There was a time when hotel food was served on a white plate and only a white plate. Then came experimental young Kenyan chefs who are adding razzmatazz to the kitchen.
I’m at the Graze Steakhouse at the Sankara Hotel, Nairobi, and Jeff Gitonga, the executive chef, is whipping out his culinary creations.
Duck meat, simmered with wild juniper berries, is served in a smoky glass dome. It is on a white plate placed on leaves, twigs and a woven sisal mat.
Crispy prawn and scallop rissois come on a mini block of charcoal. The matured meat is served on a black marble slate while the dessert, a passion fruit chocolate fondant, is served on a wooden block.
Crockery selection has become serious business in Kenyan hotels that crave creativity in culinary presentations and now chefs have started racking their brains to invent new plating options, with which to tickle the palates of diners.
Chef Jeff says that years ago hotel food was very classic with vegetables cut into specific shapes and everything placed in a single line on clean white round plates.
At Sankara, “classic” is the last word he would use to describe the tableware he uses. His food presentations are very dramatic and artistic, borrowing from his love for drawing and painting.
“People don’t come to Sankara just to eat. They come to live an experience. As a chef, it’s my responsibility to create that experience,” he said. BDLife.
At the Tribe Hotel’s Jiko restaurant, from aged beef, burgers to fries, food is served in beautiful ceramic bowls, large flat plates and cast iron skillets.
According to Richie Barrow, General Manager, Food and Beverage at Jiko, Tribe Hotel, with the advent of celebrity chefs, changes in cuisines and fusions of cuisines, tableware has had to evolve with the times.
“It was driven by competition as restaurants and their chefs strive to distinguish themselves. Plating is indeed a way to express myself in a unique way, because there is no one like me in the world,” says Executive Chef Mohamed Yakat of Jiko.
There has also been a lot more informality when it comes to eating. Luxury catering has abandoned the long-standing tradition. Now it’s playful and fun and no longer the aristocratic presentation of sparkling vintage silver tableware, exquisite china with gilded candelabra centerpieces.
“People are appreciating and learning more and more about food. With this accessibility has come the simplification and creativity of the dining experience,” says Mr Barrows, who has been in the hospitality industry for 15 years, working in Ireland, Scotland and now Kenya.
Chef Yakat says the colors, textures and flavors of food dictate how he chooses his dishes. Black duck breast and charcoal samosas served on a flat bowl, with crispy pork belly served with fried plantains, bacon and coconut juice plated on a cream and brown colored flat plate and with karanga and sukuma beef dumplings in hat-shaped bowls.
“Placed before a dinner party, a well-presented food becomes a great conversation starter on the table and long after dinner has left the restaurant. It also arouses curiosity. Guests ask, for example, how we make black samosas,” explains Chef Yakat.
The appearance of a dish has an impact on how it is perceived. If it looks great, a customer feels valued because they can see the time and effort that went into creating their meal.
Bespoke dinnerware allows chefs to also play around with food portions, making them more consistent.
“Food is an emotion. I want the guest to look at him and see my heart and that of my team, inspire him and be part of his dining experience as he asks questions like, “Why am I eating from a tile instead of a plate? Chief Gitonga explains.
In addition, the clientele has changed.
“People are more exposed and informed, thanks to food travel and fairs, leading to more refined palates than before. As a result, they expect more and better from a restaurant chef,” says the chef Kendi Magiri of the Fifteen Rooftop restaurant in Nairobi.
Seventeen years in the industry working in both the United States and Kenya and visiting several other countries, she has seen the aesthetics of food become bolder.
Cutting boards were once used to cut meat. Now they are used to serve him. “Human beings are very visual,” she says.
If it’s good for the eyes, it’s good for the stomach. Food boards elevate even the most basic foods.
“An oval burger, for example, is more exciting when served on planks. Different colored plates allow chefs to play with the different colors of food,” adds the 40-year-old chef.
Maintaining food aesthetics is also good for restaurant marketing, especially in the age of social media.
“First, people are spending more time in restaurants than before. Second, once a meal lands on the table, it’s not the fork and knife they reach for. It will be their phones where they pick up a photo, upload it to social media, and then enjoy the food. So having interesting dishes is a marketing tool. People stick with you based on the quality of the food,” says Chef Kendi.
However, she insists on the importance of a tasty diet. If it looks good and tastes bad, it’s a disaster, with social media fanning the flames.
Jiko’s tableware is designed and manufactured locally while its slates are imported. Isn’t that a costly investment?
“Yes, that’s true, but it’s also necessary. Now people eat out three to four times a week. You want them to feel at home away from home,” adds Mr Barrow.
“In addition, we want to support the local tableware industry. The pandemic has shown us the ill effects of import dependency,” he adds.
Sometime during my lunch at Jiko, I took the bowl of sweet potato chips and held it in my hand, close to my chest, and started eating it, like I do at the House.
They were even better eaten by hand. Doing this would have been unthinkable in a rigid recovery environment.
The Graze collection of oblong, square, rectangular, crackle and rustic tableware not to mention the marble and mini charcoal blocks, wood and glass tiles among others are designed by Chef Gitonga in collaboration with the team of engineering.
“It’s all part of the experience. Food plating is a form of expression. My food expresses gratitude and appreciation. Appropriate tableware helps communicate that even when I’m not talking directly to customers,” Chef Kendi shares.
It is also a growth opportunity for local chefs to show their level of creativity using local ingredients and locally sourced materials.
“I mainly serve African food infused with my creativity. Isn’t it fair that I present it the African way? says Chief Yakat, 39.
Additionally, you also need to compare the cost against the end game of the restaurants. The tableware complements the chef’s food in the kitchen. If the chef is happy, the customers will be too.
“It allows us to be ourselves and it enhances the restaurant’s reputation by allowing us to exercise the love, drive and passion we have for food,” says Chef Gitonga.