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An Interview with Ansell Hawkins, Chambers General Manager

Ansell HawkinsFor as long as Tablet’s been online, Chambers has been one of midtown Manhattan’s finest boutique hotels. It’s got a lot to do with a great location, some stylish, comfortable interiors, and a well-chosen food-and-beverage partnership. But ultimately, hospitality is a personal business — so we thought the best way to get to the bottom of Chambers’s long-term success would be to speak to the man who’s been behind the curtain for the past decade-and-change: general manager Ansell Hawkins.Just as an icebreaker: is there a memory from your time at Chambers so far that always makes you laugh?The sex toy guy! They were never delivered to his room, but he always signed for them. So, being fond of sex, I called him and asked if there was anything special we could do for him. Not that we procure anything, but, you know, you keep having these sex toys delivered to a suite that you’re not staying in…

Who were they for?

It turns out he’s a photographer, I think relatively well known, who folks contracted to take pictures of themselves, their partners, and assorted strangers, in hotels. It turned out to be very lucrative business for us! You know, we’re not puritans here. Hotels are hotels.

It’s a great business idea.

It is! He’s published two or three books, which I’ve put out [in the Chambers lobby] — because I don’t care about scaring the horses. They get stolen, just like that. And they’re expensive.

Chambers

Chambers Duplex Suite

You’ve been here for 12 years, which is a long time in an industry with famously high turnover. Has your strategy changed at all during those years?

No, my strategy’s never changed. The only strategy I have is hospitality. It’s all about hiring. You just get the right people. I can train pretty much anyone to do pretty much anything in this hotel, my job included! What’s hard is doing it gracefully under pressure. But I can’t train or teach somebody to be nice. It’s hospitality, you know? I can tell when somebody’s walking across the room whether I can hire them or not.

Not everybody has that eye.

I walked by a competitor, and looked at the doorman, and his collar was kind of sideways and he had his hands in his pockets, and he just wasn’t…. I’ve got two of the best doormen on the planet. One of them will sell his grandmother five times over, which is exactly what you want in a doorman! It’s New York City: “I will sell you that parking space,” that’s just how it works. The executive housekeeper has been here for ten years, the engineer for 11 years, the director of sales in one form or another for ten years. Housekeeping is the hardest of them all, and I’ve got the queen. I worship the ground she walks on.

Chambers

Chambers Terrace Suite

What made you choose this career path? Did you always have your eyes set on a small, beautiful hotel?

No, no. I ran the Odeon for quite awhile in the Eighties, and then I had a restaurant of my own for three or four years, and the partnership was just hell, and I just never wanted to fuck for money. I mean, we’re all fucking for something — and it’s all money, right? — but you get to choose your bedmates if you’re really, really fortunate, so I got out of that one. And then I sold Christmas trees and apples in Union Square.

A very honorable New York profession.

Then Andre Balazs called, whom I’d known for years, and he had Sunset out on Shelter Island, it was his first year. So I went out there for a summer, and it was only 20 rooms, but a big restaurant, which I obviously knew more about. It was all hell, it was just a shitshow. Everybody on the island thought Andre was an interloper, because he’d taken this little family hotel and made it “the Hamptons.” I think it’s settled in now, almost 20 years later, but at the time….

People hate to see their neighborhood change.

Even though it was hard, I had fun. I knew how to help people have fun. A local named Happy gave us a rowboat that his family kept behind their house. I went to pick it up and we found a family of possums living under there. We put it in the back of the truck, we get it down to the water, and it’s got holes in it. He’s like, “they’re small, you can row it back and you’ll be fine.”

Famous last words.

And you could — with one person in it. So a few friends call, and they and their significant others are coming over on their yacht, and they don’t have a tender, so could somebody meet them? So I go out, and one of the wives, more of a princess, really, steps into the boat with her dainty little foot. And then her husband, a rather portly filmmaker, gets in, and I’m looking at the water coming in through the holes. And then another gets in, and another….

So we’re rowing, and I said, “you know, Ms. X, if you’d be so kind as to take off your sandals and put your feet over some of the holes, I think we’ll be in much better shape.” Because we’ve got five people in the boat, and I’m a swimmer, not a rower. We’re not making much progress. So I said “guys, here’s the deal, I’m just going to swim us in.” I stripped down to my boxers, and I tied a rope around my ankle, and I swam them in on a sinking rowboat. It was a gorgeous day, it was summer in Shelter Island, it doesn’t get any better. So I pull them out of the water, I get them out, and then we serve them lunch! And it’s great, somebody else took them back out to the boat.

How did you get connected with the Chambers owners?

Ira I’d known for a long time and we’d hung out. Richard I didn’t know as well. He always tells me that he hires people within the first 30 seconds, but he brought me back for three interviews — that’s not a good sign! And then he hired me, and I think it’s surprised him how well it’s worked out, because I’m not conventional in any way. I think it surprised all of us.

Chambers

Chambers Lobby | Momofuku & Má Pêche

Milk Bar and Má Pêche are relatively new additions to the hotel, aren’t they? They didn’t open with the hotel.

No, it was Town when it opened. It was a very bells-and-whistles formal restaurant, which fit — I mean, it opened in March of 2001, which was the height of the internet boom. Here in New York it was still totally booming. And then September 11th, 2001 arrived. And the market changed dramatically. I think Geoffrey [Zakarian, Town’s chef] took his eye off the ball, he got married, he had children, he opened a couple restaurants, and Town suffered. It suffered itself right out the door; the marshals closed it, because that’s what happens if you don’t pay certain taxes, that kind of thing.

What’s it like working with the Momofuku empire?

I’d known David Chang for a while. And it’s really important that I get along with the restaurant and the restaurant gets along with me if you don’t own it, because you need to have it work rather seamlessly. There’s not many times I can say, “I’m so sorry, it’s the restaurant’s fault.” They’d be like, “fuck you, we don’t care. I didn’t get my scrambled eggs on time.”

Right. The guest doesn’t know the ins and outs of the relationship.

I recognized that they were great, and that they would bring something that we don’t have here, which is kind of a low-level hipsterdom vibe, a verve. Élan. And they’re nimble enough… they didn’t understand Midtown at all when they first got here. They didn’t want to take reservations, they didn’t want to have a burger, no grilled fish, but they still wanted the Upper East Side to come for lunch.

They very quickly came around to take reservations, they serve a smack-down hamburger, you know? That’s the genius of Momofuku, the intelligence, that if it doesn’t work… Ssäm Bar, when I first went there, it was these amazing but kind of fucked-up Korean sandwiches, it was a Korean concept that did not work for lunch. It had gotten good marks, but there were still only three people sitting in the dining room. Within six months they changed it. They got three stars at the Times and you couldn’t get in the door. And they’ve done that here. It’s been fantastic for us, it’s been really, really good. They have a great room service. We’ve had to educate them a little bit, because people don’t really want a Korean wrap sandwich at midnight when they get in from a long flight. With room service, you really can’t push it too far. You can offer your entire menu in there, but there’s gotta be a constancy of greatest hits. The BLTs of the world.

Interested in New York boutique hotels? Check out the Top 10 boutique hotels in New York.

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