Royal Chundu’s Tina Aponte shares her beautiful tablescape ideas and the importance of meaningful dining experiences.
Royal Chundu is a family-owned property on the banks of the Zambezi River in Zambia. The property is made up of two lodges — River Lodge and Island Lodge. A big component of the Royal Chundu experience is its food and dining. At Royal Chundu, the dining experience tells the story of Zambia, its people, and land. To taste the food is to gain a deeper understanding of Zambian culture.
In addition to the food, you’ll notice great attention to detail is paid to the table. Sitting down to a well-dressed table is more than a pretty place setting. For Tina Aponte, Managing Director and owner of Royal Chundu, it’s a way of expressing love.
We asked Tina to share her expertise on crafting the perfect table, where she gets her tablescape ideas, and about the dining experiences at Royal Chundu.
You prepare gorgeous table settings; they are a work of art! Where do you draw inspiration for tablescape ideas?
I am truly happy when gathering around a big table with family or friends for a shared meal together. We have “Destination Dinners” with our sons where we might enjoy vibrant Mexican fiestas, respectful Korean bao-downs, or a messy Greek mezze, while dressing up to match the country. Other times when we gather for celebrations like Easter, Christmas, or Halloween, I decorate with beaded bunnies, bejeweled baobabs, or bootiful bats. Or, it might be a Country Cowboy breakfast in Texas with freshly picked wildflowers, a red gingham tablecloth, and eating chili out of a cast iron skillet. Just as often it is a simple garden salad in our barn next to Royal Chundu while listening to marimba music from the lodge. My focus has always been each meal is a celebration of life and community, a celebration of the origins of food, and a celebration of one another.
Gathering around a table is also a time to slow down and connect with family and friends. My tablescape ideas and love of setting eclectic tables start and unfold with things I cherish. I combine clashes of contrasting colors like fuchsia and emerald, baroque brashness like paper placemats teamed with family silver, and Zambia chitenge patterns coupled with Dutch Delft. I want my designs to stand out and bring happiness to the table. Often I add a touch of nature with flowers, another love of mine. A tableaux where every meal tells a story, every person is honored, and every moment is celebrated is what I love to create.
Can you provide a few tips on your process?
Starting Point: The Centerpiece — find the focus of your table. It might be flowers, fabric, food, or some other fabulousness.
Build it up, Buttercup: Layer up the love. Compliment or contrast your colors. If food is the feature, build a story around it. When featuring a fabric (hint: chitenge, chitenge), keep the layers simple to showcase the threads. If the focus is your grandmother’s silver soup tureen, center the piece and work outwards.
There are no rules. Have fun and be bold!
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Will you share a favorite source to purchase placemats or napkin rings, etc. to enhance our own table settings?
Royal Chundu launched an online shop – Zambezi Joy Society, featuring colorful Zambian items for the home and Chitenge clothes for adults and children. Because of the interest in our dresses, dishcloths, tablecloths, and other items, we decided to create a way for people to purchase Zambian items from anywhere in the world. Our store will celebrate Zambian artists and the men and women from our local village who create these wonderful wares and clothes. In the meantime, I’ve been sending Chitenge care packages with table treats to partners, guests, and friends to spread the cheer! Some other sources for tablescape ideas are:
- Wayawaya designs beautiful handbags and accessories, merging Norwegian design with Zambian influences and made by Zambian women
- A Love Supreme in Cape Town
- Sera Holland’s Handmade by Me in Cape Town
- Woolworths in South Africa
- Macaroon in Johannesburg
- Hester & Cook in Tennessee
- Local markets all over the world
We know dining at Royal Chundu is an experience in itself. Can you tell us what makes it special?
Our local Zambian food is full of unique flavors, ingredients, and customs. Meals are crafted by our chefs and waiters who are all Zambian (in fact, 99% of our whole team is Zambian!). Dining at Royal Chundu is more than how food tastes. It’s experiential. It tells a story about local life and the land and history of the Zambezi region. In addition, we’ve brought in my grandmother’s distinct style and refinement to our dining.
