Food & Drinks

Kenyan chefs add razzmatazz to hotel plates - VIDEO

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Executive Chef Jeff Gitonga poses for a photo at the Sankara Hotel Sarabi Rooftop on July 24, 2021. PHOTO | FRANCIS NDERITU | NMG

There was a time when hotel food was served on a white plate and only a white plate. Then came young, experimental Kenyan chefs who are adding razzmatazz to food plating.

I am at the Graze Steakhouse in Sankara Hotel, Nairobi, and Jeff Gitonga, the executive chef brings out his food creations.

The duck meat, which has been slow-cooked with wild juniper berries, is served in a smoke-filled glass dome. It is on a white plate placed over leaves, twigs and a sisal weaved mat.

The jumbo prawns and crispy scallops rissois come on a mini-charcoal block. The aged meat is served on a black marble slate while the dessert, a passion fruit chocolate fondant, is served on a wooden block.

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Picasso aged striploin with bone marrow crumble plated on a marble slate served at the Sankara Hotel on May 20, 2022. PHOTO | FRANCIS NDERITU | NMG

Choosing crockery has become a serious business in Kenyan hotels as they seek creativity in food presentations and now chefs have begun to prick their brains to invent some new plating options, with which to tickle the palates of diners.

Chef Jeff says years ago, hotel food was very classic with vegetables cut in specific shapes and everything placed in one 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 artsy, borrowing from his love for drawing and painting.

“People don’t walk into Sankara to just eat food. They come in for an experience. As a chef, it’s my responsibility to create this experience,” he told BDLife.

At Jiko Restaurant in Tribe Hotel, from aged beef, burgers to French fries, the food is served in beautiful ceramic bowls, large flat plates, and cast iron skillets.

According to Richie Barrow, the general manager, Food and Beverage at Jiko, Tribe Hotel, with the advent of celebrity chefs, changes in terms of cuisines, and the fusions of cuisine, tableware had to move with the times.

“This has been driven by competition as restaurants and their chefs are working to distinguish themselves. Food plating is indeed a way to express me uniquely because there’s no one like me in the world,” says Executive Chef Mohamed Yakat of Jiko.

There is also been a lot more informality when it comes to dining. Luxury dining has shed the long-standing tradition. Now it is playful and fun and no longer the aristocratic presentation of gleaming vintage silver tableware, exquisite porcelain with golden candelabra centrepieces.

“People are also increasingly appreciating and learning more about food. With this accessibility, came the simplification and creativity of the dining experience,” says Mr Barrows, who has been in hospitality for 15 years, working in Ireland, Scotland, and now Kenya.

Chef Yakat says the colours, textures and flavours of the food dictate how he chooses his tableware. From the duck and charcoal brisket black samosas served on a flat bowl, to the crackling pork belly accompanied by fried plantains, bacon, and coconut jus plated on a cream and brown coloured flat plate and the beef karanga and sukuma raviolis in hat-like bowls.

“Placed before a diner, well-presented food becomes a great conversation starter on the table and long after the diner has left the restaurant. It also arouses curiosity. Diners ask for example, how we make the black samosas,” Chef Yakat says.

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Executive Chef Mohamed Yakat at Jiko restaurant within Tribe hotel on May 31, 2022, displaying Za'atar beef burger. PHOTO | EVANS HABIL | NMG

The way a dish looks impacts how it is perceived. If it looks great, a customer feels valued because they can see the time and effort put into creating their meal.

Custom-made tableware allows chefs to also play around with food portions, making them look more filling.

“Food is an emotion. I want the guest to look at it and see my heart as well as my team’s, inspire them, and be part of their eating experience when they ask questions like, “Why am I eating from a tile instead of a plate?” Chef Gitonga explains.

Furthermore, the clientele has changed.

“People are more exposed and informed, thanks to travelling and food shows, leading to more refined palates unlike before. As a result, they expect more and better from a restaurant’s chef,” Chef Kendi Magiri of Fifteen Rooftop restaurant in Nairobi says.

Seventeen years in the industry working both in the US and Kenya and visiting several other countries, she has seen the aesthetics of food becoming bolder.

Chopping boards were once used for cutting meat. Now they are being used to serve it. “Human beings are very visual, she says.

If it is good for the eyes then it is good for the stomach. Food boards elevate even the most basic foods.

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Kendi Magiri, Head Chef at Fifteen Rooftop Restaurant during an interview on May 18, 2022. PHOTO | JEFF ANGOTE | NMG

“An oval burger, for example, is more exciting when served on boards. Differently coloured plates allow chefs to play around with the different colours food comes in,” the 40-year-old chef adds.

Costly affair

Maintaining food aesthetics is also good for marketing restaurants, especially in this age of social media.

“First, people are spending more time in restaurants than before. Secondly, once a meal lands on the table, it is not the fork and knife they’ll reach out to. It will be their phones where they’ll take a picture, upload it on social media and then enjoy the food. Having interesting tableware is thus a marketing tool. People retain you in their minds based on how good the food looks,” Chef Kendi explains.

She does, however, emphasize the importance of flavourful food. If it looks good and tastes bad, it is a disaster, with social media fanning the flames.

Jiko’s tableware is designed and manufactured locally while its slates are imported. Isn’t this an expensive investment?

“Yes it is, but it is also necessary. Now people are eating in restaurants three to four times a week. You want to make them feel home away from home,” Mr Barrow adds.

“Additionally, we want to support the local crockery industry. The pandemic showed us the detrimental effects of relying on imports,” he adds.

At some point during my lunch at the Jiko, I took the sweet potato chips bowl and held it in my hand, close to my chest, and began eating from it, just as I do at home.

They tasted even better eaten by hand. Doing this would have been unthinkable in a rigid dining environment.

The Graze’s collection of oblong, square, rectangular, cracked and rustic tableware not forgetting the marble and mini charcoal blocks, wooden and glass tiles among others are designed by Chef Gitonga in collaboration with the engineering team.

“It’s all part of the experience. Food plating is a form of expression. My food expresses gratitude and appreciation. Proper tableware helps communicate this even when I don’t talk to the clients directly,” Chef Kendi shares.

It is also a growth opportunity for local chefs to showcase their levels of creativity using local ingredients and locally sourced materials.

“I serve mostly African food infused with my creativity. Isn’t it only right for me to present it in an African way?,” the 39-year-old Chef Yakat says.

Plus, you also need to look at the cost versus the end game of the restaurants. Tableware complements the chef’s food in the kitchen. If the chef is happy, the clients will be as well.

“It allows us to be ourselves and it builds the restaurant’s reputation allowing us to exercise the love, drive, and passion we have for food,” Chef Gitonga says.