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 Moving Onto The World Stage:  Kiev Hyatt Regency

FrommerLuxuryTravel
Myrna Katz Frommer and Harvey Frommer

It was 8 o’clock in the morning when the bells began to peal. We’d arrived in Kiev the night before, checked into the brand new Hyatt Regency and quickly fell asleep. Now wakened by the chimes, we drew back the drapes. And there before us were the multiple golden cupolas of St. Michael’s Cathedral, rising up from facades blue as the sky this glorious June morning, gleaming brilliantly in the sunlight, and circled by flocks of swallows. We stood at the window entranced for maybe a quarter of an hour until the chimes ceased and the birds flew up over the treetops of neighboring Volodymyrs’ka Hirka Park heading towards the Dnieper River which slices down Ukraine all the way to the Black Sea. Thus began our memorable, dare we say mystical, encounter with this city which manages to retain an ancient Byzantine aura even as it stands poised to emerge onto the world stage as a major European capital in a nascent democracy.

“There’s a lot of interest in Ukraine right now,” says Stephen Ansell, the Hyatt G.M. “It’s in the center of Europe, the continent’s second largest nation after Russia. The Crimean coast is incredible, there’s a huge Black Sea coastline and the Carpathian Mountains. The 2012 European Football Championship will be held here --  a tremendous achievement. All sorts of infrastructure will be developed. Kiev itself is very interesting historically.  And we are hoping to contribute to the country’s rapidly growing hospitality sector.”

 Twelve hours had passed since the ringing of the bells; we’re having drinks with Stephen in the Hyatt’s glittery lobby lounge whose centerpiece is a stunning fireplace open on both sides. Moments before we’d climbed a glass and steel stairway, an engineering marvel  that inexplicably floats up two stories from the below-ground level --it was like walking on a bridge suspended in space. Now, back on earth, we take in the striking décor and down the smoothest vodka ever. “Nemiroff -- Ukraine’s most famous vodka,” Stephen explains. “In the other CIS countries: Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kryzygtan, Russia, it is the most respected of all. And these guys know their vodka.”

Stephen is an Englishman, fair-haired, with a ruddy complexion, an infectious smile, and overwhelming enthusiasm for “Hyatt’s first project in Ukraine, and Ukraine’s first five-star international property.”

Soon shrimp cocktails in frosted glasses arrive. So do two other people involved in the project. Valentine Smirnyagin, a bookish-looking young man who recently returned home from Pennsylvania having earned his MBA from the University of Pittsburgh, represents the local company that owns the hotel (as with many of its properties, Hyatt’s role is managerial). Mary Lystad, a slender and elegant American wearing a vibrant Missoni dress (“I bought it in Washington DC during my last trip home”), is an investment officer for International Finance Corporation, a branch of the World Bank, which lends money for projects in the private sector in emerging markets.

Stephen Ansell, General Manager of Kiev’s Hyatt Regency - click to enlarge
 Stephen Ansell, General Manager of Kiev’s Hyatt Regency

As the conversation turns, we realize what we are witnessing is more than the excitement generated by involvement in the early days of a new luxury hotel. It is the sense of being a participant in something larger -- a national momentum in a country whose past was so often marked by oppression and war but whose future portends development of vast natural resources, economic growth, and the undeniable rewards of a democratic government.

“The very example of this hotel expresses a kind of confidence in Ukraine,” says Valentine. “It comes from a stable economy. A stable economy leads to economic growth; with economic growth comes greater democratic forces. The bottom line for the future of Ukraine is to have a stable environment where business can thrive, where tourists can come for leisure, and business people for business.”

Mary interjects. “The fact that the IFC is here is a sign of confidence in the property and its location; something that was not present a few years ago. We act as a catalyst to bring commercial banks to the area which furthers economic development.”

She smiles, “It’s a very exciting time, something of the moment. Ukraine is on the way up. There is massive interest in the country, massive change. In terms of opportunity, Ukraine is going to go places.”

 And Stephen adds, “The hotel is a great step forward for Kiev. But it’s also a great achievement for Hyatt. We view it as a big honor to be the first one in the door.”

 That door opens onto an encompassing chronology going back to the times when Kiev was the capital of Kievan Rus, the medieval predecessor state that ultimately divided into Belarus, Russia and Ukraine. And the Hyatt is positioned in its historic heart.

