Fresh Faces: Trends in China Keep Pace with Chefs' Creativity

By Robert Trainor Exec Chef, Hilton | October 28, 2008

In a 1987 competition in Boston, a connection at a German china company allowed me to borrow several different plates in exchange for promoting their product after the judging when the salon was open to the public. I finished in first place with a gold medal and high score. My menu and food were very good, but so were the entries of many of my competitors. It was the way the food was presented on this great line of china that gave my presentation that little extra touch that pushed me ahead of the others.

For decades, restaurants, and especially hotels, went with very traditional table presentations - round, white plates for restaurants and silver chargers for buffet settings. The most adventurous plates one could find in use were in fine dining venues that served on oversized plates with colorful borders. When I worked at La Cote Basque in New York, the restaurant had several different plate patterns from the Villeroy & Boch line. Chef Rachous required that each course be served on a different plate, especially during a seven-course tasting menu. In hotels, however, the cost margin on china, and the breakage, led to a much more straightforward approach where the same china was used in the outlets, for room service and banquets, unless there was a fine dining, signature restaurant. This made it cost effective to maintain a proper inventory and easier to replace broken china.

Since the mid 1990s, however, change has exploded in the way operators approach the overall table presentation. Today, the china and service ware industry has responded to the demands of today's creative chefs, with china companies and chefs feeding off each other's creativity. China has become an integral part of the overall dining experience and presentation. No longer just a vessel for serving food, china is now so important because it allows the guest to see the table in a whole new way.

Dramatic styles, colors and shapes play well with today's attitude of dining as an event or theatrical experience. New geometric shapes and diverse materials used on tabletops now give dinners a more personal feel, and excite the senses of the guests from the moment they sit down at the table. With the variety of products now available, each restaurant and hotel can make its own individual statement.

Each outlet at Hilton Short Hills has its own china, all in different styles, shapes and even weight. In our formal outlet, The Dining Room, we use Limoges china for our show plate, Riedel Crystal for our beverage program and white Fortessa tableware for service pieces. The overall effect fits The Dining Room's status as New Jersey's only AAA Five Diamond restaurant. In our all-day dining restaurant, The Terrace, we use heavier, more durable Aplico china to compliment our Mediterranean bistro concept and to meet the demands of high volume. A colorful blue and gold pattern coffee service and square bread and butter plate add a dash of pizzazz to the tabletop. Service pieces include cast iron dishes from Staub and Isabel Glass for Tappas in our lounge area. Even our tea service tableware is completely different - a more traditional English Wedgwood bone china.

Using different china makes each outlet feel like a separate destination to itself and lends it a true air of individuality. The common thread is that in each restaurant we use different shapes and sizes, which we consider when developing new menu items. Service dishes are white and free of design so that they may act as a canvas for the artistry of our food presentation. White makes sense too because trendy colors come and go, but white is always "in."

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Social Media: Engagement is Key

There are currently 2.3 billion active users of social media networks and savvy hotel operators have incorporated social media into their marketing mix. There are a few Goliath channels on which one must have a presence (Facebook & Twitter) but there are also several newer upstart channels (Instagram, Snapchat &WeChat, for example) that merit consideration. With its 1.86 billion users, Facebook is a dominant platform where operators can drive brand awareness, facilitate bookings, offer incentives and collect sought-after reviews. Twitter's 284 million users generate 500 million tweets per day, and operators can use its platform for lead generation, building loyalty, and guest interaction. Instagram was originally a small photo-sharing site but it has blown up into a massive photo and video channel. The site can be used to post photos of the hotel property, as well as creating Instagram Stories - personal videos that disappear from the channel after 24 hours. In this regard, Instagram and Snapchat are now in direct competition. WeChat is a Chinese company whose aim is to be the App for Everything - instant messaging, social media, shopping and payment services - all in a single platform. In addition to these channels, blogging continues to be a popular method to establish leadership, enhance reputations, and engage with customers in a direct and personal way. The key to effective use of all social media is to find out where your customers are and then, to the fullest extent possible, engage with them on a personal level. This engagement is what creates a personal connection and sustains brand loyalty. The February Hotel Business Review will explore these issues and examine how some hotels are successfully integrating social media into their operations.