Michael Whiteman, Rozanne Gold / November 2004
Silver Spoon Food Arts presents the November 2004 Silver Spoon Award for sterling performance to Raymond Bickson, a global hotel wunderkind, who began his career polishing silver spoons at the Berlin Hilton. We ourselves met Raymond in 1986 while working on a project at The Regent of Melbourne and cried when they shipped him to Shanghai to rejuvenate the crumbling Peace Hotel there, thinking we'd never see him again.
When he resurfaced in New York City to open The Mark, all was well again. In short order he transformed a 177 room property into the city's largest, most elegant bed-and-breakfast.
At least he ran it as a b&b, which is why The Mark triumphed over highfalutin competitors: writing welcome cards to every guest in penmanship to die for; patrolling the lobby to bid you hello and good-bye; acting as your personal assistant although the concierge was perfectly capable; easing you into a taxi while doormen stood by holding umbrellas; and, in between, conjuring up memorable ways to convince you that his hotel was indeed better than your home.
Bickson ran The Mark for 15 years, filling it with literary and Hollywood types and making it a way station for itinerant foodies. Among those frequent guests was Ratan Tata, chairman of the conglomerate that owns the Taj Hotel Group. Inevitably, India beckoned, and we lost him again. Bickson, at age 48, is now the youngest, and first non-Indian, managing director of Taj Hotels Resorts and Palaces, India's largest chain. You might wonder why Taj skipped over larger chains' executives. The answer: style. Bickson humanizes the machinery of running hotels, and he passes this magic on wherever he works.
Such magic derives from multiple sources: from his father, cofounder of Budget Rent A Car; from the mighty L'École Hôtelière in Lusanne (where he met his wife, Constance); from Robert Burns and Georg Rafael, who developed the Regent Hotel chain, where nothing was too much for a guest—a tradition that Bickson carries on while respecting the practicalities of bed sheets and balance sheets; and from his parents, who produced his ethic swirl of Hawaiian, Chinese, Caucasian, and Filipino, and who taught him tolerance for the diversity of people.
His perpetual smile also must be genetically derived. "I pinch myself every morning to make sure this is no dream," he says.
Turning outsourcing on its head, Bickson is importing f&b concepts from the United States. Masaharu Morimoto is opening Wasabi in the Taj Palace, Mumbai; Spice Market and 66 by Jean-Georges Vongerichten follow next year in other properties; and Michael Nischan is creating Ayurveda wellness cuisine for Taj's luxury spas. Bickson has just launched indiOne—a chain of budget hotels. And he also found time for Taj to sponsor this year's City-meals-on-Wheels fund-raiser in New York City (See Sa Cheese).
Perhaps we haven't lost him to India forever, because he's determined to establish a U.S. presence for Taj in the Big Apple. What a reunion that will be!