Plating it Right: Chefs talk about creating unique experiences using tableware

Georgian or Urmi-style, new-age textured or minimal — what a chef chooses to serve the food in, says a lot about the identity he is trying to create for his restaurant.

Chefs, Plating, Tableware, Design, Dining experience, Cuisine

Circa 1553: Queen Catherine de’ Medici taught the French how to eat with a fork and spoon and got her private chefs to introduce several plating techniques. The diktat from the queen was considered unusual and met with amazement by the elite society. It was, as many historians later noted, the evolution and of modern-day table mannerisms and the introduction of fancy tableware.

Queen Catherine, who played an important role in shaping much of the French course-wise dining format we know today as fine dining, didn’t stop at that. During her reign, she was known to have introduced crystal glasses, show plates, soup bowls, and the once privy-of-royalty-only napkins to her royal table. Little did the discerning guests attending her elaborately orchestrated dinners realise that it was the beginning of the trend of elaborate table settings.

Chef Sharad Dewan, Regional Director – Food Production, The  Park Hotel Kolkata

The tradition was not just enthusiastically adopted by several royal dynasties across the world, but also came to symbolise fine dining. In fact, the table at Fort Kochi, the British power-centre before the Viceroy House was built in India, followed the French queen’s example, sourcing its bone china flatwear and glasses from the finest in the business. The glassmakers of Venice are said to have made their fortune by fashioning silicon into delicate objects of allure — wine and water glasses.

Impressively, when it comes to empirical dining, not much has changed. The novelty of a great-looking, cleverly-set table still drives many a hotel brands to revive, renew and recreate interesting dining settings using unusual tableware options. Chef Paul Kinny, Culinary Director, The St Regis Mumbai, says, “Over the years, hotels have used the very romance of a great-looking table to define their F&B offerings. Such has been the wonderment that today, for a chef, how his table looks holds the key to his menu’s success and forms an important element of the initial research. After all, tableware helps diners form the first impression and a little tweak can take casual dining to casual premium or add a hint of fun to fine dining.”

Chef Sabyasachi Gorai, owner of Fabrica by Saby, a boutique hospitality consultancy firm and several restaurants, believes tableware trends have followed a rather sharp graph. “We have been witness to the evolution of the classical Georgian style flatware — essentially plates with collars, to the current trend where serveware or platters have replaced flatware. We have also shifted to organic materials like stone, wood and others to liven up the experience."

Tableware clearly reflects a hotel’s culinary philosophy and the dining experiences it offers its guests. Chef Mir Zafar Ali, Executive Chef, The Leela Palace, Bengaluru says, “The showplate is the first step towards creating a rich aura. The colour and shape of the tableware used to plate the other food works wonders. Gone are the sharp edges. Plates — especially flatware — have fluid edges, which help accentuate the experience.”

Creating Dining Experiences
Increasingly, Indian hotels are using experimental tableware in keeping with the theme of the restaurant or the cuisine served. Burkhard Schmidt, Worldwide Director Hospitality and Corporate Business, Villeroy & Boch, says, “The tableware market is maturing with time. Indian hoteliers are known globally for their keen eye for detail. They are well-travelled and well-informed. They want to offer the best to their guests and diners.” The top-of-the-line brand custom-makes tableware to suit changing demands of the F&B industry and has created unusual tableware lines such as Novelties Copper Glow and Rock to suit Indian dining spaces. They boast a metallic-looking surface finish and are very resistant to dust and stain. Brands such as Villeroy & Boch have created special chip-resistant lines for hotels.

Much like tableware, there has been a pragmatic shift towards the sensible, functional, yet stylish cutlery and glasses. The silver cutlery of yore, for instance, has given way to the more functional Electronic Processed Stainless Steel (EPSS) ones that can be custom-made and are easy to maintain, says Chef Mir Zafar Ali. “Likewise, crystalware has been replaced by elegant goblets and glasses.”

The change, emphasises Chef Akshraj Jodha, Executive Chef, ITC Windsor Bengaluru, isn’t driven just by the needs of functionality. “[The retuning and rethinking] in also being done in keeping with a brand’s philosophy and identity.” Different dining experiences require different sorts of tableware. Chef Sharad Dewan, Regional Director- Food Production, The Park Hotel Kolkata, reveals, “In Roxy, which is our fun lounge and discotheque, I use a lot of bakeware to serve a meal, while in Bridge, which is our all-day dining, I use asymmetrically designed plates to offer a casual-premium dining experience.”

According to Chef Kinny, multi-functional serveware often comes to play during menu change or sit-down dinners, where such mix and match is used to create an effect. They are perfect for buffet spreads, where quirkily designed plates are often used to showcase the wide variety of food. Chef Neeraj Rawoot, Executive Chef, Sofitel BKC Mumbai, adds, “They look fantastic, are functional, and help keep things elegant and simple.”

