It is said that you eat with your eyes first. And now chefs are taking his dictum more seriously than ever with mouthwateringly striking food design, writes Simon Brooke
There was a time when restaurants in hotels were seen as the refuge of the tired and the timid, but not any more. In recent years a group of hotel restaurants have become destinations in their own right.
And, just as hotels have realised that in order to differentiate themselves and attract customers they need to emphasise their own striking, individual design, this design imperative is influencing not just the decor of their destination restaurants but the food itself.
These days arresting design applies as much to what's on the plate as it does to bedrooms, dining rooms and public areas. It's certainly something that Dennis Kuipers, executive chef of the Restaurant Vinkeles at the boutique Dylan Hotel in Amsterdam, is aware of.
"Twenty years ago there was just food on plates, but now it's much more about entertainment," he says. "These days you're cooking for the eye; it's a complete experience."
Created from a line of 17th-century canal-side houses on Amsterdam's elegant Keizersgracht, the Dylan's design ethos blends traditional opulence with clean, modern lines - a look echoed by the food in its main restaurant. Classic ingredients are presented with modern colours and geometric shapes.
Take, for example, one of Restaurant Vinkeles' signature dishes, a fillet of John Dory with pointed cabbage, fresh almonds, black pudding and a jus of smoked eel. Inspiration for not just the taste but the look of this dish came about when Kuipers was walking on the beach with his son looking at the stones, sand, sea and sky.
Ryan Murphy, newly arrived executive head chef at The Lowry Hotel in Manchester, is creating dishes which will reflect the neo-industrial architecture of the hotel with its vast expanses of glass. His pan-fried red mullet is served with langoustine and a pomme soufflé, among other ingredients. The shimmering elegance of the pomme soufflé is created by using two slices of potato, which are brushed with egg white, dusted with potato flour and then fried at 74C (165F).
"The potato separates within but it's still held together to form the lightest pillow of potato and really complements the whole dish," says Murphy. "Guests are looking for light dishes in the main and we are planning to work with a nutritional biochemist to develop dishes that look appetising but also healthy."
Wit, as well as lightness, is a key feature of this design trend. At the Maison Moschino hotel in Milan, for instance, head chef Moreno Cedroni has created a colourful sushi collection with a sushi toothbrush, a mint-and-coconut-flavoured edible toothpaste, and a sake-and-mint-based mouthwash.
"Our generation no longer eats just to be nourished. If anything, the less we eat, the better we feel," he says. "Food design will be more and more about raw food and, as we have to think of light and healthy diets, the presentation of dishes will be also lighter."
Competition among hotel restaurants is one of the driving forces behind this culinary aesthetic, says Sven Elverfeld, of the three-Michelin-star restaurant at the Ritz Carlton, Wolfsburg, Germany.
"There are more and more good restaurants around the world these days, and the internet means that everyone can see what their dishes look like," he says. Arriving at the hotel, he realised that he'd have to develop dishes that complemented not only the hotel's architecture with its natural materials, but also the views of the landscape through its picture windows. Tiramisu, for instance, is served in a ball of spun sugar, which looks like an ethereal light bulb.
"The whole team will start with something very simple, such as a piece of fish, and then think about the texture and colour," he says. "From that we'll work on the design and then decide what we're going to serve it on." These days, he points out, that could be glass, slate, wood or paper.
Kitchens also include more technology today, which benefits food design. Elverfeld will sear a piece of pork belly for two minutes on each side but then cook it for 24 hours in a vacuum pack in a water bath, or "sous vide", where the temperature is maintained electronically at exactly 65C (140F). "I've got a blender that does 24,000 rotations a minute so it will turn a vinaigrette, for instance, into something like toffee," he says.
Even the grandest hotels and greatest names of French cuisine are involved in this trend.
Jocelyn Herland, executive chef at Alain Ducasse at London's Dorchester, says: "Some very gifted chefs couldn't express themselves in traditional or classic cuisine, so they found a way in more experimental cuisine."
Over the last few years, Christophe Michalak, pastry chef at the Plaza Athenée, in Paris, has been creating cakes that represent elements of the design of the hotel and reflect its surroundings.
"I'm inspired by the place and its inheritance," he says. "The hotel is located on Avenue Montaigne so I like to play on the haute couture element, as well as the traditional side of the hotel." Cakes include a perfect replica of the kind of rounded, Empire-style chest to be found in the hotel's rooms and a clipped tree similar to those from around the entrance, but all made from sugar, flour and chocolate.
Whatever their design styles, one thing that all chefs agree upon is that the food must come first. "Beautiful produce will offer you everything you need to create striking recipes," says Jocelyn Herland.
Dutch designer Marije Vogelzang, who describes herself as an "eating designer", is certainly at the cutting edge of gastronomic visual innovation. She recently built a striking abstract, but edible, lunar landscape of pizza dough which stretched across a series of bowls. Guests ate this dough with a stew that was served alongside it. At the launch of a lingerie label, she placed hors d'oeuvres on swaying rods, tied up with ribbons, to give the impression of a swarm of butterflies.
However extravagant her designs, for Vogelzang it's also the raw ingredients that count. "I think food is perfectly designed by nature," she says. "I don't want to redesign food or mess around with it."
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