Food Arts presents its November 1992 Silver Spoon Award for sterling performance to Walter Staib, globe-trotting hospitality guru.
Whether developing freestanding restaurants, hotels or resorts in Arkansas or Thailand, Staib treats food as the cornerstone and preaches the gospel of excitement.
“A restaurant is always in competition with the refrigerator,” says Staib. “Anyone can open his refrigerator door and make a sandwich or, worse yet, put a TV dinner in the microwave. A restaurant must offer an exciting dining experience.”
Today Staib heads up his own hospitality consulting firm with offices in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, and at his home in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania, and has associate offices in Copenhagen and Tokyo. Last year he was on the road 50 out of 52 weeks and maintains frequent-flyer accounts with all the major airlines. On his résumé, he lists 30 years of experience, but, in reality, he could claim 40.
Staib, 46, actually started in the kitchen at the age of six in his family’s restaurant in the Black Forest area of Germany. “I was the youngest guy around,” he says, “so I did all kinds of odd little things. But by the time I started my formal apprenticeship, I was already ahead of the gang. I remember helping with fancy meals when I was about ten. On Sundays in Europe everybody goes out to eat. I used to make the small quenelles. I stood on a stool to reach the top of the stove. I really enjoyed the work and just stuck with it.
After apprenticing in fine European hotels and restaurants, Staib, at 20, headed for Chicago and the Mid-America Club. “I was really supposed to be the corporate chef, but they ended up making me the corporate f&b guy. So I left the kitchen purely by accident,” Staib says.
A happy accident, as it turned out, as it opened up other worlds to the young chef, taking him to successive executive positions in the hospitality industry with ARA services, Specialty Restaurants Corporation, Omni Hotels and, ultimately, to the establishment of his own international firm.
At Omni, Staib pioneered the concept of fine, locally recognized restaurants with separate entrances. “The idea was that people who lived in the city would come as well as tourists,” Staib says. “We were ahead of our time. We would also take a hotel that had four or five little restaurants and make one big brasserie. I worked closely wit Adam Tihany, and we did a lot of the first bistros and brasseries at the Omni.”
More recently, Staib has turned traditional notions of resort dining upside down at Ciboney, a Radisson resort in Ocho Rios, Jamaica. There’s none of the tired continental cuisine tourists encounter all too often in the Caribbean. “We’re doing 100 percent Jamaican fare in four restaurants,” Staib explains. “We rely on local farmers instead of importing things. We went through lengthy research to make this resort a unique culinary experience. The customers are responding big time. Sure, there are a few who are asking what happened to their prime rib (we made some adjustments and serve prime rib in one of the restaurants now), but overall I think it’s the culinary approach that made this resort excel in a short time.”
The project lists go on and on all over the world. Profiles, a brasserie in Little Rock, Arkansas, opened in March; another Profiles will open soon in Tokyo. He just finished a concept at Colony Kamala Bay in Phuket, Thailand. He’s under contract at Big Cedar Lounge near Branson, Missouri, the new center of country music, and The Resort at Squaw Creek in Squaw Valley, California.
Staib lives in Bryn Mawr with his wife, Gloria, who runs the administrative part of his business, and their two children, Patrick, 19, and Elizabeth, 17. And what does the future hold? “In four or five years, I would love to have a restaurant of my own in Philadelphia,” he says. “Maybe a bistro, where I can chill out.”