Buzz: Relais & Chateaux
For 50 years "Relais & Chateaux have been making dreams come true by staying faithful to the "5 C’s" Courtesy, Charm, Character, Calme & Cuisine. In case you’ve been on another planet for the last cinquante years, you’ll have discreetly pocketed the white album that is the R&C yearbook, bearing the worthy coat of arms, from whichever establishment you happen to be visiting at the time. There’s no shame in that: Regis Bulot, the charming president for the last 16 years, wants to you take it, use it, tell your friends.
"Relais & Chateaux was launched in 1954 by Marcel Tilloy, based on a neat idea, having stayed at a charming but hidden 7-room "demeure de caractere" somewhere in the Ardeche region. The pile need publicity, having been requisitioned as a hostel at the end of WW11", explained President Bulot, last week at the sumptuous Hotel d’Evreux, Paris where R&C threw a party to celebrate their 50th.
It seems Tilloy’s cousin owned a glossy magazine, very well thought of at the time, "Plaisir de France," which was read by the hoi polloi and doubtless treasured by doctors and dentists nationwide, for their waiting rooms. Tilloy wanted his hidden hotel to buy a page of pub; out of the question, the owner being a bit strapped at the time. So Tilloy had the idea of putting 8 off-the-beaten-track hotels together, and they’d share the expense. The itinerary chosen for the first campaign was the fabulous, legendary, Paris-Nice of the Nationale 7. "The participating hotels had to be silent, well furnished, with well-kept gardens, a perfect welcome and excellent cuisine," said Bulot. Thus "Les Relais de Campagne" was born.
Taking over as President in 1971, Jo Oliverau created under the umbrella Les Relais Gourmandes, and the first president was superchef Pierre Troisgros. This brought the culinary level of participating Relais to the highest standards possible, so that in 1974 Relais & Chateaux and Relais Gourmands merged. When Bulot took charge in 1987, he was also owner of the charming and successful Moulin de l’Abbaye at Brantome-en-Perigord. "To be President of Relais & Chateaux one must be a member of the group," explained Bulot, whose mandate (after 16 years) is up in 2005. So what then, who’ll take over? "Who knows?" he shrugs. In theory, any of the members could go after the title, but it comes with a load of baggage. Who needs it, I’m thinking. Wait and see.
The 2004 guide has 450 members (22 new entries and 33 departures, don’t ask, they probably didn’t meet the rigid standards required). The handsome white book has a print run of a million issues, in four languages; it’s also available on the internet. Head office is Paris, but there are also offices in New York, London, Berlin, Tokyo. Want to reserve a Relais Gourmand restaurant? Do it online, then you don’t have to be put on hold or listen to a little night music for ‘til dawn. How many meals do you think Relais & Chateaux and Relais Gourmands served in 2002? Would you believe 9 million, at an average of 93€. And that 1.98 million rooms were rented, and Relais & Chateaux have a total of 10,606 rooms worldwide.
So how do you get to be a member then? Hotel members pay an entry fee of 10,000€, after a daunting selection process, anonymous inspection and a questionnaire of 400 nosy questions, to make sure the correct loo-paper/soap/IHT will always be provided. The annual subscription is between 11,000€-15,000€ according to size, while Relais Gourmands pay 7,250€ annually. This year the three new Relais Gourmands are Lucas Carton, Paris; La Citronelle, Washington; and Testuya Wakuda, Sydney, Australia. Not forgetting prestige partners such as Silversea, Crystal Cruises, Abercrombie & Kent, and Orient-Express Trains & Cruises.
There’s no doubt about it: from a neat idea by the founder, to the present day Relais Chateaux and Relais Gourmands, the world is your oyster. All you have to do is whip up a guide (or send the butler out; see below) tap in your reservation and you’ve got a passport to the most luxurious, splendiferous addresses. Need the perfect year’s end gift? Look no further than "Les Cheques Invitations". I’m wishing on a star for le Taha’s Private Island and Spa, but you may go for Le Mas Candille, Mougins. Whatever, perfection comes at a price--do it because you’re worth it.
Happy Birthday, Relais & Chateaux.
See you next week.
Born in Britain and now based in Paris, Margaret Kemp graduated from The Cordon Bleu and spent a year working and watching in the kitchens of top chefs from Sydney, Australia via Bangkok, Hong Kong, California, New York and France. Realising she would never win the coveted 3-Michelin stars, she decided to write about the people who do, the "disciples of Escoffier".