In its first year Downunder, the Food and Beverage Masters gave Hilton hopefuls from 20+ Australasian Hiltons the chance to compete and, by all accounts, New Zealand did very well.
"Two of our four winners came from our hotels in New Zealand and the ultimate winner was Hilton Queenstown," says Paul Hutton, Vice-President Operations, Australasia at Hilton Worldwide. "I think the secret to the Kiwis' success was that they didn't play it safe and they truly embraced the opportunity."
The programme was first launched in Europe in 2011 and expanded to include Southeast Asia in 2014. Its success made it possible for the first Australasian event this year. And rather than trying to create internal rivalry, Hutton says it was all about personal development.
"It gave our team members an opportunity to develop their skills and creativity in a variety of food and beverage disciplines," says Hutton, who joined Hilton in 1984 in Switzerland, before working at Hiltons in Melbourne, Bucharest, Kuwait, Kuala Lumpur, Sydney and Hong Kong.
Hilton Auckland's contestant was Jonas Vogel (29), Bellini Bar's supervisor since January 2015. Raised in a military family of German and Norwegian descent, his passion was always to travel the world. He set out 18 months ago as a backpacker, but when he got to the "very pretty country" of New Zealand, he chose to settle down and plant some roots.
"I have always been in hospitality and have a passion for people and making them happy," says Vogel, who spent four days at the final of the F&B Masters in Sydney alongside a dozen contestants from Fiji, Australia and New Zealand. "The more responsibilities I'm given, the more fun work is for me and I consider every work day a school day, because I am always keen to learn more things."
Vogel says his favourite task during the competition was the Black Box Challenge, where competitors were given ten mystery ingredients -- such as peanut butter, oyster sauce or vinegar -- and they had to choose at least three to create a cocktail within five minutes.
"I made an Apple Twirl with apple juice, ginger liquor, white run, vodka, lime juice and egg white. It was a nice silky smooth cocktail with a little froth on top," says Vogel, who admits the atmosphere was more supportive than competitive and a great chance to meet like-minded people from across the company.
It's also a chance to see what the rest of the world are doing with their F&B. During the Middle East and Africa competition, one competitor made a cocktail out of real gold dust, which he said was "not available on happy hour!" In contrast, Vogel showcased the healthy Kiwi palate by making his signature cocktail Viva La Beet, a beetroot gin-based martini with a fruity component.
"It's refreshing and good for the metabolism," says Vogel. "Even though our customers consume alcohol, they still want it to have a healthy side."
Alongside the competitive element, there were also a range of masterclasses and training on different spirits and the theoretic aspects of the job, such as the history of spirits or cocktails.
"We spoke to inspirational ambassadors and the cocktail artists who won last year, as well as visiting spirit houses, a brewery and a bar to learn about Japanese whiskey," says Vogel.
"It was an honour and a great opportunity for me to be part of such a big event," he says. "It's good to be part of an international company keeping us up-to-date in an ever-changing world."
So, what changes are in store next for the Food and Beverage industry before next year's competition?
"My belief is that we will continue to see restaurants and bars 'think global, act local'. I think this is particularly true of our restaurants and bars in Australia and New Zealand, where we take the best of the global trends and interpret them with a local twist," says Hutton.
Hilton Worldwide's commitment to career development for team members does not end after the competition. Team members like Vogel are given access to a world of opportunities to develop personally and professionally through on-the-job training, virtual courses, management development programmes and learning seminars.
So, if you're downtown at the Bellini Bar, ask Vogel about the history behind the cocktail you've ordered. Or better still, order a Viva La Beet.