The chefs putting their food on the map15 March 2023
With many guests calling for authentic food experiences, hotel restaurants are stepping up to the plate to meet this demand by showcasing local culture through their dishes. Brooke Theis speaks to Gabriel Kolofon, cluster director culinary at Hilton Tulum Riviera Maya All-Inclusive Resort, the Michelin-starred chef Luis Pestana of Reid’s Palace in Madeira, Belmond Hotel, and Kelvin Omondi Mazzi, the head chef at Great Plains’ ol Donyo Lodge in Kenya, to find out more.
Food and culture are uniquely intertwined. Trying new flavours that reflect the traditions of a country enables travellers to get a sense of the place they are visiting while discovering local delicacies and native ingredients. But how can luxury hotels replicate such dishes on an elevated level, while appeasing a range of palettes? Some guests will be more adventurous than others and some may have complicated dietary restrictions to adhere to, but all are in search of culinary authenticity.
At Great Plains’ ol Donyo Lodge in Kenya’s southeasterly Chyulu Hills, head chef Kelvin Omondi Mazzi designs his menus using flavours that represent different areas of the country, enabling visitors to experience the richness of Kenyan cuisine. “It is the best thing to do because the guest feels they are part of the culture,” he says. The lodge overlooks Mount Kilimanjaro and is set within a quarter of a million acres of land in the Mbirikani Group Ranch – an untouched savannah where Masai herdsmen live a harmonious existence within nature. With only seven suites, staff ensure a guest’s every whim is catered for.
Ol Donyo Lodge is part of the Relais & Châteaux group. Known for its culinary excellence, the dishes Omondi Mazzi serves are refined interpretations of home comforts; sukuma wiki, which translates to “push through the week”, a hearty dish of sautéed kale with garlic and red onion; ugali, a maize dish typically eaten with your hands; matoke bananas cooked in a stew with arrowroots and sweet potato; as well as coastal fish such as red snapper and Kanadi kingfish.
“The demand for traditional dishes is really high,” he explains. “Most guests are keen on learning about our local menu and how we live as multiple communities. Bantu are the largest ethnic group in Africa, so I like to experiment with incorporating southern African cuisine, but Kenya has many different tribes and we all coexist, so our cultures often cross over. The diversity unifies us as people.”
For Omondi Mazzi, the cultural unity of his country spreads to working with regional farmers and markets, which in turn means he is able to oversee the quality of the produce and can naturally take a sustainable approach to cooking using seasonal produce from nearby sources. “The menu changes throughout the year according to the produce available during the different seasons,” he says. “It is so important to support local farmers because together we grow [stronger].” As you might expect, the dishes he cooks pair well with local beverages, such as Tusker or Whitecap beer, and “any drinks made from coconut”. He also will often recommend guests try a local cocktail called dawa, which translates to ‘medicine’, made from honey, lemon, mint and vodka.
Increasingly complicated dietary requirements can also be tricky to work around, particularly with having a largely Western clientele, but at ol Donyo Lodge, Omondi Mazzi and his team are dedicated to ensuring all visitors can have an exceptional dining experience. “When I have a guest at the camp who has special dietary needs, I personally speak to them so that we have a clear understanding between us. It is a pleasure to see someone with dietary restrictions enjoy their food with no fear,” he says.
Chef Luis Pestana of William restaurant at Reid’s Palace, a Belmond hotel in Madeira, has been awarded a Michelin star for his sensitive and skilled approach to the culinary culture of the island where he was born. He credits being raised with an appreciation for the surrounding land, “experiencing the joy of climbing trees and picking fruits to eat as a child,” with his determination to show local produce at its very best.
“It’s almost an obligation for me to give a local identity to our gastronomic creations at William restaurant,” he says, “with the intention of sharing a little of our history and also making known the wide variety of fruits, vegetables, fish, meat, seafood, aromatic herbs and flowers. The particularity of many of our ingredients adds to the typicality of the terroir and the exclusivity of the flavours.” In recent years, local producers have begun to supply everything needed by Pestana and the kitchen sources all of its ingredients on the island – in fact, the restaurant buys 80% of the produce from one particular family-run farm and, as a result, their business has been able to progress exponentially.
