Tastemakers is a series dedicated to major restaurant chains' executive chefs and other under-recognized experts who shape how America eats, dishing on what they're cooking, food trends and more.
Some of chef Russell Booth's most memorable moments at Hard Rock Cafe don't revolve around food. They revolve around music.
"I have so many stories to tell you, and those story are from Elton John, from Tony Bennett – I've sat with all of them," says Booth, 53. "As the executive chef, I'm proud to say I've been able to meet those artists and also cater to those artists."
For Booth, a day of work could mean testing recipes at company headquarters in Orlando, Fla., or jetting off to the United Arab Emirates to test food at the Dubai location (he estimates he spends 40 percent of his time traveling). Sometimes, it even means having Micky Dolenz from The Monkees knock on his office door late at night, lost in the restaurant.
"Those are the kind of things that happen only at Hard Rock Cafe," says Booth.
Booth joined Hard Rock 21 years ago. He was classically trained with French chefs, and worked in the hotel industry before joining the company. However, throughout his career, he has been driven not only by his culinary instincts, but also his passion for music.
"I've been interested in music since I was a child," says Booth. "I remember growing up in New York, in the '60s, listening to the music of bossa nova and that really did something to me. Music takes me to a place and time."
The first Hard Rock Cafe was founded in 1971, in London, as an American style diner with an appreciation for rock and roll. Today, there 202 venues, most located in international tourist hotspots in 64 countries. Since being purchased by the Seminole Tribe in Florida in 2007, the company has increased its focus on hotels, casinos and resorts more than ever before.
Most people, even if they've never eaten at a Hard Rock Cafe, are familiar with the brand due to the iconic character Hard Rock Cafe t-shirts developed in the ‘90s. While retail still makes up 40 percent of the company's business, the fact that American customers tend to see the Hard Rock Cafe brand as emblematic of a past decade is something that the company is trying hard to fight. When it comes to its image, Hard Rock is now dedicated to emphasizing authenticity over a kitschy theme.
Over and over, Booth highlights this idea of authenticity and cosmopolitan internationality at the Hard Rock Cafe. His role, he says, is to combine the sense of place that people draw from music with unique, authentic food. To do so, he has helped craft a dauntingly extensive list of dishes, with menus varying at different locations. For example, the chain serves up 150 different burgers around the world. In Dubai, you can order a burger with dates. In Atlanta, the restaurant serves a burger topped with an egg over easy.
"We celebrate music with great food, so that's our inspiration," says Booth. "We're authentic. The guitar that's hung in the London cafe in 1971 by Eric Clapton, it's one of a kind. And every piece of memorabilia that you see on the wall in every cafe we have, that's authentic."