I can’t remember a time when food wasn’t an important center in my life. At my earliest memory, in my high chair, the excitement of eating my mother’s macaroni and cheese or my dad’s buttery cinnamon toast brings on a calming fondness. Catching and pan-frying my first trout lake-side in the mountains of northern New Hampshire with my uncle, watching my great grandmother make butter from scratch and passing me a hot, steamy cat-head biscuit dripping with the stuff, learning how to flip an omelet in culinary school or that time when my son ate his first fried clam at a local clam shack in the summer. For every chapter in my life, there was an endearing and tasty recollection.
Fast-forward to present day and, well, there are so many hundreds and thousands of memories that have passed and are soon-to-be created, it excites me with school-girl giddiness. My life has been focused on the love and passion of cooking and the foodservice industry for many years. The list of friends, family and colleagues that have helped me get this far professionally are endless and uncountable. Most people don’t really understand that, at most restaurants, there is a passionate chef and foodie like me in the back translating their passions onto your plate. Whether it be a greasy cheeseburger dripping down your arm, or an elegant torchon of foie gras smeared onto house-made brioche crostini, that person most-likely followed their passion from high-chair to culinary school like most chefs have.
As you may know, being a chef and working in the restaurant world is tough work. Aside from the usual rumors, you may have heard about the chef-life; long, grueling hours that include days, nights, weekends and holidays. The lack of a personal social life, the heat of the ovens and pans, loud noises, smoke, and general aches and pains are enough to scare away most of the proudest. Yes, there’s that, torturous to some, environment. Being a chef is a labor of love. Unless you own a line of pots and pans with your name on it or have a culinary empire, there’s really no money in “cheffing” for all the hard work involved. Of course, there are many great things about the chef-world. Oddly, though, most of the fun stuff happens off the line.
Besides all the regular day-to-day chores and responsibilities; scheduling, cost-controls, food ordering and much more, there is one very important job the chef has, and that’s menu creation. That menu that we read when we are sitting around the table at a crowded bistro or breakfast house doesn’t just appear magically into our hands, it takes a little experience, trial and error, research and aspirin to achieve. Here is a little insight into the most misunderstood parts of our favorite places to nosh.
Below is, generally and anecdotally, how I like to create new menus or tweak old ones. It’s worked for me, but this doesn’t mean all chefs do this. Every chef has their own style, but this is me, folks.
First thing that is done is to feel out the area-eating establishments. Checking out what sort of things people like to eat in specific areas, their personalities, the neighborhood and type of crowd. A lot of online trolling helps with this. One can find a lot of great information from our buddies at YELP. Once I get a feel for the demographics, it’s time to go out and physically research the area competition. This means a road trip is in order.
Since time is money, having a plan of action is very important. Nodding to my “old school” chef roots, I like to bring a notepad with a short list of questions. What are they serving? Are they serving good, bad, ugly grub? Is the place itself a clean, relaxing, and safe place to go? Why do people go there? Is it just the food? If so, what makes it so good? A quick introduction to the chef, cook or kitchen manager after I’ve eaten there a couple of times will avail some great insight. I love to chat with the team about food; shop-talk if you will. The common language of food is exciting when we understand each other. We get to share ideas as a professional courtesy. We’re all talented people who, for the most part, are proud of what we do and love to share our info and ideas with others. Don’t get me wrong, they aren’t going to give away any famous recipes or guarded secrets, but it’s easy to get a feel for the neighborhood food scene when you are talking to the brains behind the curtain.
After all this info gathering, it’s time to start writing down some ideas. I get my most creative ideas after a good night’s sleep. A nice big cup of coffee and a belly full of breakfast gets me all jazzed up to write. For some reason, writing a menu on an empty stomach is more of a chore than an influence. It’s the exact opposite of going to the grocery store hungry, believe me. The twang of some country music lulling softly in the background is nice too but to each their own.
To preface; as with the great book writers of the world who read a lot to feed their creative minds, eating and cooking a lot fulfills the menu writer’s mind just as much.
I like to jot down ideas in sections. Appetizers, Salads, Mains, Desserts, etc. in order. It usually starts with a conversation in my head, “What’s in season?”, “How and/ or when does something taste its best?”, “What have I eaten lately?”, “What’s trending now?” And so on.
My first draft of the menu is jotted down on my favorite note pad. It’s nice to be able to draw a picture. Sometimes something sounds great in my head yet doesn’t translate well to a plate. If I can draw a sketch on paper, it may help make a better decision. This part usually takes a few tries. Tweaking, drawing, reading cook books, internet searches and more. Sometimes I just write down what I had for dinner the night before.
Next step in the menu creation process is to meet with my fellow management staff, pass out photo copies and share my ideas. We discuss them and ask questions, lots and lots of questions; Why? How? When? How much? Eventually, somehow, we come up with an agreement. After a little back and forth, a few words here and there, the menu is agreed upon.
Of course, as a chef running a business, it’s always a good idea to cost out the menu to ensure that we don’t lose money. One of my mentors always said, “We are here to make money, not friends!”
After the long, wearying process of costing out the menu, removing the things that may cost too much, and mulling over the demographical challenges, it’s time to practice and taste. What’s the use of creating a successful menu when one can’t get the ingredients he needs on a consistent basis? A few store-runs, vendor calls, farm visits, and general gathering of ingredients and then it’s time to start this ball rolling.
The menu is written, the mise en place is gathered, the team is on board, now to start cooking. Luckily, I have dozens of great cook books, memories and recipes in my mental database to feed this inspiration. My prep team will get copies of recipes and my help along the way. I hand them all a detailed preparation (prep) list. This entire process may take up to a month before anyone starts eating.
After a few days of training the kitchen staff, it’s time to move on to the front-of-house staff. A date is chosen where the entire menu is cooked from beginning to end. This, not only, gives the cooks a little real-time practice, but it also gives us the time to play with plate presentations, vessels and other tweaks along the way. Each course is brought out in order and placed along the bar or a couple banquet tables. I explain what each item is, encourage the wait staff to take notes and, finally we eat. We discuss flavors, cost analysis, and answer any questions. If it is agreed upon that a certain dish just won’t work, it’s usually taken off the menu or revisited. It’s always been my practice to leave my personal feelings and ego at the door, especially when I am trying to promote a new menu. Just because I like something, doesn’t mean everyone will, it’s just a fact. This level of comradery and professionalism is important. The “team” is not just the kitchen staff in the back, it’s everyone. We are all in this together, there’s no reason not to include everyone.
Of course, the boring behind-the-scenes stuff includes order-guides, inventory master sheet changes and vendor relations, but I digress. I basically have to, now, take control of all this new food and keep the costs down to a bare minimum while still keeping my quality standards high.
This would seem like a daunting task, but it’ a fun and exciting process. Not all of the glory and excitement is done. However, we have to sell this masterpiece to the public! In my experience, a “soft menu run” has always been a helpful introduction for any major changes. A soft menu run just means that we offer the original menu and a “preview” menu of the new items. I choose two or three of each course and print a smaller, separate menu for those interested in trying something new. This gives us an idea of what direction we are heading. It’s never a good idea to just change the entire menu without warning the people that make our success possible.
Changing the menu on a regular basis keeps people from getting the dreaded “menu fatigue” which can be the bane of a successful restaurants existence. I like to do this about twice a year. Of course, every restaurant I have ever worked for has always had a “specialty” so I am sure not to remove that, but, mixing things up once in a while is a great way to keep people interested and coming back. Just another reason being a chef is an awesome job!