Life | Return To Glamour

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Return To Glamour
Text by Shirin Mehta
Published: Volume 18, Issue 11, November, 2010

The Chatwal New York, brainchild of hotel tycoon, Sant Singh Chatwal, is ensconced in a landmark Stanford White-designed building and offers a fresh perspective on modern luxury, discovers Shirin Mehta

My own personal butler, she is blonde and pretty in a black business suit, walks in bearing my own personal copy of The New York Times that I had forgotten to request when I should have. She is followed by a white-clad waiter bearing my morning tea on a silver salver. The small procession smiles a cheery good morning and both, the news of the day and the pot of morning cheer, are placed on the leather-covered desktop that opens out in a flash of bulbs, very ’30s style and very charming. This would be right under the very pop subway signs of the early 1900s (Jay Street, Boro Hall, Brooklyn, Hoyt Street) mounted on brown suede walls. On the other side hangs an original poster of the 1939 New York World’s Fair.

I am deliciously ensconced at The Chatwal New York, not far from the raucous Time Square area and yet discreetly away, which marks the launch of hospitality tycoon Sant Singh Chatwal’s brainchild brand The Chatwal, with plans to create additional properties in Hertfordshire, England and in India. A sliver of a building marks the hotel’s restored façade. The Chatwal is located in an Art Deco construction designed by the legendary Stanford White, who at one time re-built much of the city, besides, in his time, painting New York red with his notorious escapades. The one-time haunt of entertainment icons and location of the famous Lambs Club that drew a veritable Who’s Who of American theatre, the building has been ‘dramatically re-imagined’ by master architect Thierry Despont. What results is a return to Art Deco glamour blended in with contemporary luxury. (“Hollywood actress Drew Barrymore’s family were actually Lambs and spent a lot of time here,” reveals the dramatic-himself, general manager, Joel Freyberg, pointing out that one of the suites has been named The Barrymore Suite, after permission from the actress had been sought. “We didn’t really need to take her permission,” he continues, “but she was very gracious about it.”) We are in The Stanford White Studio, a room that aims to keep as close to the original as possible, cosy, heavy with books and wood.

The Chatwal’s guestrooms are resplendent with their custom-designed luxuries which meticulously recreate the 1930s Deco design ‘evoking the feeling of a moment preserved in time’. The attention to design detail is apparent everywhere. The leather-clad furniture and leather-handled cupboards are a throwback to the theme of the hotel that Freyberg describes as ‘The art of travel’. From this ambience of days past, but with touch screen boards and remote curtains, one steps into a washroom that is a modern paradise. Two basins make for couple-comfort, the Jacuzzi tub is just meant for a luxury soak and the shower drizzles water from the ceiling gently like rain. But the highlight is the commode. The ‘throne’ boasts a seat that can be heated for bottom comfort to various temperatures, a bidet that throws convenient jets of temperature-controlled water as required and puffs of cool or warm air for gentle drying demands. All at the touch of a couple of remote buttons. Once settled with all systems going to your heart’s desire, take the second remote in hand, press ‘start’ and the large wall mirror turns into a television screen. Morning news, anyone?

A tour of the hotel reveals several fabulous suites with balconies and terraces. The Director’s Suite includes a bedroom, dining room, fireplace, dual shower and double showerheads and a pantry. The Producer’s Suite is similarly well planned. The newly opened Chatwal Spa by Kashwere, offers a choice of robes along with three treatment rooms, three private changing suites with steam showers, a relaxation lounge with spa aperitifs, a signature infinity lounge featuring a saltwater lap pool, plunge pools offering hot and cold therapies, a manicure and pedicure studio, all with a strong emphasis on eco-friendly products. On offer too are “Oxygen facials that Madonna swears by,” says Freyberg.

The Lambs Club Restaurant and Bar, this evening, is already abuzz in the newly-opened hotel. Celebrating its storied past, The Lambs Club was once a social haunt for New York high society, including members like Milton Berie, Gene Autry and John Wayne. The restaurant today boasts of an original fireplace that has been re-built brick by brick and which pays tribute to a grand old age. Manhattan chef Geoffrey Zakarian is in charge of the kitchens. A 2,500-square-foot mezzanine lounge with huge windows offers a view of 44th Street while the bar offers handcrafted, prohibition-era creations.

