Design in casual dining

Published on host.Milano on 27th November 2015:

Picnic basket

Last month I attended San Sebastian Gastronomika, an annual food conference with a focus on fine dining, ingredients and wine. Each year, the organisers focus on a different theme and this year it was the joint cities of Singapore and Hong Kong.

I had hoped that the conference would give me some insights into the food scene in Singapore and Hong Kong as both are destinations I have yet to visit. Instead however, I got thinking about design.

Let me explain.

Each day, several of the world’s best chefs, both from Spain, where the conference is hosted, and from the guest cities, demonstrate dishes or ideas from their restaurant. To accompany their presentations, the chefs also prepared a little tasting sample for the audience. In most cases, the chefs had fine dining restaurants but for the purpose of the tasting sample, all of the plates, bowls and containers were plastic. So the question is, how to elevate the food even if it’s served in plastic containers?

Luckily for the chefs, there were options besides the straight-up box containers. In fact, the containers were in a myriad of shapes that were designed to mimic fine dining plating. For example, one platter was shaped like an oyster and was perfect for holding a small sample of pickled vegetables. It was something that added to the overall aesthetic of the dish and propelled it from being just something ordinary.

But what does this mean for casual dining? Well the answer is perhaps most applicable to street food vendors where containers are inevitably single use.

What if, by simply using a different shaped container, you could make your casual offering a much more marketable product? What if that product could then be sold for a higher price? It could be the difference between a road-side business and a potentially more lucrative events business.

Yes, no doubt, fancy plating costs more but sometimes it’s as much about the presentation as it is about the food.

China goes super-sized

Published on host. Milano. on 6th November 2015:

crabs in Shanghai

This year, size is everything in China. Or more precisely, it’s all about food going super-sized. The country, it seems, is on a journey to dominate Guinness World Records.

Naturally, bigger is better and the more the merrier. So far this year, China has presented us with the world’s biggest steamed bun, which was studded with smaller buns, and the world’s largest tofu that weighed a staggering eight tons. There was also the most number of people having breakfast at the same time as well as the most number of people cooking at the same time.

Taking part are cities, festivals, restaurants and even hotels, often at great expense. Luckily, the corresponding publicity has been equally large, both domestically and internationally.

Perhaps that’s why the trend seems to be picking up pace. In September this year, three food related record attempts were made in different parts of China in one weekend alone.

Anhui Province in eastern China tried their hand at creating the world’s largest pot of beef soup. Liaoning Province, which borders North Korea, celebrated South Korea Week with the world’s largest bibimbap. Meanwhile, another part of the province welcomed the crab season with the world’s largest pot of steamed crabs, which had to be lifted with a crane.

Is it simply madness?

Many people do find the waste aspect a deterrent, something of an almost inevitable by-product. That said, so far, these stunts have attracted enough visitors to spare the wastage. What’s more, the resulting publicity has often increased tourists and business to the area.

So in today’s busy food market, is a record attempt the key to gaining business? Well, there are certainly enough people that think so. But how sustainable it will be is anyone’s guess.

Wine will never replace baijiu but it can be an occasional substitute

Published on host. Milano. on 11th September 2015:

vineyard in Chile

Earlier this year, Guillaume Deglise, CEO of Vinexpo, expressed what was described as a ‘silver lining’ for winemakers wishing to enter the Chinese wine market. He posited that, in spite of the clamp down on gifting, China is set to be a growing market.

But while wine at the banqueting table is no longer a rare occurrence, neither is it a staple. For the inescapable banquets like birthdays, weddings and funerals, baijiu, the traditional Chinese spirit, is still the drink of choice for toasting. In every day feasting however, grape wine has made steady gains.

In the service industry, those that are catering to an affluent crowd are already serving up a good selection of wines. The recently opened St Regis in Chengdu, for example, has the city’s first wine-only hotel bar. And with an increasingly knowledgeable consumer base, food and beverage mangers are only looking to diversify into other markets.

Bordeaux and Burgundy are still popular. Case in point, new Hong Kong wine magazine Le Pan has chosen to host its launch in Bordeaux. But those wishing to stay ahead of the curve should look to other wine regions.

