The keen cook spills the beans on his rise from pot washer to hospitality executive
“Cut my arm and I bleed food and beverage,” says Peter Fulton.
Now executive vice-president of Hyatt hotels, and group president of Europe, Africa, Middle East and South-West Asia, he was originally inspired as a young lad growing up in Christchurch, New Zealand, by the “Galloping Gourmet” on television, Graham Kerr. When he left school, he knew he wanted to cook: “But I didn’t want to be a chef chef, I wanted to learn all the skills of catering and hospitality.” Which may explain how he started off as an apprentice pot washer at the Travelodge at Auckland airport.
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A tenuous Scottish connection led him to the Napier College of Commerce and Technology, where he won the “Taste of Scotland” competition three years running, cooking up menus – live, in front of an audience – that were specifically Scottish in content (he distantly recalls venison burgers). He didn’t rest on his laurels, however, and set off to London where he won the Danish Dairy Board award at Olympia. And that was despite leaving out a crucial ingredient in his winning dish – like all good cooks, he simply took his concoction out of the oven, stuffed in what was missing, and shoved it all back in again. Job done.
On the back of these youthful triumphs, in the late 1970s, he was earning £27.50 a week at Claridges, paying £15 in rent. Booted out with no visa after three years, he ended up in Switzerland, with a notion of learning French, but married a German woman instead. “I’m still struggling with English,” he says. There is still a trace of the Kiwi in his accent. “I can order a beer in German.” Hopscotching the planet with Hyatt from Dubai to Canberra to Acapulco, he never became a polyglot, but his hotels like to speak the language of the locality in more ways than one. One of his key words is “diversity”.
I meet him at the Hyatt Regency London – The Churchill hotel in Marylebone. This is a themed hotel. You can buy books of Churchill quotes or a Churchill mug in the souvenir shop. There is a Chartwell Room (paying homage to the great man’s house in Kent) and you can drink bottles of water from Blenheim Palace (where he was born). Later this year there is even a special “royal wedding package” (not to mention the unsurpassable Royal Suite). You come here for a taste of Britishness. On the other hand, also in London, the Andaz London Liverpool Street, on the site of the old Bethlehem hospital, is more informal, more groovy and unbuttoned, and gives a massive shout-out to Shoreditch and the East End, with works by local street artists on the wall, and a fully-fledged Masonic Temple in the basement, so outstandingly conspiratorial that it deserves to make an appearance in a novel by Dan Brown or Umberto Eco.
Similarly, each hotel around the world tries to reflect its location. “You won’t find two or three the same”. Peter Fulton hates the monoculture of modern hotels. The idea of eating a Mac burger in Paris causes him visceral dismay. “Remember what a blancmange was like?” he asks. “That’s what we want to avoid. It’s forgettable. We are not a bed factory.” His philosophy is to “curate experiences” for guests, to give them the taste of Scotland or wherever. Ultimately, the idea is to “get something that is individual to you”. I notice that, for example, there is a kids-are-welcome part of the hotel; equally, there is a kids-free section, if you really want to get away from the fun and games. It’s all about finding the niche.
Fulton embraces disruption. There is no steady state, to his way of thinking. The hotel business is still expanding, alongside the growth in air travel and the rise of the internet. The smartphone is “a great disruptor”, but “tremendously positive”. Food photography on Instagram, for example, has been a great “catalyst” for travel. “People take photos of some great food, other people want to go out and sample it.”
Fulton is a well preserved and fit-looking man. He still cooks to relax (his signature dish is beef dhansak), but he also works out at the gym and is in training for a “mini-triathlon” (500m swim, 5k run, 20k cycle). He speaks of “balance”, which means that he has to keep an eye not only on the kitchen and the health club, but everything else too, “from security to air conditioning to taking out the garbage”. It’s not so surprising that Arthur Hailey should have set one of his bestsellers in a hotel. The hotel is a microcosm, a melting pot. Fulton likes it that way. “Anything that can happen in a city will happen in a hotel.”