Tableware is a huge investment for caterers and in these lean imes it pays to make an intelligent buy. Diane Lane talks to manufacturers and suppliers about the latest trends.
Shapes, colours, patterns - we've seen them all rise and fall in the tableware popularity stakes but the trend that's emerged in the past few years has revolutionised the tabletop.
Fine-dining restaurants and casual eateries alike have embraced the idea of mixing and matching innovative yet multi-functional pieces, not necessarily from the same collection or even manufacturer, instead of presenting chefs' labours of love on standard dishes designed for a particular use.
While recession-driven clichés such as tightening the purse strings and working smart might seem a likely explanation for such a thrifty approach to procurement, in reality this trend has emerged as part of Britain's culinary coming-of-age.
Steve Walton, UK sales manager at Dudson, explains: "Although it would be easy to say that the current trend towards clever buying, that is, the purchasing of one bowl for a variety of menu items, has developed from the necessary streamlining of operations caused by the recession, that would not strictly be true. It is more complicated than that.
"This current trend is primarily menu driven. The emphasis on gastro and brand sections of the market, with the prominence of homely and traditional menus created from local produce but presented with a wow factor, has resulted in the evolution of the simple pasta dish into something more innovative and versatile."
Indeed, the idea of the so-much-more-than-just-a-pasta-dish has evolved beyond all recognition. The view at Villeroy & Boch is that this trend probably started some 20 years ago with the large deep, main-course plate and the emergence of the chef as the star of the restaurant rather than the theatre of service.
"Chefs wanted plain white plates as a frame for their food, then they wanted different shapes to create focus and interest. This trend has continued today with not only squares but also wave and organic shapes," says national sales manager Nick Green.
"With the ingenuity displayed in the search for new, original and pioneering ideas in food preparation, nothing has to stay the same. Molecular gastronomy in particular calls out for new innovative shapes."
But it's not a trend limited to the top end of the market, says Valda Goodfellow, managing director of Continental Chef Supplies (CCS), who observes that casual dining operators also want more variety than a white plate or bowl. And, whatever the market, the versatility is of paramount importance. "Instead of buying an unusual dish with just one function in mind, they're thinking ‘what other uses can I put it to?'," says Goodfellow.
CCS has obliged with a Table Art brochure showcasing combinations of items, as Goodfellow puts it, "so chefs can see the potential and be inspired to come up with their own combinations".
"One of the most popular ideas has been the pairing of a bottling jar with an olive wood board. Combinations of glass with wood or wood with silver are so much more interesting than a white plate with a bump in it."
For Emma Bullen, new product development manager at Churchill, the trend is born of continuing efforts to enhance the whole dining experience. "Customer perception of product presentation is higher than ever before and chefs are looking for more innovative food presentation materials and style," she says. "They are quick to incorporate new food trends - such as shared dining and bowl foods - into their menus and enhance these inspired dishes with accent pieces," she says.
"Elements such as wood are commonplace in kitchens now and chefs are keen to uncover the new mix of materials to create differentiation, reinforce brand and food style, and enhance speciality dishes. Key trendsetters we have seen are funky chip mugs and sexy sauce dishes. Wooden platters add a wow factor with a selection of rustic dishes and can then be used as liners to serve side dishes or sandwiches. These dishes do not have to be full tabletop collections - they are often additions to the existing ware, maximising tabletop impact with minimum expense."
At Alliance Online, which carries crockery lines from more than 30 suppliers, marketing manager Emma Malone confirms that caterers are buying bolt-ons to their existing standard range. "We find the majority of our customers have a core manufacturer or brand they favour but are complementing their mainstream tableware with items that work across the breadth of their menu and that may mean choosing a different manufacturer," she says.
"Today's menus are diverse and one size rarely fits all - it's about creating a signature look and front-of-house presentation is just as important as what's on the plate."
Malone cites the rise in popularity of Mediterranean and Oriental cuisine combined with lighter dining and more creative presentation - especially in casual dining - as being some of the reasons for today's mix and match approach. "Menus are so much more diverse and the crockery gives a great opportunity to add value to food presentation," she says.
"Soup bowls are the obvious products, doubling up as pasta dishes, but they also make great dessert dishes or vegetable presentation platters, too - even side salads. Square or oblong plates are another - they can work across all courses, look superb and are flexible right across the serving spectrum."
John Massey, UK and Ireland sales manager at Steelite, agrees that the rise of various international cuisines is a key factor in a more flexible approach to tableware. "There are lots of cuisine types in the UK today which lend themselves to serving plates, platters and larger plates or bowls such as Middle Eastern, Asian, and Mediterranean dishes, including tapas and meze, which are good in small dishes and platters," he says.
"Historically, plates were all sized and named specific to the dish, such as fish dish and soup bowl, but those names have now fallen by the wayside and multi-functional products exist across the board, from quick turnaround dining to fine dining, as operators rationalise their stock and understand the need to optimise the number of dishes in their presentations. Casual dining establishments are increasingly rationalising, some are able to serve their full menu on as few as six shapes."
Creating an impact at table is what it's all about at John Artis. "Nowhere is this more true than in the current trends of serving amuse-bouche, in tapas cuisine and on tasting menus," says managing director John Artis.
"What these modern cuisine trends have in common is the size of the portion and the regularity with which the dishes change. Certainly it will be impossible for chefs to purchase dishes for every minor change of menu, therefore they have to mix and match whatever dishes they already have.
"You could regard this as an economy measure but chefs will probably see it somewhat differently. They will choose the china that best presents the dish from several styles and shapes they may have in the cupboard. Glassware such as shot glasses or old fashioned glasses are fine for serving an amuse-bouche; side plates look very acceptable for tapas dishes; tasting menus, by their very nature, call for a range of generally smaller dishware in a variety of styles and shapes, which lend themselves to re-use as the menu changes - as it frequently does with this style of cuisine."
CITY OF MANCHESTER STADIUM
The City of Manchester Stadium, home to Manchester City Football Club and where John Benson-Smith is consultant executive chef, has taken the multi-use trend onboard. Besides matchday hospitality, when the team caters for up to 3,000 guests across a range of six suites and 70 executive boxes, the stadium also hosts a range of events, from conferences and product launches to gala dinners, and can individually tailor an event for two to 1,000 guests.
"The main range that the stadium uses across the majority of its suites and executive boxes is from Villeroy & Boch and we have gone for a clean, crisp approach with stylish white crockery," says Neil Worcester, catering and operations manager.
"We use multi-functional items which provide an imaginative way of presenting food, for example, cups for soups and desserts, slates for sandwiches and baked potatoes, glass verrines doubling up for salads and desserts, and bread boards being used for deli platters, as well as bread and butter.
"Multi-functional pieces are a fantastic investment. They help enhance presentation while minimising costs and this is a key objective when making our tableware purchase."
[Churchill China](http://www.churchillchina.com) 01782 524367
[Continental Chef Supplies ](http://www.chefs.net) 0800 988 8981
[Dudson ](http://www.dudson.com) 01782 819337
[John Artis ](http://www.johnartis.co.uk) 020 8391 5544
[Steelite International ](http://www.steelite.com)0800 783 3548
[Villeroy & Boch 020 8871 0011