The new world in particular is vying for the top spots in the tightened premium wine markets.

Chilean pioneers Vina Errazuriz and Vina Montes have both long invested in the Chinese market, including regular brand focused events. Australian cult-wine Penfolds already has a loyal following. And New Zealand’s Marisco Vineyards is still incredibly proud of the fact that they were judged the best wines for Chinese food at the Hong Kong International Wine & Spirit Competition, two years ago.

So what does this mean for HORECA?

Well there are some obvious design changes.

As well as allowing space for storage, temperature considerations are important. This is especially true for a country where seasonal temperatures vary greatly but indoor temperature control is not the norm. A second consideration would be display – consumers should be made aware of your product offering and be enticed by it. Finally, you’ll have to think about the details like wine glasses, corkscrews, decanters and maybe even enomatic machines.

Offering wine, and doing it well, will certainly mean greater expense in terms of restaurant design. But it may well pay off in the long run.

Read moer at host. Milano.

The philosophy of restaurant design

Published on host. Milano. on 17th April 2015:

The Corner Room

In London, restaurant design is surprisingly powerful in its subtlety.

Think, for example, of a restaurant with stripped back lighting, bare walls, white tiles and chrome fixtures. Who do you imagine will dine in such a restaurant? And what kind of food will be served? Now, what about a restaurant with plush banquettes, aged-wood panelling and framed paintings? Has your diner aged by a couple of decades?

As in other parts of the western world, a well designed restaurant in London might get mentions in a magazine, gain kudos in awards or even attract the right type of clientèle. Followers of restaurant psychology might even argue that the right restaurant design can increase the average spend of the diner, making restaurant design an incredibly powerful tool for the restaurateur.

Meanwhile, restaurant design in China is a wholly different ball game. Here, it’s less about the fine-tuning and more about the turnover.

Now, we’re not talking about the European restaurants in Shanghai which aspire to their international counterparts. Nor are we talking about international hotel restaurants which are inspired by a brand identity. Rather, we’re talking about restaurants for the mass market.

According to one restaurateur I spoke to last year, a successful restaurant will need to redecorate once every two or three years to maintain a sense of “newness” for its diners. A restaurant that hasn’t been redecorated for seven years or more is basically on its last legs and will have seen dwindling visitor numbers for some years.

The reason? Competition.

The number of restaurants in China is so incomprehensibly large that the only thing which distinguishes between them is that sense of newness. Here, restaurant design isn’t built to last but rather, just until its shiny edge has worn out.

Chinese New Year in a new age

Published on host. Milano. on 27th February 2015:

Also available in Italian

typical feast dishes by Qin Xie

Chinese New Year was once a stay-at-home family affair where everyone huddled around home-made dumpling feasts and watched CCTV’s Spring Festival Gala. In the days preceding the new year, hundreds of thousands of migrant workers would flock home from all over the country, and sometimes the world, for a family reunion. The country would grind to a virtual stand still for the few days of mandatory public holiday.

Today, Chinese New Year is a much more varied affair, often taking place at the banqueting tables of restaurants. The fare inevitably varies from region to region but, rest assured, abundance is the theme. The drink of choice is beginning to reflect China’s prosperity in the last few years with more grape wines gracing the banqueting table but toasts still fall back on the traditional baijiu.

Chinese New Year is being celebrated in a big way around the world too. International hotel chains, especially those with properties in China, are sharing the celebration at their other properties around the world. For instance, W Hotels is hosting a Chinese New Year party in London, where they have a hotel just by Chinatown, to celebrate the opening of the group’s new Beijing hotel. Hakkasan, meanwhile, is taking inspiration from the wishing tree in Hong Kong and showcasing the theme at its restaurants around the world.

Wherever Chinese New Year is celebrated, there are a few similarities. Red, the most auspicious colour in Chinese culture, is used liberally whether in decorations, table coverings or little red envelopes. Symbols of prosperity such as the Chinese character 福, whole fish and lucky plants can always be found close at hand. But most importantly, Chinese New Year remains a family-focussed occasion so expect multiple generations gathering at one dinner table.