From a hilltop in the old city, the hotel overlooks a pair of Russian Orthodox cathedrals built in the eleventh century, during “the Golden Age of Kiev,” a time when Christianity was still relatively new to this part of the world. To the east is St. Michael’s (of the chiming bells); to the west, Saint Sophia with its 13 green and gold cupolas. Named by UNESCO a World Heritage Site, it is the “sister cathedral” to Istanbul’s Byzantine masterwork, the Hagia Sophia.

Saint Michael’s (of the chiming bells) - click to enlarge
Saint Michael’s (of the chiming bells)

Saint Sophia (sister to Istanbul’s Hagia Sophia) - click to enlarge
Saint Sophia (sister to Istanbul’s Hagia Sophia)

The Hyatt is a neo-modern edifice, the sole 21st century building in sight. It stands before a broad plaza studded with garden beds of roses and geraniums. Beyond is Saint Sophia’s Square dominated by a statue of the Cossack general het’man Bohdan Khmelnitskiy rearing back on his horse. Across the way, a row of small 18th century buildings, painted yellow and white  and transformed into high-end boutiques, line the street. Nearby, Volodymyrs’ka Hirki Park, its greenery  bordered by big, brilliant marigolds, meanders downhill to the Dnieper River. It is altogether a historical panorama (although happily free from the dreariness of Soviet-era buildings) but also one reflecting contemporary Ukrainian urban life, bustling with a crisscrossing of vehicular and pedestrian traffic and the haphazardly parked cars one sees all over Kiev. Embraced by centuries past, the Hyatt stands in striking contrast to its architectural neighbors. At the same time, its curved facade of blue glass acts as a huge mirror throwing back varying images of Kiev’s long history.

 

   

To enter the hotel is a heart-stopping experience -- even by Hyatt standards. Predictable enough is the soaring atrium at the center of the lobby that gradually narrows to a skylit roof.  Only this one is of a shape that resists description. One observer remarked it was a quarter of a circle; another thought it looked like an ellipse. Neither seems quite right. Still it earns universal gasps whether looking up from ground level or through the glass wall of the elevator that glides along one of the three straight walls (the fourth is curved), pulled and released by steel pulleys.

The lobby’s walls and floors are gleaming, cream-colored marble. Furnishings are coolly contemporary – swiveling Eames-style chairs, low backed sofas in a nubby white fabric, stark black coffee tables. There are great open expanses, huge windows bringing in natural light, minimalist décor. The ambience is anything but Byzantine. Still, pillars wrapped in what appear to be sheets of gold mosaics, and golden rectangular plates that  hover above lighting fixtures suspended from the atrium on lines so thin they’re nearly invisible are subtle echoes of the gleaming cupolas but a short distance away.

The stairway seemingly suspended in space - click to enlarge
The stairway seemingly suspended in space
 

In the lobby: golden echoes of the cupolas - click to enlarge
In the lobby: golden echoes of the cupolas

While belonging to a fraternity of 217 hotels in 43 countries, the Kiev Hyatt never forgets where it is. The 234 guest rooms and suites are replete with the de-rigueur accoutrements for a five-star hotel: handsome and luxurious furnishing, state-of-the-art communications technologies, digital controls for lights, television, and draperies. But there’s also a steam bath – one’s own private “schwitz” -- available at the touch of the shower dial. And although Grill Asia, the hotel’s main restaurant, focuses on the multiple cuisines of Southeast Asia, Ukrainian products and preparations are in ample supply.

To enter Grill Asia, one crosses a little bridge from an interior hallway into the splendid spaciousness of a contemporary dining room whose huge windows look out over the neighboring landmarks. True to the modern spirit of the hotel, surfaces are granite, glass, steel, and marble; floors and wall panels are of dark wood; straight-lined, streamlined tables and chairs easily combine into settings for group get-togethers or intimate rendezvous.  On the far side of the room, a generous-sized horseshoe-shaped bar stands beside floor-to-ceiling glass-fronted wine closets.

