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Tips from Asia on Delivering Memorable Meals

The art of hospitality in Tokyo and Hong Kong engenders culture shock in those accustomed to transaction-based “What-can-I-getcha?” service. But dining as an experience to pamper the senses never goes out of style.

On a recent trip Asia, I met a director of food and beverage who was more eager to share a thoughtful perspective on being a host than tout his menu or food.

“My philosophy is to deliver experiences,” said Kieron Hunt during dinner at Peter in the five-star Peninsula Hotel in Tokyo. “Regardless of cost of the experience, you want to remember your time spent at restaurants.”

The Peninsula’s Peter grill restaurant, a top fine dining spot in the Ginza neighborhood known as the Rodeo Drive of Tokyo, presents overt and subtle clues to the Asian art of hospitality. At the sister Peninsula in Hong Kong, an innovative progressive dinner propels guests toward a memorable experience.

Hunt arrives each day at the bustling Peninsula with his father’s adage in mind: “You can’t sell a car until you’ve driven one.” To get the full experience of “selling” hospitality, Hunt believes it’s important to keep an eye on restaurants at every price point. “I try not to live in a luxury world.  I dine out at friends’ and competitors’ hotels and restaurants to see how they treat my family when we dine out,” added Hunt.

This adage reminds him that people may never have driven a Rolls Royce like the one that may pick up Peninsula guests at the airport—and that diners may never have been inside a restaurant of the caliber of Peter. Plus, international visitors may not be familiar with Tokyo or Japan. An Australian native and ex-pat for many years, Hunt has absorbed the key elements of Japanese culture—an emphasis on pride, quality and focus on detail.

The introduction to the culture of the country and the hotel and restaurant begins with the welcome. From the greeter to the server and sommelier, Hunt looks for those who genuinely want to serve without oversized personalities, so common in the U.S., which can overwhelm the diner. “You have to make sure the staff seriously looks after the dinner but doesn’t become robotic. That’s why I ensure they have experience being served before presenting that to someone else.”

The name of the restaurant references the former general manager of the hotel and current COO of the hotel group. The managers design their restaurants; the CEO puts their name on it to imprint commitment to the guest experience.

With the COO’s backing, Hunt recently transitioned Peter to a “steak and grill” concept and expanded the dining experience with sound and visuals. Quiet, relaxing background tunes give way to up-tempo as diners head for a nightcap at The Bar adjacent to the dining room. The music synchs with the “motion wall” which displays various scenes from bucolic woods where the occasional deer vaunts across the “stage” to summer-scapes and disco rhythms.

Hunt also oriented the menu to local ingredients. The scallops from the island of Hokkaido are popular starters.  Japanese beef is showcased on the “triple prime cut meat tasting plate.” The Tokyo Joe, drink devised by assistant bar manager, leads the cocktail list.

Farther south, The Peninsula Hong Kong is famous for afternoon tea. Small sensory details attracted my attention. Minstrels play soft classical tunes from their balcony overlooking the 85-year-old grand lobby. Hot white towels are delivered via silver tongs from white gloved-hands. Pots of tea are quickly set on the red rose-festooned table. The fresh aroma of house-baked items from scones to traditional cucumber and butter on white bread transported me directly back to the finest afternoon teas I’ve savored in London.

The diversity of The Peninsula’s “Culinary Journey” dinner delivers a gastronomic experience not found in Hong Kong and rarely around the world. After an aperitif in The Bar, a classic, wood-paneled drinking den, the progressive dinner begins in The Lobby with carpaccio of salmon and Hamachi with shellfish consommé jelly. Authentic local dishes such as sautéed spider lobster with matsutake mushrooms are then served at Spring Moon. Upstairs at Gaddi’s, Hong Kong’s most renowned French restaurant, Bresse pigeon with Muscovado sugar and vegetables shines as the main course. At Felix, the hotel’s hip restaurant designed by world-famous Phillipe Starke with spectacular views of Victoria Harbor, I surprised myself by devouring the entire, light and refreshing white chocolate mousse with berry chips.

To prepare for the new cultural experiences, I recommend flying on an airline such as All Nippon Airways (ANA) rather than an American carrier. From the warm welcome with a slight bow and hot towel to the artistic amuse bouche surprise, the service is seamless and customer-focused with Japanese or international meals. The sushi appetizer for the Japanese meal is fresh and elegantly displayed. Main dishes are augmented by snacks from IPPUDO ramen from restaurant group Hakata.

Creating memorable experiences with one-of-a-kind exposure to cultural details require advance planning. The key points are attention to all visual and oral cues with staff knowledgeable and gracious enough to execute the experience. As for progressive dinners, why not? Many restaurants have patios, bars, private dining rooms and chef’s tables where courses could be set.

As for me, I’m still dreaming about Spring Moon’s crab dim sum, Gaddi’s foie gras, ANA sushi, Peter’s 40-day Japanese dry-aged strip loin, and the well-served Tokyo Joe cocktail after dinner.

 

Tokyo Rose cocktail at Peter grill poured at The Peninsula Hotel, Tokyo, by Mari Kamata. Photo credit: Deborah Grossman

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