My father, who founded Royal Chundu, likes to share anecdotes about his mother’s elaborate picnics with the family on the Zambezi’s sandbanks. She would often take her entire dinner service — including tablecloths and other proper linens — to the islands in the middle of the river to serve full meals. Refusing to lower her standards, the influence of my grandmother, Kitchie, is imbued into the Royal Chundu dining experience.
Our own island picnics include fully made-up tables (my favorite), silverware, a full bar, Pimms, Persian carpets, and hammocks — the works! Our Zambian dining experience is like my grandmother: graceful, elegant, and charming while maintaining the colorful Zambian culture.
When it comes to taste, there’s an abundance of local flavors: delele leaves (wild jute), katapa (cassava leaves), impwa (African eggplants), chibwabwa (pumpkin leaves), chinshungwa (a wild vegetable only found in the rainy season), amundambi (a species of Hibiscus), village chicken, and kapenta (the Tanganyika sardine). The source of our food is important too. Fresh produce comes from our own vegetable gardens or from the farms neighboring Royal Chundu. This minimizes our carbon footprint, provides income for our local community, and ensures the greatest freshness and taste. Freshly caught fish, namely bream, are bought from local fishermen, while our own free-range chickens provide our eggs.
Guests can dine almost anywhere on our private piece of the Zambezi. In the main dining rooms at River Lodge and Island Lodge, guests experience our traditional tasting menu of dishes paired with South African wines. Underneath the branches of a baobab tree on the island, guests enjoy a BBQ, lanterns, Zambian drumming, and masked Makishi dancers. In their own villa or suite, guests dine privately on their teak deck. Or if they’d rather, guests can hop a boat for a private dinner cruise or enjoy a picnic with Chitenge tablecloths, silver settings, and Persian rugs, of course!
Do you have a recipe you can share that reflects the essence of Zambia?
The taste of many foods transport me back to the riverbank! Nshima, a Zambian staple food, is a big favorite of my son Renzi. I use maize flour to make a thick porridge, then eat in a “hands-on” manner. Put away the knife and fork!
I also enjoy Cassava Lavash, which goes with everything, and Royal Chundu’s Sour Milk Cheesecake with Musika (Tamarind) Jelly, both of which tell a story and celebrate the flavors of Zambia.
We are compiling a list of our favorite travel books. What are you currently reading? Is there a book you’d recommend that feeds your wanderlust?
Current Read: The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek by Kim Michele Richardson – a fictional novel about the Kentucky librarians of the 1930’s who delivered books on horseback to remote and isolated communities in the Appalachians. It is a book about the power of books!
Best Travel Books on Zambia: My list is too long…..if I had to narrow it down to just travel books on Zambia, I would have to say all the Alexandra Fuller books which jump between Zambia and Zimbabwe: Don’t Let’s Go Down To The Dogs Tonight; Cocktail Hour Under The Tree Of Forgetfulness; Scribbling The Cat; Leaving Before The Rains Come. They all vacillate between tragic and laugh-out-loud funny. Just as my parents were born and raised in rural Zambia, I have raised my own family there too. Both the tragedy and humor resonate with my own personal history.
Eye of The Elephant by Mark and Delia Owens would have to get a mention. I adored Delia’s first fictional novel even more though! The Old Drift by Namwali Serpell is on my “To Read List” too.
Best Travel Books: Roughing It by Mark Twain (USA) is one of my all-time favorites. I read it while driving through the Nevada desert punctuated with Joshua Tree forests. I was trying to escape the excesses and depravities of Las Vegas. Good times! The Road to Oxiana by Robert Byron (Iran) – from a time when travel writing was artful and inspired; A Thousand Hills to Heaven by Josh Ruxin (Rwanda) – a great read for anyone living in Africa; ANYTHING by Paul Theroux … and so my list goes on!
For those who have been following our Travel Book Club list, you can find Tina’s recommendations on our Amazon list.
To start planning your safari to Royal Chundu in Zambia, contact your Ker & Downey designer.