Hello, trolley! For the love of food on four wheels
Roula Khalaf, Editor of the FT, selects her favourite stories in this weekly newsletter.
When Michelin-starred chef Tom Sellers opens his latest restaurant Dovetale at 1 Hotel Mayfair in the coming weeks, all eyes will be on two knickerbocker glory trolleys orbiting the floor. They are called “Apollo One” and “Apollo Two”. And the names are entirely apt as both are the handiwork of Seymourpowell, a company known for collaborating on Virgin Galactic, the world’s first commercial spaceline.
Among other state-of-the-art specs, the twin wagons will feature a refrigerated unit to house up to eight flavours of ice cream including strawberry, chocolate, raspberry ripple, tutti frutti and “birthday cake” made from Madeira cake and hundreds and thousands. There will be a device that chills glasses instantly using blasts of CO₂; and see-through jars filled with toppings such as fudge pieces, candied fruit and jellies. Customers will be able to customise their layered sundaes or choose from six curated versions.
Sellers has invested a small fortune in his trolleys. “It was either two trolleys or two cars,” he says. But then, trolleys have become part of the Mayfair dining vernacular. “If you look at the restaurants around here, they all do a trolley,” he says. “The Martini trolley at the Connaught Bar, the crêpes Suzette trolley at The Ritz. The question was how could we bring theatre into the room with something that’s fun and tells a story but hasn’t been done before.” A knickerbocker glory trolley has the added benefit of celebrating a classic American dessert (handy because 1 Hotel is part of the US group SH Hotels & Resorts). “There’s something really comforting about nostalgic desserts,” Sellers says, “and I think food should always bring warmth and happiness.”
Service trolleys are nothing new. But they are seeing a resurgence, thanks to customers who want theatre and social-media content when dining out. When chef Vivek Singh debuted his chaat trolley at Cinnamon Bazaar in 2016, it was common practice for food to come ready-plated. Christened “Chamiya” (meaning beautiful girl), his trolley was handpainted by artist Diane Hill and filled with Indian savoury staples such as spiced potato, tamarind, papadi and coriander. Still the most decorative cart in London, Singh’s trolley marked a shift towards a more interactive style of service, which has since expanded to include tableside mixing, carving and even garnishing. The great advantage of trolley service, adds Singh, is that it gives waiting staff the chance to shine.
Perhaps the biggest scene-stealers of recent years have been the dessert and steak tartare trolleys at Maison François in St James’s. Finished in walnut wood and brass, the fleet was made bespoke by Kent-based workshop Rewthink, who can also take credit for the smoked fish trolley at The Game Bird in London, the drinks and dessert cart at IRIS in New York and the beverage cart at Butcher and Singer in Philadelphia. Recently the team made its first-ever cataplana trolley for Lilac at the Tampa Edition in Florida. After in-depth research into the Portuguese seafood stew, Rewthink founder Andrew Clark devised a trolley with one central ring to cradle the pot and two elevated rings for the serving bowls, which swivel over the pot when the stew is being ladled to minimise spills.
The most desirable carts can help put restaurants on the map. At Maison François, the dessert trolley and its luscious cargo of fruit tarts, petits-fours and gâteaux exert such a pull that nine out of 10 diners ask for it to be wheeled over. As feats of engineering, one also thinks of Heston Blumenthal’s sweet-shop trolley at The Fat Duck in Bray (a mechanised doll-house-like contraption filled with candy) and the Nitro Ice-cream Trolley at Dinner by Heston Blumenthal in London (which uses liquid nitrogen as a freezing agent). Then, of course, there’s the dessert trolley at Ballymaloe House, subject of a recent book, Ballymaloe Desserts (Phaidon) by the restaurant’s head pastry chef, JR Ryall. Sellers hopes his knickerbocker glory trolleys will one day rank in the same league. “I would love them still to be spoken about in 10 years’ time,” he says. Yes, he’s in it for the knickerbocker glory.