KUALA LUMPUR, August 17 -- Steve Allen, the CEO of the Delicious Group, has had his hands full of late overhauling the restaurant chain. But this month sees the fruition of his rejuvenation exercise.
Prior to his move to Malaysia, the former chef was part of celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay’s trusted culinary brigade. He rose up the ranks to the lofty position of head chef in the Gordon Ramsay at Claridges Hotel restaurant.
When Ramsay’s culinary empire took a hit from his flagging reputation -- including the loss of a Michelin star for the Claridges restaurant -- Allen decided to take up an offer from E&O Berhad (E&O) chairman Datuk Terry Tham to join as Group Creative Chef.
Since he moved here in early 2012, it has been a rough ride for the English chef in charge of the restaurant’s culinary concept. Feeling homesick after a visit to London during the Christmas holidays, Allen contemplated moving back to the UK.
Initially E&O tapped him for a managerial position to run the restaurant’s operations but Allen admitted he did not have the confidence to trade his chef’s toque for a deskbound job. Following a trip to dismal London in February, he decided to throw in the apron and rise to the challenge. “I realised that I did not want to be stuck in the kitchen for the rest of my life,” he said.
Not one to accept hand-outs, Allen wanted to win the job on his terms. “I did not want the post to be given on a plate so I interviewed for the job side by side with other candidates,” he added. Eventually he was given the CEO position as the former CEO Michael Saxon wanted to return to the hotels division.
Allen admits it is tough to resurrect a brand strongly associated with its founder, Benjamin Yong, who sold his stake to E&O in 2010. “People have felt it has gone downhill especially the food,” he said. Nevertheless he believes he can turn around the struggling brand.
His approach is to start from scratch to sort out the restaurant’s core problems. This included rolling out a new menu. “You can’t change people’s perception with the same product,” he says. The old menu was just too huge; he trimmed it down by 50 per cent. “My vision is when you do big you can’t get it right and I prefer to just concentrate on a smaller menu,” he says.
This month, the new menu debuts in staggered periods at all of their 10 outlets around Malaysia and Singapore. Allen takes great pride in the menu he curated since it is a concerted effort with contributions from the Delicious Group’s own chefs. “I am not going to compete on the same menu but I will make it our own menu,” he says. So, the next time you dine in a Delicious outlet near you, expect to see exciting new dishes such as Beef Short Ribs
Herbal Soup or Lebanese Bread with Caramelised Onion Hummus right next to old favourites like their Homemade Pesto Spaghetti.
While service remains a tough issue to tackle, Allen is working closely with his Chief Operating Officer Andreas Konig to address it. The approach is to retrain staff to conduct a simple European style of service. “Language is a barrier but we have to teach them,” he said. Allen who once apprenticed in Boodles, an old gentlemen’s club in London, believes strongly in training culinary students. He has an arrangement with Help University to take in their culinary students as interns to work in the restaurants. It is a win-win situation for both parties as the interns help out for one day each week in exchange for future culinary classes to be conducted by Allen.
Despite his best efforts, operations have gone through a few rough patches with en masse staff resignations. “I had to put down an iron fist on some issues but once they knew this is how I worked and trusted me, some of them came on board.”
E&O has also been supportive of Allen’s proposals which includes renovating the outlets for more efficient operations. Plans are also underway to run a photography competition at their Sunway Pyramid outlet to engage students to contribute their best photos. This follows a successful cake competition run by the group to look for new cake ideas. Ultimately, Allen is banking on consistency in the food and service to draw back the crowds. “We have got one chance to do this.”
The Delicious Group of restaurants have outlets around Kuala Lumpur, Penang, Johor Bahru and Singapore. (http://www.thedeliciousgroup.com)
This story was first published in the print edition of The Malay Mail, August 16, 2013.