Hotel restaurants accentuate their cuisine with tasteful, functional tabletops
Hotel chefs and F&B managers are currently dealing with practical foodservice issues that would never have occurred to their occupational ancestors. For example, “How best do I serve a local diver scallop with Japanese panko crust and an exotic molecular geleé,” are questions that simply did not exist. Like the convoluted and transient world of fashion and design, culinary trends are just as prone to the whim and whimsy of a curious public and boundary- stretching artists.While the food remains exciting and new, when it comes to service, the challenge for managers and chefs alike becomes less about culinary craft, and more about un-sexy logistics. It’s less “what do I put in it?,”and more “what do I put it on?” While it might sound obvious at first, some of the most important aspects of plate and dinnerware selection are often overlooked in the pursuit of what’s hip and trendy. However, as Elias Lazaros, manager at the Park Hyatt in Toronto notes, “Operationally, any tableware you choose has to work with what you’re doing in the restaurant,” he says. “There are a lot of products that look great, but just don’t work because they are too heavy or don’t perform the way you need them to. You could get yourself a goldplated steak knife, but if it can’t cut steak, what good is it?”
In terms of that base functionality, others agree, adding that durability and availability are also major considerations. Chef Lindsay Petit at L’Hôtel Quintessence in Mont Tremblant, Que., deals first-hand in the world of serving logistics. “Initially I look for the quality of the plate, and sturdiness is always a top consideration,” he says. However, Petit notes he’s also branching out from the traditional round plate, letting the food dictate what it’s served on to a certain extent, and that comes with its own unique challenges. “I’m looking for shapes more and more, unique shapes I can use in combination, like a small triangle on a larger square plate,” he says. “I also like to use long rectangles. In the ’90s cooking was all about stacking ingredients together in the middle of a plate, sort of making towers. Today, we’re going in a different direction. I like to deconstruct the elements of a dish and separate them, so a long rectangle works well for dishes like lobster three ways, or any of the duos we do.”
Petit also acknowledges there can be trouble lurking around (and especially on) the corners. Plates with sharp angles are more expensive and less durable. “When it comes to using those shapes, you have to be a bit more careful, anything with a corner is going to be easier and more likely to break or chip,” he says. “You know plates are going to break, so price and availability are an issue. I have to know that the plates we choose are going to be in production constantly.”
Drew Fisher, director of Operations at The Fairmont Algonquin in New Brunswick, says breakage is simply part of the game, particularly at his seasonal property. “There are a number of factors that need to be looked at prior to making the final decision to replace plateware. We change them frequently enough so as to ensure the look remains elegant, and clean.” But when it comes to plate design, Fisher says there’s still a place for traditional serviceware, particularly at heritage destinations like his. “We want to ensure anything we choose is elegant, and it suits the restaurant but does not overwhelm the guest or distract from the food,” he says. “We like it to be simple and clean. Anything we do has to be aligned with luxury service, and with the traditional Fairmont brand, while at the same time staying modern.”
Not upstaging the food is something every chef and manager is bound to raise, and their solution is almost always uniform, very plain and very… well, white. “White is absolutely the best for showcasing food,” says Lazaros. “Most chefs will want to present food on a white plate. It’s like a blank canvas for them.”
Despite his tendency to look for interesting shapes, Petit is undoubtedly a white plate devotee. “I buy all the plates with more of an artistic vision of what the food is going to look like,” he starts. “But it’s always white plates, because I think the colour should come from the food.”
In terms of that colour contrast, Fisher sums it up nicely: “White plates are like a white dress shirt,” he says. “You can wear any colour of tie with a white shirt, and it’s going to look good. If you wear a coloured shirt though, you’ve automatically limited the different ties you can wear. Different coloured plates do the same thing to your food choices.”
As with the ever-changing look of plates, glassware is also evolving to cater to new trends. To that effect, there is an undeniable trend of late towards stemless glassware as part of a dining-room set-up. With revered crystal producers like Riedel and Spiegelau offering their own versions of the stemless wine glass, many managers and sommeliers have been tempted by their clean look and unpretentious feel. However, others are still skeptical of their suitability in a formal setting.
“Stemless is what people like right now,” says Lazaros. “In some instances, the heat from your hand on a stemless glass can help oxidize the tannins and bring out the flovours, which is great for enjoying the wine, but as a general rule, stemless is still more appropriate for a casual setting.”
Petit agrees with that assessment in terms of formal wine service, but adds there might be a place for the truncated look elsewhere in your dinner service. “We haven’t gone to stemless glassware in terms of the wine service,” he says. “But, I have used a lot of stemless glassware, particularly stemless martini glasses to serve desserts. They’re perfect for portion size, and because it’s glass, you can see through it, which makes it ideal for layered dishes.”
Of course, with constant change afoot, the question of budgeting always looms large over every decision. While no one in the luxury hotel restaurant business would admit to ever cutting corners, there is a point to be made when it comes to cutlery. To be blunt, most top players in the business simply believe cutlery shouldn’t be too extravagant.
“You can go out and spend as much as you want, especially on plates,” says Fisher. “In today’s world, we can purchase elegant looking cutlery and glassware at a reasonable price, but plates are where we can and do spend the most.” What’s more, cutlery is utilitarian, says Lazaros, and it just has to feel right and do its job.
Petit, however, takes it a step further, and offers this cautionary tale from his own experience. “The least important aspect is the cutlery,” he says. “It needs to be heavy, but nothing too fancy. Pay for solid, classic pieces, but if you get too into it, and your cutlery is totally different and unique, it’s going to walk out the door, and you’ll constantly be replacing it.