But the chief distinction of Grill Asia lies less in its dining (and drinking) facilities than its kitchen which takes up more than half the restaurant’s space. Inspired by the concept of the “Open Kitchen” where a couple of chefs do their thing behind a row of burners, the Grill Asia brings the entire kitchen on stage. All the props are there: the cold buffet table refrigerated from below, the refrigerators themselves outfitted with glass doors that artfully display ingredients from strawberries to cheeses, the island of burners and grills, the wood-burning oven, the big square steaming area beneath an enormous white hood, even the pots and pans. And of course, the company of chefs in their toques blanc. Nothing is backstage but storage facilities.

“In Ukraine there is this tendency of people to share things,” Stephen told us  when our little party gathered for dinner. “So I thought we might share appetizers family-style.” At the Grill Asia kitchen, maybe some ten feet from our table, we could see cooks preparing the little kabobs of chicken, beef and shrimp in a spicy peanut sauce -- they were consumed in no time, the crispy and delicate miniature spring rolls, a refreshing glass noodle salad flavored with coriander. From the tray of crushed ice on the Cold Seafood Bar came a seemingly endless supply of plump oysters flown in from Brittany. From the cold meat table, servings of delectable foie gras.

All of which was enough for a meal, but the temptation to try such national favorites as borscht, served hot, with meat and accompanied by pampushki, a challah-like bread topped with garlic and dill, and vareniky stuffed with cherries and served with sour cream (causing a rush of Proustian euphoria) was too powerful to resist.

The next morning, the setting appeared unchanged.  Only the Grill Asian kitchen was closed, and elsewhere the focus had shifted to breakfast foods. The Cold Seafood Bar was now the repository for cereals, a variety of yogurts, a lavish display of fresh fruits. Alongside the burners, platters of potatoes, onions, mushrooms and grilled tomatoes sat beside a huge bowl of eggs waiting to be assembled into custom-made omelets. A buffet held cold meats and the smoked fish we adore: salmon, sturgeon, herrings, also cheeses of many kinds. Another buffet laden with fabulous desserts the night before now displayed the great Ukrainian breads: crusty village dark bread, pumpernickel with fruits and nuts, rye, and dark wheat. In their midst, a  huge goblet was filled to overflowing with the small sweet cherries in season at this time of the year.

“We have two totally different cuisines here – the Asian and the European,” Executive Chef Mike Borsdorf told us over coffee. “We do a lot of Ukrainian dishes – a European cuisine but with its own specialties. That’s typical of Hyatt –they always include local culture into the menu.

“As for the Asian cuisine, there is no proper Asian restaurant in Kiev. We are starting something new. Right now we have an Indonesian chef and a Vietnamese chef. Next month I’ll probably get a Thai chef, and we have plans for a small sushi bar.”

Chef Mike Borsdorf in the Open Kitchen - click to enlarge
Chef Mike Borsdorf in the Open Kitchen

Although he admits to being in the culinary field for twenty one years, Mike, who was born and grew up in Germany, looks no older than that and has the fresh-faced optimism of an American undergraduate from the 1950s.

“I think I got into this line of work because I always had wanderlust and thought as a chef, I could see the world,” he confessed.

Being a long-time a member of the Hyatt family has allowed Mike to realize his dream. He first became exposed to the various Asian cuisines in Australia. In Dubai he met the Vietnamese chef whom he lured to Kiev. “But the other Asian chef is from Jakarta,” he noted. “This is the first time he ever left Indonesia. It is a big move for him.”

It was a much easier move for Mike whose last Hyatt station was Moscow. Still he has immersed himself in Kiev’s culinary culture, frequents the local market to see what is available, seeks out people who know the cuisine. “The produce here is excellent,” he said. “Now we have the early cherries; soon they will be bigger. I discovered honeycomb in the market. We serve it for breakfast; you break off a piece and eat it.

“The foie gras is excellent, so are the sausages. The smoked fish are very traditional, and we get very good  quality. I’m looking forward to the fresh mushrooms of the fall. There are no truffles, but what do I need them for? The mushrooms are terrific.”

 He went on, “Our baker is German but the people working with him are local. We asked the people we hired what are the good breads and we asked that they bake them as well. These breads we have – you won’t find them everywhere.”

As part of the team, Mike is participating in the movement of Kiev onto the world stage. “We are requesting things from suppliers they may not be ready for,” he told us. “We have to tell them specifically what they are – like the prime American beef we are trying to get. The staff is not used to the style we are working in. We have to be very demanding. But they all are willing because they know our guests have certain expectations, and we have to meet them.”

