Food & Drinks
How the dining experience has evolved since Covid pandemic struckTuesday September 13 2022
During transitions in the hospitality industry, the dining experience is often the first boat to be rocked and the last to be restored. Some meal offerings are suspended from the menu while others are withdrawn altogether.
When the Covid-19 pandemic struck in 2020, hotel menus were the first casualties. First, the supply of essential ingredients, especially imports, was disrupted. Secondly, guests stayed away.
In most hotels, the buffet experience was cancelled – in keeping with Covid-19 protocols – as a la carte took over.
Two years later, business is back, complete with bookings and dining parties. So, what menu changes have stuck on post-pandemic? What are diners asking for now? Have the prices changed?
Chef Wayne Walkinshaw of the Chophouse restaurant at Radisson Blu says diners are now fascinated more by simple rather than elaborate dishes, adding that food does not have to be complicated to be beautiful and flavourful. The diner should get as good as they see, he says.
‘‘If you ate duck, it has to look like duck and taste like duck. Sirloin has to look like sirloin. If I ordered prawns, I have to know it is prawns. The food does not have to come in a different form or taste,’’ he says.
He adds: ‘‘If I can retain the flavours, or enhance them, without changing the dish so much, then I need not manipulate it. A simple cooking method is enough.’’
The Chophouse has also recently introduced ostrich, which is smoked, marinated in amarulla cream and pineapple juice and served as a starter, according to the chef.
John Maina, the executive chef at Panari Resort in Nyahururu, admits that the lunch and dinner menus have evolved, moving from self-service to plate service.
‘‘For obvious reasons, buffet was not popular during the pandemic due to contact. Orders were placed in the kitchen and prepared. Over time, Covid protocols allowed diners to be close to where the meals were being prepared, interacting with the chefs.’’
He notes: ‘‘When you offer buffet, the diner has the right to serve themselves and choose whatever they desire. You give them full control over the meals.’’
Ephraim Karuku, the executive sous chef at Emara Ole Sereni, agrees, saying that from stocking to platting and offerings, the dining experience has significantly changed in recent months.
‘‘Prices for individual meals had to be adjusted upwards because supplies had been affected. We also redesigned our menus based on the ingredients we could source locally,’’ he says.
The prices are up again, with the reintroduction of buffets, which he describes as extensive. ‘‘Most ingredients are back in the market. Guests also have more spending power.’’
Walkinshaw says he likes to develop seasonal menus, and notes that diners are more health-conscious now. ‘‘You must listen to the guests to do what they want. You adjust the menu according to what people want and what is trending.’’
For most Kenyan hotels, the high cost of some of the imported ingredients has either caused the withdrawal of some of the offerings or local sourcing. Some of these are seafood such as seabass, lobsters and fish, foie gras (fattened goose/duck liver) and some of the prime cuts of beef.
Walkinshaw argues: ‘‘When you obtain some of the produce at Sh1 million, you will have to pass it [cost] on to someone else. It does not make sense, especially if you can get some of these products locally. Some of the items are loss leaders, it does not matter whether you make profit from them or not.’’
He adds: ‘‘You can do with beef cuts that are available locally. There might be less cuts and limited options, but they are of equally good quality.’’
While most meats and fresh produce are available in the market, Walkinshaw admits that ‘‘chefs are struggling to get good products consistently’’ with most certain food items taking as many as three months to arrive.
‘‘There is a wide variety of fruit and vegetables in this market, available all seasons. We have been struggling with meat from some suppliers. Some restaurants have even taken beef off their menu because they cannot get proper quality,’’ he notes.
To him, guests should be able to ‘‘experience great food at reasonable prices’’ and that food prices have been adjusted only marginally. ‘‘Kenyan diners know what is good quality. They know what is value for money. They know what they want. If you pay a premium, you expect the best of best.’’
With well-travelled guests in high-end hotels, and competition increasing by the day, hotel chefs are under increased pressure to maintain their guests. For hotels such as Emara and Radisson Blu, plans are underway to overhaul their menus and bring in international chefs to enhance the food experience.
What has not changed is what diners order. ‘‘The majority of Kenyans like steaks accompanied by chips, spinach and ugali. Foreigners go for exotic dishes such as salmon and seafood,’’ reveals Karuku.
The menu is also stricter these days, with most major hotels stocking only what clients ask for, as Maina explains. ‘‘It has become riskier to have in the menu cuisines that are less ordered or not ordered at all. What is the point of stocking foods that will rot in the pantry?’’
Adds Karuku: ‘‘You stock based on the amount of business you have at the time. There is increased business now. We are stocking more.’’
Another trend in the hospitality industry is increased contact between chefs and patrons as a way of creating demand for certain dishes. ‘‘When you buy and stock lasagne, for instance, the expectation is that the diners will ask for it,’’ says Maina, a Swiss-trained chef.
Karuku notes that health conditions such as allergies play a part in this. ‘‘Guests need close interactions with the chef before making an order to explain how their meals should be prepared.’’
There is also more role differentiation, with chefs handling specific areas. A large kitchen is divided into seven main areas, including saucier, garde mouche, butcher/fishmonger and pastry/bakery chef, each with its section head.