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Opening Doors and New Hotels: Yesim Insel, Food and Beverage Director at the Four Seasons Hotel Rabat at Kasr Al Bahr

Yesim Insel's career spans continents and luxury hospitality brands, including Kempinski, Fairmont, Park Hyatt, Four Seasons and Jumeirah. With tenures in Kuwait, Washington, D.C., Chicago and Istanbul, Yesim brings varied experience to her current challenge: finalizing details and overseeing the seven signature food and beverage outlets at the Four Seasons Hotel Rabat at Kasr Al Bahr, set to open in Morocco this summer.


The new project reimagines an 18th-century royal residence situated on the Atlantic Coast in Rabat, Morocco’s capital. Covering twelve acres of lush, landscaped gardens with six heritage and five modern buildings, the hotel offers 200 rooms and suites, a spa complex with a traditional Moroccan hammam and full-service salon, as well as indoor and outdoor pools, making it stunning ocean retreat in the center of bustling, historic city. 

 

Yesim credits her parents as her inspiration for a career in hospitality. She recalls, “My parents definitely established the “food love” from an early age. Growing up in Istanbul, my father took me to the Spice Bazaar and charcuterie shops, excitedly insisting, ‘Smell this! Taste this cheese! Taste everything!’ It all brings back such happy memories. My father really showed me how to entertain and be a good host.” 


Yesim shares herstory.  


Yesim Insel Four Seasons Morocco

What drew you to the hospitality industry?


In Turkey, there is a university exam system. I took the exam and my results qualified me to go to hotel school. I thought, “Why not? Let’s try this!” After school, I immediately started working in hotels and I think the moment I stepped into the hospitality world, I never wanted to leave. I’ve always been in hotels. Aside from a short period waiting for a work visa and then seven months during the pandemic, I’ve been working in hotels my whole career. For people in the business, I think [we] have this gene that crawls into our veins, and you just can’t get rid of it.   


What was your first job?


My first job was at Çırağan Palace Kempinski Istanbul, a real Ottoman palace on the Bosphorus. It’s a fascinating hotel with amazing architecture, all beautifully restored. You can almost envision sultans and princesses walking the halls…and that was my daily place of work! I couldn’t believe how fortunate I was to be in that setting. 


Then my next job was at the Four Seasons Hotel Istanbul at Sultanahmet. Another iconic architectural gem, beautifully reimagined and transformed. The property was actually an old prison. So I like to joke that I went from a palace to a prison. That was a funny one to explain to my parents.


You’ve worked at an impressive range of hotels from Turkey to the United States, Kuwait and now Morocco. How did you strategize such big moves in your career?


I never thought of making big moves. I think I simply jumped into the windows [of opportunity] that were open. Some were scary, some were not so scary. Now looking back, I’m so happy I did all these things. Making all the connections, meeting all the wonderful people. Hospitality becomes a lifestyle. It wasn’t easy, but it was worth it!


What do you love most about the business?


I love that it is endlessly fascinating. Hotels are different realms. It’s like a different planet. You walk into a hotel and you forget about everything else. The traffic, the noise, your routines and where you live on the outside. Instead, you focus on what’s in the hotel, its own unique environment. For example, my shoes never get worn out. I walk on carpeting and polished marble all day. Hotels are like a magical world unto itself. There are so many elements, so many details both front and back of the house that make this happen. It is mesmerizing.


The pool at the new Four Seasons Rabat
The pool at the new Four Seasons Rabat at Kasr Al Bahr

What trends are you seeing?


I think before the pandemic, people were reluctant to talk in hotel lobbies. People kept to themselves and focused on their own business. Now post-Covid, people want to communicate with each other. I observe it quite a lot. The lobby has become a hub of people wanting to strike up conversations and connect.


Best and worst advice you received?


Oh, I don’t listen to advice, and I’ve been known to put myself in trouble because of this! Or maybe I should say I don’t simply take advice as given. I will listen to what people want to share. I will nod and take it in. But I will then graft it onto my own experience and understanding. The advice I take is not spoken but more observation. I watch other people, and without being told, I learn so much.


What principles guide you in your work?


For me, I listen to the guest. It’s not that the guest is always right, but I look at things from their window. I need to understand what’s happening in their world: Why are they concerned? Why is it that something very little can make them happy? What do they see that I don’t see? I analyze the guest. The moment I understand what the guest is thinking, issues can dissolve very easily.



Exterior of the Four Seasons Rabat at at Kasr Al Bahr
Exterior of the Four Seasons Rabat at at Kasr Al Bahr

In your last position, you were the only female director in hotel operations in all of Kuwait. That’s such an extraordinary distinction. What insights can you share as a female executive in the Middle East?


