It is certainly true that the heart of a new menu in a restaurant rests in the hands of the chef. He or she has the ultimate responsibility for designing and creating the menu items that reflect the image of the restaurant, make a statement that aligns with his or her philosophy of cooking, attracts guests and yields a profit. This is, after all, the foundation of a chef’s job description. What many people may not realize is that once the menu is built and the line cooks are coached through the process of producing them, day in and day out, most tweaks to the menu and features or specials, come from those who work on the line. This is the opportunity for the workhorses of the kitchen to flex their creative muscle and express themselves with the cooking savvy they own. The considerations in building these features are far more complex than one might realize, so I thought I would explain what exactly goes into the design of a new dish.
THE PERFECT DISH:
- First and foremost, is flavor. Any new dish must not only be flavorful, but also reflective of the restaurant’s core concept. It has to fit. Building flavors requires that any line cook have the raw materials to be effective with this process. These raw materials include:FLAVOR MEMORY (Creating a dish begins in a cooks head or on paper. The cook must have logged in enough time with the ingredients to visualize how the dish might taste and what ingredients would shift the flavor profile from one perception to another). Experience is, certainly in this case, the best educator. Some people (rare) are born with incredible taste buds and are thus able to know each ingredients flavor essence and how to work with it. The rest of us simply need to work harder. BENCHMARKS (experience with other chefs & restaurant interpretations of food). Great line cooks view the opportunity to read and collect cookbooks, dine at other restaurants, or even stage’ with exceptional chefs, as an important part of their job. Great dishes usually stem from wanting to create something, “Just like I had at……….restaurant.” SOLID FOUNDATIONAL SKILLS (truly KNOW all of the core cooking methods, steps and procedures). Without question, a line cook who can really cook from the heart, head and soul, will ALWAYS create the best new dishes.
- The dish must be beautiful. This is not superficial beauty, food that is overly manipulated from a feeling that beauty super-cedes flavor. We are talking about real beauty that accentuates the visual knowledge of cooking, takes into account the natural colors and textures of the raw materials used, and the balance of all on the plate. Great line cooks, while they are visualizing the building of flavor have already thought through the design of a dish on the plate. They know how important the WOW factor is.
- Respect for the source is at the forefront of every cooks mind today. Does the dish include ingredients that are locally in season, from a quality and reliable source, and does it fit the role of sustainability that every restaurant must now pay attention to.
- Is the dish nutritionally balanced? Whether the guest asks for it or not, all cooks and chefs have an obligation to build and prepare items that are good for a customer’s health. This may not be apparent in all restaurants, but serious cooks understand this responsibility. Great menu items are built from the right balance of protein, fat, and carbohydrates, as well as retained minerals and vitamins that have a direct connection to the methods of cooking used.
- Will the dish appeal to all human senses: sight, sound, touch, smell and taste. The best menu items are balanced in this regard.
- Can the dish be replicated as a a’la minute dish (prepared to order – last minute) and in balance with other preparations at a line cooks station?
- Is the dish cost effective? Most dishes in the restaurant need to run at around 30% cost of its respective selling price. Overly expensive raw materials will either drive that percentage up or require selling prices to creep, sometimes higher than a guest is willing to pay. The dish is only GREAT if it sells and if it contributes to the PROFITABILITY of the restaurant.
- Will the dish reflect the food philosophy of the chef and owner? If the answer is, “maybe not” then it may never make it to the special board.
- Will the dish drive complementary sales? In other words, is the dish such that it is easy for the service staff to sell appetizers, desserts and alcoholic beverages? The real profit in a restaurant comes from the “extras”; the entrée is, to a larger extent, more of a loss leader.
- Will the dish create a buzz for the restaurant? There are many ways to measure this after it is introduced:
- Are guests grabbing their smart phones to take pictures for their Pinterest page?
- When the dish is presented at the table, does conversation stop as everyone eyes what is before them?
- Does the owner of the dish insist that others “must try” the dish that he has proudly ordered?
- Are plates coming back from the dining room with nothing but a sauce smear and bones as a sign that the dish ever existed?
- Are samplers of the dish posting favorable accolades on Yelp and Trip Advisor before they even unlock the door to their car in the parking lot?
11. Is the dish destined to be a staple signature item on the next menu? The key to this clue will be the reaction of the chef or sous chef. If they like the dish, give the line cook a “thumbs up”, and quickly take credit for its creation, then you can rest assured that it will go in the menu file.
In the end, cooks thrive on the ability to demonstrate to their peers, the chef, and the guest, that they have the chops to create something exceptional, a dish to drool over, an item that will instantly become part of that cooks repertoire and signature. The more seasoned a cook becomes, the more competent he or she will become at building these dishes. The chef will eventually turn the process of feature creation over to the cook with a simple statement like: “Jake, I just received 20 pounds of Bronzini – do something with it for tonight.” The cook will nod and simply say, “Yes chef.”
More than likely, the cook will turn to his mental inventory of flavors and benchmarks, walk through the coolers to assess what else is available, review his and other line cooks stations for potential bottlenecks, and then go to work. This process repeats itself everyday, in every kitchen, from coast to coast. When everything is in order, the creative process is amazing.
PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER
*Thank a Line Cook Today!
Harvest America Ventures, LLC
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