He continued, “I love this kitchen. One of the best I’ve ever been in. There’s not another kitchen like this in the Ukraine. It is so wonderful to be out front.” He smiled, paused for a moment, then added, “But when we work, we forget we are surrounded by guests, and  we work as if it is a closed kitchen.”

If Jean-Francois Durand still has a hankering to put on his white apron and chef’s hat, he is not saying. Born and raised in France where he trained as a chef, the soft-spoken deputy manager could be mistaken for a philosopher or a poet. In fact, he has been both chef and F&B manager in various Hyatt properties for fifteen years and in locations as far-flung as Moscow and Jerusalem. But at the Kiev Hyatt, his domain is room operations. “The mission is to go to what you do not usually do,” he told us. “Hyatt deserves a lot of credit in that it gives its people the opportunity to grow. Once they prove themselves in one area, they are exposed to something new.

“Nevertheless,” he admits, “every so often I am tempted to stop in, see what the chef is doing, and give some advice. But I resist it.”

Instead Jean-Francois showed us some of the public spaces of the Kiev Hyatt starting with the conference center, an annex with a street entrance from the building next door. “Like so many historic buildings in Kiev, this one is protected,” he said of the 19th century three-story red brick building with decorative arches, bas-relief pillars and wedding-cake type embellishments. “It can’t be torn down; its façade cannot be altered. So we have incorporated it into the hotel – it makes for an interesting entrance.”

Within, the conference center is decidedly 21st century with some spectacular futuristic effects like a round recessed ceiling in a meeting room whose color deepens via a light control panel from the palest blue to indigo.

We descended to the below-ground level where Spa Naturel, the hotel’s health club/fitness/wellness and beauty center, is situated. “It is for hotel guests but membership is available for people in the community as well,” Jean Francois told us as we entered a gym-sized room with an enormous swimming pool, “This is one of the largest in Kiev, 82-feet long, 23-feet wide,” he said. Undoubtedly it is also one of the most beautiful; lined with mosaic tiles in patterns of gold, royal blue and emerald green, it is yet another link in the Byzantium chain.

Jean-Francois Durand, deputy manager - click to enlarge
 Jean-Francois Durand, deputy manager

Pedro Lopez, director of Spa Naturel, joined our little tour down a corridor lined with treatment rooms, sauna, showers, all the facilities one would expect in a spa. “But Spa Naturel goes beyond what one traditionally expects in a spa,” he insisted. Elegantly dressed and handsome as an old fashioned matinee idol, Pedro came to Kiev from the Hyatt in Murcia, Spain having brought the exclusive Barcelona brand Natura Visse along with him. “It’s not well known in America, but it’s a trendy product in Europe that  celebrities use. Also Carita from Paris, an excellent brand.” He described the spa’s “Diamond” facials which achieve Botox effects without injections (sadly, we were not around long enough to indulge in one).

 Spa Director Pedro Lopez - click to enlarge
 Spa Director Pedro Lopez

 Evoking moods of Byzantium: the Spa Naturel Pool - click to enlarge
  Evoking moods of Byzantium: the Spa Naturel Pool

 “Our clients can choose among a range of massages from different parts of the world,” Pedro added.  “Hawaii, Mexico, Japan, for example. We do the Siatsu (Japanese) massage on the face. I try to mix different cultures, rituals from different parts of the world. Our products are natural and aromatic for a total sensory experience. Our goals are  beauty and well-being, not only for your skin but for total relaxation inside and out.”

It soon became clear that the “top brass” of the hotel was made up of experienced Hyatt personnel who had years of on-the-job training at properties all over the world. Stephen Ansell, for example, has worked in such diverse locales as Istanbul, Bischcain –Kryzygstan, Southeast Asia, Saudi Arabia, and Moscow. Together they form a highly accomplished team that is up to the challenge of keeping the spotlight on this exceptional property.

But the 250-member staff is comprised largely of young Ukrainians. Engaging, competent, eager to please, they do whatever is needed to make one’s stay a pleasure. “We had to recruit from the area,” Stephen told us. “And 75% of  our employees have never worked in the hotel industry before, mainly because the industry is just establishing itself as an employer in Kiev. But we found people who are very willing to learn, easy to train, and so excited to be part of this ground-breaking experience. All are fluent in Ukrainian, Russian, and English. Many know a fourth, even a fifth language. They are a key factor in the country’s future.”