Most decisions about what plate a diner will eat in, or the goblet he will be served in, are made in keeping with the theme of the restaurant and the memories that the hotel (and the chef) would like the diner to go home with.

Chef Neeraj Rawoot, Executive Chef, Sofitel Mumbai BKC.

Vintage beauties
The one trend that is likely to stay for years to come, says Chef Jodha, is the use of vintage, hand-made tableware because of its air of exclusivity and the story it narrates. “Tableware is a brilliant branding tool. ITC’s Bukhara, Dakshin and Dum Pukht follow the same pattern of tableware in all outlets across different hotels for the recall value they offer. So much so, that a diner will come back to Dakshin or Royal Afghan not just because of the food, but the way it will is served to him,” he adds.

ITC hotels, in fact, have played a significant role in reviving the bell metal industry, as copper and bell metal became synonymous with Indian fine dining. According to Chef Dewan, diners often come in with the expectation of being served in copperware or bellmetal for an authentic traditional dining experience or even royal dining. At Dawat-E-Nawab in Radisson Blu Agra, the chef and his team use tableware classics such as copper and bell metal to create drama on the table with a specially created two-part plate. “The idea,” says owner Paritosh Ladhani, “is to showcase Indian cuisine in two parts. Regular chutneys and accompaniment come in one half of a crescent-shaped plate. The other half contains selected dishes. Once joined, the rice is served to complete the royal thali.”

Chef Mir Zafar Ali, Executive Chef, The Leela Palace, Bengaluru.

Playing with shapes
Among other table trends is the dual- flatware or in chef parlance, tableware with the ability to play with all wares in the kitchen. For Chef Dewan, this translates to the use of plates with asymmetrical design. For Executive Sous Chef Abhishek Gupta, The Leela Ambience Gurgaon, the use of pattern-based tableware for Epic, the hotel’s global cuisine restaurant, is an absolute fit. And for Chef Ajay Anand, Director of Culinary, Pullman and Novotel, New Delhi Aerocity, the freedom to pick two versions of Serax for one restaurant, Pluck, a farm-to-fork, all-day diner, has helped create new experiences. “We have two of their collections — the Base by Piet Boon, a blank canvas for any dish you can imagine, and Perfect Imperfection by Roos Van De Velde. The latter is beautifully merged with our farm-to-table concept and could be used as a canvas to present food. Roos Van de Velde, which has visual art inspired by nature, is used to create an illusion and present simple dishes. Like the ‘pillow cases’ used to serve butter.”

Pullman’s Honk, a pan-Asian speciality restaurant, uses 55bcn, a specialised glassware from Barcelona-based design workshop Luesma Vega. It is yet another example of using illusionary tableware to create drama. Though crafted from glass, guests often mistake it for glazed ceramic. Chef Ajay adds, “We can do wonders with minimalistic table setting just by using such specialised tableware.”

Chef Paul Kinny, Culinary Director, The St Regis Mumbai.

Crafting an identity using tableware
While multi-functionality tableware has worked wonders for new-age hotels, especially in the banquets and buffet space, where they are also tools to cut down on food wastage, old-school, home-bred brands still opt for expensive brands that help create a fine dine experience and are part of their identity.

Oberoi Wildflower Hall, Shimla in the Himalayas serves meals on monogrammed plates, while at the Leela Palace hotels, a combination of Bauscher and Bernardaud Contemporary (at Jamavar), Villeroy & Boch (at Le Cirque Signature) and Zensus stoneware dinnerware (at Zen) is used. Chef Rawoot and Chef Gorai vote for the muted, textured tableware trend. “It adds to the dining experience without compromising on a hotel’s need to be elegant and simple because of the clientele it services,” says Chef Rawoot.

Chef Gorai claims that textured tones are the future of tableware within hotels. “They not only showcase the food better but are also apt at adding an element of drama that is needed to elevate the experience.”

Chef Akshraj Jodha, Executive Chef, ITC Windsor Bengaluru.

Ultimately, the kind of tableware a restaurant uses would depend on guest acceptability and the city the hotel is located in. F&B specialist Vijayan Gangadharan, General Manager, Four Point By Sheraton, Vishkhapatnam, says, “In Pune, which has a bigger expat crowd, the trend leans towards fun dining and hotels use a lot of serveware and platters to cater to the rise in community eating. Culinary cities such as Mumbai and Delhi are moving back to the old-world charm of white tableware with clean lines.”

Some of the best tableware is today being used by standalone restaurants, but Chef Dewan does not see hotels following their lead. “We have seen trends such as the dual tableware permeate the hotel space, especially in coffee shops and all-day dining. But with fine dining, there will be very little change. [We may opt for] minimalistic tableware, but quirky is unlikely.”

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