Key dishes at William restaurant at the time of writing include crispy limpets on trout pebbles and caviar; fish with spinach and potato stew; suckling pig confit, chard, pimpinela (also known as a ‘chayote’) and arborio tomato; loaf of beef with regional corn and truffle; and soufflé of passion fruit and honey cake ice cream. Throughout the months, Pestana can change his menu up to four times, creating dishes that best fit the time of year – always testing along the way to “harmonise the ingredients” and “fine-tune the plating”. When it comes to dietary restrictions, Pestana says the team is careful to ensure the menu is flexible, so that each customer has an unforgettable experience regardless of their requirements.
At Reid’s Palace, Pestana says that wines from the Madeira region and mainland Portugal play a key role in completing this dining experience. “This ability to make the customer travel with us through our cuisine presented in a genuine and creative way, based on our culture, leads us to travel together with our customers and relive our childhood memories,” he explains.
Localised luxury in Mexico
For Gabriel Kolofon, the cluster director culinary for Hilton Tulum Riviera Maya All-Inclusive Resort and Conrad Tulum Riviera Maya, it is important to cook with traditional Mexican techniques, for these also lend themselves to natural wellness. “The trend in Tulum has been to continue enhancing the flavour through maceration, curing, ageing and fermentation. In this way, the product becomes more digestible and beneficial for the organism and layers of flavours are added,” he says. “The menu design focuses on dishes based on traditional preparations, then little twists and techniques are added to bring out the flavours and enhance the final product.”
Located on the Caribbean coastline of Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula, Tulum is an ancient Mayan port city famed for its beaches and well-preserved ruins. The Hilton Tulum Riviera Maya All-Inclusive Resort has 735 guest rooms across five three-storey villa-style buildings and features 13 restaurants and bars, many of which serve up local and traditional fare to its diverse clientele. On the same property is the Conrad Tulum Riviera Maya, which opened in January 2022, with 349 rooms across three buildings and 11 speciality restaurants – as well as a number of private beaches.
At both properties the menus change twice a year – since the seasons do not dramatically shift in the south-eastern part of Mexico – and ingredients come mostly from local distributors, producers, farmers and communities. “The importance of supporting local suppliers is to create relationships so that this business can be part of the community and help the long-term development of the community,” says Kolofon. “Guests really appreciate being told where the products they eat come from and are happy to know that we support the local communities.”
There is high demand for traditional cuisine at both Hilton Tulum Riviera Maya All-Inclusive Resort and Conrad Tulum Riviera Maya, according to Kolofon. “The most famous in the area is the cochinita pibil, a traditional Yucatec-Mayan slow-roasted pork dish that originated from the Yucatán Peninsula. The most popular dishes are those of traditional pre-Hispanic cuisine since they are the ones with the longest history, and we like to include local products such as chaya (a green, leafy vegetable), hoja santa (a peppery herb) and the famous local recados (spice mixtures) that are characteristic of this area of Mexico.” With menus comprising of delectable Campeche shrimp, cacahuazintle corn, Ocosingo cheese, soft-shell crab and octopus, the food itself is a draw for visitors from across the world.
As at ol Odoyo Lodge and Reid’s Palace, they approach dietary requirements sensitively so that “everyone can feel as comfortable and cared for as possible as we adapt to each particular case”, says Kolofon. For example, they have established menus that are the same as the original ones but replace meat and dairy with plant-based alternatives for vegetarians and vegans, without compromising on taste.
Ultimately, Omondi Mazzi, Pestana and Kolofon’s goal is to leave all visitors with a better understanding of the culture of their respective countries and feeling as though they’ve been immersed in it in an elevated way. As Kolofon summarises, “Food is a fundamental part of the experience of getting to know a new place and its people.”