 Key to the future: just a few of the Hyatt Regency staff - click to enlarge
  Key to the future: just a few of the Hyatt Regency staff

And. . . the lovely Anna Taruta - click to enlarge
And. . . the lovely Anna Taruta

Among the young Ukrainians who have joined the Hyatt team is the lovely Anna Taruta, sales and marketing coordinator. Anna was nine years old when the Soviet Union dissolved and Ukraine declared independence. She witnessed life under the Soviet system and the unsettled time that followed. But, as a result of living in an increasingly free environment, she has had the opportunity of attending university in London and training at the Hyatt there and in Berlin. Now she has come back home. 

“I’m thrilled to be placed here,” said Anna who was our unofficial guide throughout our stay. She is enamored of Kiev, informed about its historic sites, aware of its tragic history, and hopeful for its future.

It was with Anna that we saw the Golden Gate of Kiev, the city's ancient entrance, familiar to music lovers from the triumphant conclusion of Modest Mussorgsky's "Pictures at an Exhibition."  Seeing the gate surrounded by chestnut trees, which did look golden in the morning sunlight, we could almost hear the orchestrated pealing of the bells and thought how this legendary city had been the capital of Kievan Rus for centuries until it was destroyed after the Tartar and Mogul invasions in 1240 and how that designation subsequently fell on Moscow.

Our last night in Kiev, we walked, together with Anna and her friend Andriy Syrytsya the few blocks from the hotel to Independence Square, site of the Orange Revolution. It was still light out. The menacing towers of the massive Soviet-style buildings that rim the square seemed less ominous in the soft dusky light, perhaps because the mood in the square was so lighthearted. There were skateboarders trying out daredevil maneuvers – not always successfully, young couples holding hands as they strolled along flower-bordered pathways, parents wheeling little children in strollers.

Andriy is a marketing analyst who recently returned home after working in the Hague and Frankfurt. Now he is part of the Hyatt team. “It is an exciting time,” he said. “That is why I have come back.

Symbol of Kiev: The Golden Gate - click to enlarge
Symbol of Kiev: The Golden Gate

 “Today Russia is using gas and oil prices as a means of influencing things,” he told us referring to recent political events. “They are trying to push their political agenda. But there’s no going back. Ukraine will never be a part of Russia again.”

“There’s a lot of room for the city and the country to grow,” Stephen had told us. “And we are delighted to play a part of it. Ukraine has suffered a lot in the past. But the people are very forward and positive.

“Our hope is to generate interest from Western Europe. There are very good and short flight links. London to Kiev directly is 3 ½ hours. Nothing. From the States, we hope to jump on the bandwagon of neighboring nations such as Poland and Russia so visitors can come to Kiev on a direct flight from New York and stay for a couple of days before going to St. Petersburg and Moscow.”

He went on,  “There’s interest from Western Europe in finding alternative destinations for meetings, regional events, etc. Ukraine is ready for this; Kiev is ready for this.” He smiled and added, “So is the Kiev Hyatt.”

Hyatt Regency Kyiv
S.A. Tarasova Street
Kyiv 01001 Ukraine

Phone: 380 44 581 1234
Web:  http://wwwww.kyiv.regency.hyatt.com

Photographs by Harvey Frommer

#  #  #

About the Authors:  Myrna Katz Frommer and Harvey Frommer are a wife and husband team who successfully bridge the worlds of popular culture and traditional scholarship. Co-authors of the critically acclaimed interactive oral histories It Happened in the Catskills, It Happened in Brooklyn, Growing Up Jewish in America, It Happened on Broadway, It Happened in Manhattan, It Happened in Miami. They teach what they practice as professors at Dartmouth College.

They are also travel writers who specialize in luxury properties and fine dining as well as cultural history and Jewish history and heritage in the United States, Europe, and the Caribbean. More about these authors.

You can contact the Frommers at: 

Email: myrna.frommer@Dartmouth.EDU
Email: harvey.frommer@Dartmouth.EDU
Web: http://www.dartmouth.edu/~frommer/travel.htm.

This Article is Copyright © 1995 - 2012 by Harvey and Myrna Frommer.  All rights reserved worldwide.

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