Melting Pot – The Social Club – Sharing a smorgasbord of ideas

Presenting menus and dishes in innovative formats can heighten the whole dining experience for your customers. Our Category Focus feature this issue examines why sharing concepts are so popular with out-of-home diners – and here an array of top chefs and industry experts show you how you can adapt this food trend on your menus. Adding sharing dishes, boards and even tasting menus is the perfect way for caterers to highlight the social occasion of food. As the generations change, so does the way that we eat and behave. Social media has an increasingly important role to play in influencing diners, and with the adage we ‘eat with our eyes’, the way a dish looks is, in some cases, equally if not more important than how it actually tastes…

Mark Rigby, executive chef, Premier Foods Roast dinners work brilliantly as a sharing platter and never fail to draw gasps of delight when they’re presented at the table. The chosen joint of meat can be carved at the table for added theatre, with the vegetables presented in copper saucepans on a wooden board. Customers can often tell the difference between homemade and frozen Yorkshire puddings so, to stand out from the crowd, try to prepare your own from scratch. Offer customers the opportunity to customise their roast dinner platters by offering lots of interesting sides, such as pigs in blankets or courgettes in Panko breadcrumbs with vegetarian Parmesan for non-meat eaters. And, of course, the meal wouldn’t be complete without lashings of delicious gravy!

Tom Holloway, head chef, Alexandra Hotel and restaurant in Lyme Regis, Dorset (www.hotelalexandra.co.uk) The popularity of sharing platters has increased considerably over the past few years and more and more customers expect to see sharing platters on the menu almost as much as they expect to see starters, mains and desserts. Designing a successful platter is all about choosing foods and flavours that work well together, balancing the protein-based items with interesting sides and accompaniments within a common theme. One of our most popular is the seafood platter that includes local native lobster, dressed crab and mussels, paired with truffled mayonnaise and locally grown organic salad leaves.

Preston Walker, kitchen manager/ director at Oak House Residential Home and the NACC’s regional chairman for the Midlands region Offering a family-style service in an institutional care setting is a great way to engage with residents. People with dementia, for example, have been used to eating meals with their families so putting a tray of cottage pie in the middle of the table means that they can take as much or as little on their plate as they want. Older people can feel overwhelmed and overfaced if you put too much food on their plate but, this way, we find they are more relaxed – and often go back for seconds! In the same way, offer a big trifle for dessert. Afternoon tea on retro tea stands taps into the nostalgia side and things like finger sandwiches and mini cakes look attractive and are very easy to eat.

Matt Dawes, key account manager, Row & Sons (www.rowandsons.co.uk) Wooden serving boards offer an alternative means of presenting dishes and sharing platters, but ensuring they are hygienically clean is a priority. The recent case of a Birmingham steak house being fined £50,000 for continuing to serve food on dirty wooden boards is proof of the severity of such a food poisoning risk. Wood, like plastic, needs to be maintained in the correct manner to support hygiene. It should not be placed in the dishwasher or soaked for long periods in water. As a natural product, when subjected to water for a long period, wood can split or crack. Once split, the wood will be difficult to dry out, and any cracks could remain damp, forming the perfect atmosphere for bacteria. Instead, wiping wood with appropriate antibacterial sprays and a damp cloth is recommended. Roweca is a great alternative to wood, for both preparing and serving food. Roweca is manufactured from recycled paper, therefore environmentally friendly. It provides the aesthetic of slate and can be placed in the dishwasher.

Marie Medhurst, sales director at Bannisters Yorkshire Family Farm Sharing platters that marry must-have flavours with clean, wholesome ingredients offer the best of both worlds – and are a hit with groups who won’t compromise on either health or taste. Give street food a nutritious base with sweet potato skins, full of vitamins, fibre and potassium, and with a perfect subtle sweetness that complements shredded chipotle chicken, chickpea dahl or a superfood sensation of diced beetroot with chopped walnuts, coriander leaves and red chilli, topped with sea salt and olive oil.

Thomas Carr, head chef at the Michelin-starred Olive Room in Ilfracombe (thomascarrchef.co.uk) Chefs have two jobs in my opinion, to excite and satisfy. It’s very hard to tick those boxes in a ‘conventional’ casual dining establishment. If I go for fish and chips, then around half way through I’m bored of the meal – even if I haven’t satisfied my hunger. By serving a number of different style dishes in smaller portions, you keep the customer excited and still manage to leave them ultimately satisfied at the end of the experience. The main challenge for establishments outside of fine dining is that they’re normally operating very large menus. My suggestion would be to try a tasting menu by using it as a special – look at things that haven’t sold so well – group dishes together and offer a tasting menu special. It will help waste and, in my opinion, the experience.

Matt White, chair of TUCO Sharing platters are one of the most cost-effective ways to eat on campus. The Cargo bar, Medway at the University of Kent, recommend a variety of small appetisers offered in more of a tapas style. Three can be chosen at a cheaper price rather than purchasing individually and larger platters are also available to share. Small appetisers include chilli and mango king prawns, fully loaded potato skins and beer battered mozzarella sticks Alternatively, students like to share larger platters of nachos, which can be served with melted cheese, sour cream and guacamole, topped with a choice of homemade BBQ pulled pork or beef chilli.

James Davidson, executive chef, Rich Sauces Using sharing platters for social occasions such as friends catching up, or family outings, gives the chef a chance to play with textures and flavours. Using sweet, savoury, spicy and the cooling effects of dips to complement each other, my thoughts go to…

• Loaded fries, with crispy chicken, topped with a sweet, mango curry sauce

• Sriracha filled mozzarella balls with mango and chilli salsa, dressed with a mango, lime and chilli dressing

• Deep fried halloumi with harissa mayo

• Buffalo wings with blue cheese dressing

• Baby back ribs in a soy and mirin glaze with a hint of cayenne pepper and ranch slaw