Staff solution: Train local talent

COMMENT: With rates starting at $500 per night, the new Fogo Island Inn aims to attract wealthy explorer travellers.

JOE BATT’S ARM, NL—The Fogo Island Inn, which opened May 15, is a 29-room luxe establishment, with room rates starting at $500 per night. It is the brainchild of Zita Cobb, whose idea was to attract wealthy explorer travellers who want a travel experience that is unique and locally authentic.

The restaurant must be top notch to appeal to such clientele—and it is. It has made En Route magazine’s shortlist of 35 Top New Restaurants. Over the next few months, that list will be whittled down to 10 and the winners honoured in the November, 2013 issue of the magazine.

The Inn is located a six hour drive plus an hour-long ferry trip from St. John’s. Fogo Island Inn could easily have experienced the problem of attracting qualified kitchen staff. So how did they get the cooking brigade that could produce world class fare that is also fresh and local? 

Step 1: They hired key staff from other world-class establishments. In the case of Fogo Island, both executive chef Murray McDonald and F&B co-ordinator Jacob Luksic came from the award-winning Fairmont Pacific Rim. 

Thanks in part to the buzz surrounding the opening of the Inn, they had no problem attracting and recruiting those two. As a bonus, McDonald is from Deer Lake on the west coast of Newfoundland. After travelling the world, he was ready to come back to his home province. And after supervising a brigade of 72 at the Fairmont Pacific Rim, he was eager to return to hands-on cooking and a manageable staff of 12. 

“When I was 18, I never wanted to see Newfoundland again,” McDonald said. He went to culinary school in P.E.I., then worked in Ontario at the Stratford Chef School and Vineland Estates Winery. Wanderlust took him to Bermuda, Grand Cayman, Cook Islands, China, New Zealand and Vancouver. 

His job at Fogo Island was never posted. He talked to another Newfoundlander working in security at the Pacific Rim, heard there was a new, high-end hotel under construction on Fogo Island, applied and got the job four hours later.

Step 2: They made sure these key players were onsite long before the place opened. McDonald started working at the Inn on May 1, 2012 when the dining room was “just dirt”. It wasn’t built until October.

Step 3: They hired and trained local talent. This approach fit well with Cobb’s main reason for establishing the Inn—to bring economic prosperity to Fogo Island, which is her home. 

So they trained their own cooks, using a 23-week emerit culinary training program. They started with 10 local residents, who had never worked as cooks before. At the end of the program, they had seven trained cooks. “For most, it was a second career,” McDonald noted.

Cooking fresh and indigenous meals is less challenging when you’re hiring people who know the island and its culinary fare.

Cobb told CLN that 95 per cent of the Inn’s staff are local. Fogo Island Inn has partnered with Hospitality Newfoundland and Labrador to use emerit training products for their line cooks, housekeeping room attendants, food and beverage servers and front desk agents.  

It’s an approach that works on Fogo, though it may not work in places like Fort McMurray, where there is strong competition from high-paying industries like oil and gas. 

Certainly, it’s refreshing to visit the Inn and have someone local fill you in on the correct terminology for meals—supper for the main meal and dinner for the noon meal. Or to point out a whale off in the distance as you sit and dine at the Fogo Island restaurant. Or to explain that winters on Fogo are actually quite mild compared to the rest of the province.