On The Chatwal’s architect, Stanford White

The story of legendary architect Stanford White is told in American Eve, Crime of the Century, by Paula Uruburu a hardback copy of which rests in each room at The Chatwal, nestled next to The Great Gatsby. This is the tale of Evelyn Nesbit, America’s first supermodel, sex goddess and modern It Girl. Seduced by White as a girl of 16 when he was 47, she finds herself at the centre of the ‘crime of the century’ the murder of architect White by her husband Harry K. Thaw, shot at point-blank range before an audience in an open-air theatre that he had designed and that he frequented. The most photographed woman of her era, Nesbit captivated a nation and foreshadowed the modern cult of personality.

 

The man with the red turban speaks to Shirin Mehta:

Whether being in the restaurant and hospitality business has made Sant Singh Chatwal hospitable or whether his innate generosity of spirit led him to his métier, I am hard-pressed to know. What I do know is that the difficulty in getting that initial interview is somehow lost in the fact that Chatwal is now happy to invite me to his office, his yacht – in small measure, to his life. He is like a child in his continued wonderment of things, like a kid at a perpetual birthday party. He exudes energy and a certain earthy charm that cannot be denied. He is suave in his 6th avenue plush office suites; he is a gentle host on his über-luxurious yacht, Fathom and he is a father in his element as he insists I view the broadcast programmes on the wedding tamasha in India of his younger son, Vikram to New Delhi-based model and new entrepreneur, Priya.

A close friend of former US president, Bill Clinton, and wife Hillary, Chatwal’s passion is to see the betterment of Indo-US ties. (The Clintons had famously visited him for dinner at his home in New York.) The Indo-American nuclear pact is a cause very close to his heart and he worked closely with the Prime Minister’s office to garner support, organising the largest private reception of the US Senate to date, hosting 20 senators and 59 Congressmen and Congresswomen in order to enlist their support. “After all the hard work that we did for the Nuclear Power Deal going back to 2005, I am so glad that it has gone through, so that America and India can start the next step…. I keep an eye on things…you know…keep advising,” he tells me today.

Initially at his offices and subsequently on board his luxury yacht while cruising New York Harbour, past the larger-than-life, forever iconic Statue of Liberty, with sketches of the New York skyline on a warm summer evening throwing the highest point of the Empire State Building into relief, Verve chats with the indefatigable man with the signature red turban, who today presides over a 1.5 billion Dollar hospitality empire spanning several continents.

Excerpts from the interview over chicken tikka and samosas from Bombay Palace, New York...

Why the hospitality business so many years ago, when this was a business held in a few hands and large corporations?
The hospitality industry has always been my passion beginning with my first restaurant in Ethiopia and later developing into the chain of Bombay Palace restaurants which now spans the globe. I made my first move into real estate in New York in the 1980s – purchasing a multitude of properties in the Times Square area. It was about seeing a vision and understanding what the area will become, not what it was at the time.

What contributed to your being able to draw in the fine-dine set in Manhattan then and today?
I think it is a combination of things – excellent food, the right F & B partners (including two Michelin rated chefs) as well as an incredible service and design team. I have the highest expectations for Chef Geoffrey and his team at The Chatwal, who will also be spearheading the restaurant at Dream South Beach launching this fall. It is this idea of being ahead of the trends in a collaborative sense that I like to bring to all of our projects.

Can you share your mantra for success?
Always think outside the box and be ahead of trends. I want to be a visionary, not a follower.

What are the rules you live by in your personal life?
Be true to yourself – family always comes before business.

What are your plans for India?
India is going to be a super power – absolutely! We have projects in India already on the map. We opened the Dream Hotel in Cochin last year. Land acquisition processes are already underway in Jaipur, Hyderabad, Neora, Delhi, Chennai. If I can find the right location, my aim is to have a hotel in Mumbai. An Art Deco building in Mumbai is beyond compare anywhere. So far, I have had no success but if you have the patience, you can.

Do you feel that your close relationship with the Clintons is responsible for their sympathetic view of India?
I am honoured by my close relationship with the Clintons and count them as dear friends. Perhaps my passion for India and its growing ties with the US could be seen as inspiration.

What are your hopes for your sons?
The only real hope I have for my children is for them to always be happy and successful – whatever form that may take – while learning every step of the way. I believe they are doing that brilliantly.

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