ll buy the whole company and keep it the same. If Laurie would do it, we’d want to do it.’”
Starting a hotel empire was the idea of George’s brother, Constantine, who added luxury properties in Santorini and Mykonos, with Beijing, Argentina, Panama, and Marrakech following. Cartwright, who became group chef of Grace Hotels, makes his admiration for the young brothers apparent. “I’ve met presidents, and George Logothetis has that amazing charisma and aura about him that when he stops to talk to you, he’s put everything else on hold, and all that matters is what you’re saying and how he can help you get to a better place.” He adds, “Constantine is amazing, too. He’s very clever, very creative. He employed CEO Philippe Requin, who heads up the Grace organization and grows it around the world.”
Cartwright cites Requin’s eye for great character as key to making his own job easier. “He knows that the important thing is buying into the vision, the mantra with Grace that we try to be as local, sustainable, and environmentally friendly as we can while we balance that with providing luxury,” says Cartwright. “Having that inner feeling inside all the team and then being able to express it to the guests is very important to Grace. You can get that from Philippe.”
Now a part of Grace Hotels, The White Barn Inn will be renamed The White Barn Grace in 2014, retaining its affiliation with Relais & Châteaux. The new name conjures a fresh perspective on the restaurant’s rustic yet cathedral-like interior, with its tall pointed ceiling, individually lit paintings lining the walls, the large back window through which colorful landscaping glows as if it were stained glass, and side rafters up above just like a clerestory level.
The Vanderbilt Grace, the first North American Grace property, debuted in spring 2011, transformed from Vanderbilt Hall, a 1909 Newport mansion in that prominent family. Because it was previously run as a hotel and private club, the challenge was to rid the beautifully restored 33 room Georgian building of its exclusive air. Poised on quiet Mary Street just off the busy Thames Street thoroughfare and powered by the first of the group’s signature Muse by Jonathan Cartwright restaurants, The Vanderbilt Grace attracts a wide range of food-attuned travelers. One of the dining room’s top sellers—butter-poached half lobster, smoke-infused, and presented under a silver cloche and flavored with reduced Cognac, roe, and smoked paprika—has gotten so much buzz it’s now offered on the White Barn Inn tasting menu. Press for the hotel also comes attached to the celebrities and businesses that visit there, like the cast of the film Moonrise Kingdom.
To bring additional notice, for the one year anniversary the restaurant team, along with general manager Marina Aslanidou, launched a Russian-service option called Vintage Vanderbilt, which had Cartwright breaking training and taking his cooks back to classical cuisine. “One of our chefs researched what happened at these typical wild Saturday night dinners at The Breakers during the Gilded Age,” he explains. “The waiter would actually come with a butler tray. It was part of etiquette training for the wealthy, how you turned to the side and helped yourself without dropping food. We didn’t want to make people feel awkward, but we presented a number of dishes on butler, then brought it back, carved it up and sent it back out.” The menu included whole quail chaud-froid, slow-roasted truffled turkey, cream of mushroom/lobster soup—“kind of old-fashioned things but using a few modern methods.” Today, Vintage Vanderbilt selections are served if requested in the seven course tasting menu and in five courses as part of the recent two night Grace Gatsby package, which also included a sunset sailing cruise, mansion tours, and Champagne breakfast.
Team leader Basil Yu runs the kitchen at Muse by Jonathan Cartwright, elevated to the position from the White Barn Inn’s much larger, better organized kitchen. The new space took getting used to. Little bits of equipment are everywhere, and there’s no island suite. Because the pastry station is small, bread dough arrives weekly in a refrigerated truck from the White Barn Inn, which also stops in Boston, where a buyer loads it with items for both restaurants and the group’s casual Stripers restaurant in Kennebunkport. The truck returns north with special equipment or plates to lend, products from Rhode Island farmers, or even mise en place for the White Barn team.
“When I go to Newport, it’s more about enforcing what I want, rather than supporting,” Cartwright explains. “The focus for me is that the Muse by Jonathan Cartwright restaurants should embody everything that I stand for, making sure there are dishes worthy for me to put my name on.” Conversely, as group chef, Cartwright isn’t the enforcer but the supporter at the other properties’ restaurants that don’t carry the Muse name. “I encourage them,” he says, “and if they think there’s a better way to go than the Jonathan Cartwright way, then I think there are more ways to skin a rabbit. They are very successful properties.”
Some menu ideas for The Vanderbilt Grace are inspired by or arrive via visiting chefs from other Grace properties. A five-spice brochette of mussels coated in egg white and prawn crackers that sits atop a mussel cappuccino stayed on the Muse menu after chef de cuisine Liu Peng Mars from the Grace Beijing made his first trip to the United States for a stint as guest chef in both Newport and Kennebunkport. Empanadas filled with duck confit and rhubarb were inspired by the kitchen of Javier Robles at the Grace Cafayate in Argentina and spent weeks next to Muse’s roasted breast of Rohan duck with confit, sautéed spinach, and rhubarb gastrique. The empanadas passed the authenticity test when the Grace Cafayate’s general manager paid a visit to the United States and tried them.
More often, dishes evolve at the White Barn Inn and are brought down to Muse. And it’s his chefs at all levels who develop them. “Once you involve them, they take ownership,” Cartwright emphasizes. “I say, ‘Understand what I’m looking for, provide me with a dish. Sure we’ll change it, OK, that’s good, that’s good, that’s not good, do this, do this, we’ll tweak it a little bit, that’s it! Great! It’s your dish! And you make sure it’s perfect. You’re not on that station? You gotta keep an eye on it.’ We move and we go with the times and keep training and keep working on everybody, making sure they’re getting fitter and stronger and more passionate and more into the understanding of what I’m looking for.”
Derek Bissonnette manages the kitchen at White Barn Inn. When Cartwright is there during the day or working on the line during his weekly rotation at 5 p.m., he deliberately stays away from telling anyone they did a good job, as it takes the power away from Bissonnette. “It would be very hard for him to manage people when they can come back and say, ‘The chef told me I did a great job, why are you telling me off?’” Along with office work, it’s just another thing for Cartwright to balance.
Cartwright looks forward to more balance when a planned kitchen renovation at The Vanderbilt Grace brings both places better in sync. “It is what it is. It’s like joining the Formula One race with only a souped-up Ford Focus. It’s hard to keep up with the leaders, so if you finish within 10 laps of them, then it’s a good way to go.” His faith is steady that modern equipment produces a much closer to perfect product. “You can time it better, you’ve got better dials on things for better control on the end product. It gets you ahead of the game.”
Now that the 30 room Mayflower Inn & Spa has joined the Grace family, with its name soon to be changed to The Mayflower Grace, it’s too early to know how the drive to this beautifully landscaped country house hotel in Washington, Connecticut, will fit into Cartwright’s well-worn route. But you know he’ll take his time, find a clear direction, get the whole thing down. He’s a racer at heart. It’s man, machine and team, together.