Checking In With Kevin Baker, Chef Behind Steelpan at Sonesta Fort Lauderdale Beach

Kevin Baker’s fascination with food goes back to his childhood in St. Thomas, Jamaica, when he would watch his parents cook. As he got older, Baker found that different dishes and tastes could affect people’s moods, which inspired him to pursue a career in the culinary arts. As a chef, Baker has traveled all over the world, working in and opening several hotels and leading private restaurants. Baker’s latest endeavor is opening the Steelpan restaurant at the Sonesta Fort Lauderdale Beach. Baker recently sat down to speak about the breadth of his culinary experience, and all of the details that play into opening a hotel restaurant.

How did you start your career in hotel restaurants? How did that path lead to the Sonesta Fort Lauderdale Beach?
In the beginning of my career, I helped open two restaurants and worked at several hotels, including The Ritz-Carlton, Hawks Cay Resort, and Cheeca Lodge & Spa. I have also worked at private restaurants, the most recent being The Foundry in Pompano Beach, which is a busy, fast-casual, contemporary American restaurant. Throughout the years, my travels have taken me from Jamaica to Alaska, from New York to several countries in Europe, and now back to my roots—cooking island-inspired cuisine in a restaurant practically on the beach. My skills are best utilized in the hotel industry, and I enjoy opening new operations.

What is your approach to the Steelpan menu?
My approach consists of a fusion of Caribbean and American cuisines. In South Florida, you’re able to easily source authentic products from neighboring countries. On a higher level, I have incorporated health-centric trends such as gluten-free and vegetarian choices, in addition to nutrient-rich and lighter options to create an overall well-balanced menu. At Steelpan, freshness is paramount and consistent.
What challenges did you encounter when opening Steelpan?

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FAST FACTS

Title: Chef, Steelpan restaurant, Sonesta Fort Lauderdale Beach

Time with company: Six months

First hotel industry job: McKinley Chalet Resort, Alaska

Hometown: St. Thomas, Jamaica

Hotel must-haves: Sharp knives and passionate associates

Best advice he ever got: There is no “I” in “team,” but there is in “win.” Find what you love to do and you’ll never have to work again.

Storage and staffing always seem to be challenges in this industry. As the restaurant will be open day and night, we must constantly store a substantial amount of everyday items and ingredients. And construction delays pushed back our target opening date, so it was a challenge to keep my staff focused.

What trends are you currently seeing in the hotel restaurant space?
There has been a return to casual and fast-casual eating with a modern spin. Cooking is now focused on telling a story and putting a personal twist on the ingredients and cooking methods being used. Guests are also following patterns—making light and healthy choices at breakfast, but choosing more indulgent items on the weekend.

What is your favorite part of working 
in a hotel restaurant?
Working in a hotel restaurant allows you to see repeat guests and better serve them and their needs. As an example, if a guest is staying at the hotel for a week and has a special dietary need, I love to see their happy, smiling faces when I present them with a special menu designed with them in mind. This personalization creates a guest for life.