Jim Poris / November 2000
Food Arts presents the November 2000 Silver Spoon Award for sterling performance to Dennis Gavagan for daring to foment a culinary revolution from within Marriott International that has gone a long way toward changing the public's perception of the large hotel chain. First as executive chef at two of Marriot's major properties, then as regional chef overseeing more than 60 hotels in the south-central United States, and now as Director of Culinary Standards and Deployment, Gavagan has demonstrated that an empowered chef, cooking with top-grade ingredients, can provide a company with more goodwill and profits than one encumbered by so-called cost-cutting shortcuts.
"I've never just settled for the status quo," says Gavagan. "I'll admit that in the early 1990s food wasn't a top priority with Marriott. But times have changed here, and a core of guys here like me, who stuck by their guns and persevered, have proven that you can have your cake and eat it too, that you can do high-quality things that actually make your business grow."
For example, as executive chef of the Chicago Downtown Marriott, Gavagan hired a pastry chef to reopen a shuttered bakeshop and switched the kitchen operation to a classic hot line charged with prepping its own mise en place, including sauces. "Guest satisfaction, based on the company's matrix, grew by 14 points and the property's margin increased," he points out. He instituted similar changes during his tenure at two Marriotts in San Antonio—the Rivercenter and Riverwalk, where, "excited by Southwest cuisine and Texas barbecue," he built a smokehouse and "just started to do everything from scratch."
Gavagan, whose mother was a chef on the country club circuit in the Finger Lakes region of New York and whose sister is a pastry chef, started cooking for pay at the age of 12. He's spent the bulk of his career—18 years—with Marriott, which has now charged him with conceiving, standardizing, and executing recipes and menus for some 300-plus Marriott properties worldwide. "After we develop recipes that reflect the brand and standards for each of the different kinds of Marriotts, we put everything into training manuals and then roll it out. These are just signature menu items, though, that are consistent from property to property. We give our chefs carte blanche to cook regional things, and we store those recipes in a computerized data bank so they're available to any of our chefs."
With the bravado of an athlete—he was a bone-crushing line-backer in high school—Gavagan sticks up for Marriott's newfound culinary muscle. "There's a lot of effort and resources being put behind a very good staff. Our competitors can say what they want, they're no better than we are," he proclaims.
"If there's one things I'm most proud of, it's that I've stayed true to the profession and tried to do what I think is the right thing for three constituents—the customers, my employees, and the owners of the hotel. If I keep those as my priorities and keep them in balance, then everything's cool."