We women are far smarter than we get credit for. We’ve been told we can’t do it. We’ve been told we can only reach a certain level, and that is all that people are expecting of you. But we are equipped to rise above that. Once we achieve a certain level, we just need to look up and keep going. I say go for it! Open your wings and fly far!


What are some obstacles you’ve had to overcome to get to where you are?


Yes, all women have obstacles, and I’m not a stranger to them. I’m a single mother to my 12-year-old son. There are times you feel like you can never win. You work too much, and people will say, “She’s not taking good care of her child.” Or if you happen to be delayed, they’ll say, “She’s late because she had to drop off her child.” 


I do not need to hear such gendered comments. One time when I was overseeing a large-scale brunch event, I saw water dripping on a buffet table. Without a second thought, I found a cloth and wiped it clean. Someone commented, “That’s a perfect job for a woman.” It reminded me that some people cannot see women beyond their gender, no matter what their accomplishments. 


It is wonderful when another female tells you, “Good job.” Because I know they understand the complexities. It is so important to support other women. I am currently blessed with three other female executives as colleagues. It’s a good mix! I like to know that we were hired for being the best at what we do.


You’ve had a truly global career. Do you approach things differently in each region or location?


Yes, certainly, there are things that change. Again, I look out from the window of the guest, whether it’s the North Pole or Saharan Desert. Learn the cultural differences, which are fascinating. Embrace them as your own, without judgment or questions. Lead with a good heart and understanding, and people will be accepting. It’s about how you look at things, how you observe. You can never say you only do things one way. Sometimes you have to learn, and then relearn and relearn and relearn. 


Tell me more about the exciting launch of the Four Seasons Hotel Rabat at Kasr Al Bahr.


We are set to open in the summer of 2024 in Rabat, the capital of Morocco. This will be the third property for the Four Seasons in Morocco, joining our hotels in Marrakech and Casablanca. 


This property is a beautiful jewel, situated on the Atlantic Ocean. It was a Sultan’s summer residence and then a military hospital, now fully restored and enhanced. The name Kar Al Bahr means “Palace by the Sea,” and it is surrounded by gardens of orange trees, sage and rosemary. There will be 200 rooms and seven different food and beverage outlets, including a French brasserie, Mediterranean restaurant, lobby lounge, poolside cafe, in-room dining, cocktail bar and banquet service. 


This is the sixth hotel opening in my career. Openings are always very special. To see a space transform really gives me a sense of belonging to the place. It’s as if through the construction, the hotel becomes a part of me. It is very special, but it is not easy–there’s a lot of mud and dust that comes with creating what will become a beautiful marble lobby with a piano. Ultimately, I feel so lucky to be a part of the amazing transformation.


Quickfire with Yesim


What is your morning routine?


Every day when I leave my house, I always make myself a promise as I lock the door–to leave home issues at home. That is how I officially shift to work mode. Then when I’m at the hotel, I have a cup of coffee, stand in the lobby and observe. I take in all the beauty. The architecture, the decor, the people. I also focus-in on things to see what areas need attention.


What do you like doing outside of work? I read that you have two unpublished novels in progress!


Yes, writing is my way of dealing with the world. I feel like I’m living in stories. I can tell you so many stories that can make you laugh and cry. I love getting wrapped up in people's lives and what they’re going through. I write completely fictionalized stories. For example, I wrote a story about a hotel colleague and a hotel guest, each going through their own challenges. Even though we see them on opposite ends, at the end of day, they are both going through very human issues. They are the same. Hotels are where all the stories are happening. The stories are here!


Do you like to cook? 


I like to cook healthy. I’m a big fan of olive oil and Mediterranean cuisine. My palate changes with the seasons. I like to make ice creams and jams, and sometimes I burn them, and then I laugh at myself. 


I respect chefs so much I cannot actually call myself a cook. Everything I cook has to be done within 30 minutes. I cook to feed. Chefs cook on a different level. Truly, I think they are more impressive than neurosurgeons. Of course, neurosurgeons are wonderful and so skilled. But each surgery is individual and unique. Chefs demonstrate skill and precision at high volume, day after day, night after night. Their skill is refined on a different scale. It is amazing!


Do you have any favorite kitchen tools?


I’m a kitchen tool junkie. I want to live inside a Williams-Sonoma store! I have everything from there. My favorite is my cherry pitter. It’s just so charming to me. The tool I use the most is the microplane; I zest everything with it.

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