This month's guest blogger for 'World Restaurant Trends' is Christopher Barber, managing director at Catering Business Food Solutions in London. He shares with us his expertise in restaurant consulting and explains how 'table top' is just as important as 'table'.
These days, what your food is displayed on has become as important as recipes, provenance, seasonality, sustainability, and all of the other ‘buzz’ words associated with food.
For a food business, finding an ‘edge’ has never been more important, and even for us as food consultants, it can be difficult to identify what within the mix has provided that edge…and ergo made the business a success.
So, we take a look at every angle, and using the now famous GB cycling coach Dave Brailsford’s ‘marginal gains’ strategy, aim to improve every aspect by a few per cent. Put those few per cents together, and combined you can see a massive overall difference…all based on a marginal gain on every element of the dining experience.
So now that we have established (or theorised) that ‘table top’ is as important as ‘table’, what are we seeing that is making the difference? Restaurateurs these days tend to have an idea of service ware before they have even started looking to purchase; this is helpful as the options are far greater than 25 years ago, when a plain white plate was the norm. Having said that, some of us can still remember the early days of the Nouvelle Cuisine, where minuscule portions were set daintily in the centre of a huge white plate, this was ground breaking at the time. (Ah, the good old days).
Often you will see great lengths taken to suggest that cutlery and crockery is not actually new (though it is) and ‘rustic’ collections such as Churchill Stoneware can be found in anything from uber cool café to Michelin starred dining room.
I believe it was Jamie Oliver who elevated the reintroduction of enamelware into a period of near national dominance; yep, those blue rimmed rectangular dishes and canteen style plates are seen in many catering and café/restaurant environments. However their urban cool is not always appreciated, at a recent presentation of enamelware to a client, we were questioned whether we were playing a trick on them…..surely you cannot be serving food on plates that we feed our dogs from? Style is of course, subjective, and whilst I think enamelware has ‘peaked’ in popularity, I have seen some very nice china versions of the infamous enamelware, so perhaps the style will live on in a slightly more gentrified way, and certainly not for the hounds to feast from.
Tableware that matches isn’t even that important, it is perfectly acceptable to throw together a collection of eclectic styles, patterns and textures. This kind of strategy – either using rustic or eclectic mixes of tableware, helps take the formality out of formal dining, helping the guest to relax, enjoy and feel comfortable. I have a theory that the more comfortable you feel in your surrounds, the more likely you are to enjoy the dining experience.
Everything has its day, and today's cool can be tomorrow's naff – so when deciding your table top, just beware of items that will have a limited shelf life…as you will be replacing them before you know it; but be assured, wait long enough, and they will be back in fashion at some point (you may just need a large warehouse and a lot of patience).
Practicality is an important factor, especially in mid-scale and volume establishments; for example I love bone and wooden handled cutlery – problem is that often it tends to be less robust, and after a number of vigorous dishwasher cycles, handles can come adrift.
Plate shapes come and go; ovals, square and rectangular trays all have their uses, and the current culinary trend of spreading food across the plate as opposed to piling high demands specific plates.
The glass clip top ‘kilner’ jar is almost the accepted new home for a prawn cocktail, a pate and even desserts such as mousses and possets. They come with a range of enamel coloured tops, and are doubly useful as with the lid clipped down, keep items in great condition. Downside is that they are eminently ‘nickable’, and without doubt these highly collectibles have found their way into many a UK home.
Vintage is currently in vogue; it is a nice way of describing stuff that appears old enough to be valuable and interesting, but not so old to be antique, and generally this features an array of cutlery and crockery styles from the 1960’s right up to the 90’s. An example is the Burleigh pottery, I believe at one point on the verge of extinction, but now right back in business thanks largely to the vision and style of Ben and Hugo Warner at Benugo.
We travel out to Romania to help out the premier caterers and restaurateurs in the country, Flavours Food Design. In their team, they have a guy called Daniel Scripca, not just a chef, but an extraordinary creative genius. This guy collects bits of junk, wood, car bonnets and crafts them himself into service ware. This kind of innovation does not go unnoticed, and often forms the inspiration to the mainstream tableware designers. In recent years we have seen diverse materials such as wood, slates and seashells fashioned into service ware, so whilst china, glass and porcelain remain important, the table top houses an array of material and texture.
Culinary pioneers such as Heston Blumenthal, Ferran Adria and Rene Redzepi have bespoke service ware for each and every dish – especially designed to provide design, imagination and fun – and in some cases to improve the eating of a dish. In the same way that Riedel and other top end glass manufacturers create a receptacle specific to the grape variety (pointing the wine to the most sensory part of the mouth to enhance the taste); plates, bowls and spoons can play the same role.
The innovation is limited to cutting edge restaurant chefs, it is really important for caterers, who are constantly looking for the next idea to display their food, to stay ahead of the game. Rhubarb are a great example of a high end caterer with a great design team - they have a team headed by JR Marland, who spends his life creating events and matching table top and design to the food theme – he has an Aladdin’s Cave of past and present plates, glassware, cutlery and culinary props.
I don’t think there is any right or wrong for the table – I would like to see an end to the almost exclusive ‘plating’ of dishes. Particularly at parties, banquets and gatherings, I would love to see a return to platters of food brought to the table and elegantly served by skilled waiting staff. This would reignite the market for large dishes and platters, and would also require having plates that look good with nothing on them…who knows, one day this may come back into vogue, I live in hope.